THRUMM, thrumm, thrump. A chorus of drums beat the rhythm of old powers. THRUMM, thumm, thrump. Each drum tuned to pitch a complementary harmony, a cascade of harmonic structure to awaken forces difficult to catch, and harder still to control. One drum wouldn’t’ve been able to do it. Nor even two. THRUMM, thrumm, thrump. A cosmically significant number of drums was needed, or the ceremony wouldn’t work. THRUMM, thrumm, thrump. That cosmically significant number? Exactly one-hundred-and-twenty-three. No one knows why.
By themselves, however, drums are not enough. For a drum cannot ‘thrumm’ or ‘thrump’ without help. For that, a drummer is required. If that drum is for use in a difficult ceremony, it can’t be any kind of drummer, either. There’s no point enlisting the help of drummers from a collection of popular bands to do it. No amount of state-of-the-art drum kits and wicked music chops will help. Unless, of course, the ceremony is more like an awesome music festival, in which case it’s probably okay. No, what is needed is the kind of practitioner whose life involves more than random acts of percussion. One needs a person that is steeped in arcane knowledge, and adept at weaving complex powers to achieve desired ends. In short, one needs a Shaman. Or, as the case may be, a Shawoman. For large ceremonies, like the one thrumping along at the moment, a mixture of Shamen and Shawomen works best. Ideally, there would be exactly one-hundred-and-twenty-three such Shamanic persons.
Unfortunately, due to dilution in Shamanic powers, the availability of practitioners able to perform great feats of Shamanism has dwindled. Some blame this on the dawning of a New Age, which – according to the elders – is much worse than the Old Age, and hardly seemed worth the effort. Whatever the reason for the shortage in suitable Shapeople, the result is that it is now almost impossible to get a cosmically significant amount of them together in the same place. Yet, for difficult ceremonies, the number of drums required stays constant at one-hundred-and-twenty-three. Obviously, the greatest Shamanic minds thought this situation unacceptable, and set to work finding an appropriate solution to the labor shortage.
After much trial and error, a solution did present itself. It was reasoned that, while a set number of drums was needed, a really good ceremony could probably get away with half that number of practitioners. This presented a new problem, since half that number is sixty-one-and-a-half. After all, half a live human being is a notoriously difficult thing to find, and even great Shamen and Shawomen haven’t quite figured out how to locate one just yet. Eventually, this difficulty was solved by making sure that a really short person – whom would represent the half necessary to make up the right number – was always present at any ritual or ceremony that required cosmic significance.
Thrumm, thrumm, thrump. Sixty-one-and-a-half Shapersons continued to beat out cosmic significance. They were gathered here, in this place of power behind an old tire factory, at the behest of Simon. Simon looked nervous. His nerves were due, in part, to the fact he was on the business end of filthy looks from his Shamanic colleagues. This was understandable, it felt like they had been hitting drums for hours, and their hands were getting very sore. Why, they thought, doesn’t Simon just get on with it? Mostly, however, Simon’s nerves were to do with the difficulty of the ceremony itself. To be sure, if successful, the rewards would be great. If it failed, though, the consequences…. Well, the consequences didn’t bear thinking about. He continued to dither, thrumm, thrumm, thrump.
“Look,” came a female voice from the center of the ritual ground, “could we get on with this? I’m starting to feel that I might not be entirely comfortable with this whole thing.”
“Did the sacrifice just speak?” Kimmelweed Johnston smirked derision. It was Kimmelweed’s general opinion that he was better at all things Shamanic than everybody else. Especially if that everybody else was Simon. It was his view that Simon didn’t have the Shamanic genitals big enough to lead this ceremony. A point he had made several times already this evening, and would make as many more times as he could before it was over. “See, that’s the problem with Simon, can’t keep his rituals under control. Now, if I was lead drums on this, sacrifices would not be allowed to speak.”
“Wait. What?” Asked the sacrificial female voice. “I’m a sacrifice? I thought this was supposed to involve lots of drinking. Stag, you told me there would be drinking. I demand that you untether me from this altar, and fetch me a pint post haste.”
Simon started to sweat panic, and threw a pleading look in Stag Hartford’s direction. Kimmelweed Johnston gave his goatee a smug stroke. The smugness of this goatee stroke was made even more potent by the fact that Kimmelweed seemed to manage it without missing a beat on his own drums. The other fifty-nine-and-a-half drummers kept thrumping; they were really bored.
The silhouette of a large prehistoric deer detached itself from the edges of the ritual ground, trotted past Simon – to whom it gave a comforting ‘I got this’ look on the way past – and approached the altar that was the heart of the ceremony. It leaned an impressively antlered head over an equally impressive amount of stacked firewood, and stared down at the sacrifice. “What seems to be the problem Daisy?”
“Ah, Stag. So good of you to come over. Now, if you’ll just cut these ropes, I can get back to reaping lost souls, fleecing the technically dead of their money, and generally enjoying myself whilst drinking too much.”
There was a collective gasp from all the drummers. Did the sacrifice just indicate that she was unwilling to be burnt at the Altar-Of-Finding? Everyone knew that sacrifices had to be willing for this to work. It was one of the reasons that the ceremony was so difficult. It could be hard to find any young woman that felt happy about being burnt alive. This was also the reason that they normally used fruit – skillfully placed to resemble a woman – instead. Fruit women had no problems with being burnt, and the substitution produced acceptable, if not quite optimal, results. Kimmelweed snorted more goatee stroking derision.
Of course, and due to the general dilution of Shamanic power, all but three of those present were unaware that the sacrifice was not just any kind of woman. Well, four of those present, if you included the sacrifice herself. Okay, so five of those present if you also included Simon, but he was unable to glimpse her true form. For while Daisy appeared to be a beautiful young woman tied to a firewood encumbered altar, as the current Death, she really looked like a skeleton. She liked to think of that as her ‘business suit ensemble’. Only Stag Hartford, and the two ghosts lurking at back, could see her as she really was. Which was just as well, because even your stoutest Shaperson would probably shit themselves with fear if they could see what she actually looked like.
Stag took a deep breath. “We’ve been over this Daisy. This is the only way we’ll be able to locate Mamma Universe, and you drew the short straw this time.”
“I don’t recall drawing any straws. Anyway, I don’t see why I have to be the one to be burnt. I’m not even that interested in what happened to Mamma Universe. Why can’t you take my place, or one of those two ghosts, even? I mean, she actually recruited you three to help her out.” Daisy gave her best impression of a melodramatic sigh. “I feel that I have been caught up in forces beyond my control and understanding.”
“First of all,” Stag said, “you know that for this to work, it has to be a woman. You are the only one of our group that even comes close to being one. Second, you did agree to this, and seemed quite interested in discovering the whereabouts of Mamma Universe when I suggested it to you. Third–.”
“I never,” objected Daisy. “When did I agree, huh? Under what circumstances would I think being burnt on some Shamanic pyre was a good idea?”
“Under the circumstances of several bottles of whiskey,” said Stag, flatly.
“Oh. Well, that does make sense. Carry on. You were up to three.”
“Third, you chose to tag along with us. I might add that you did this without an invitation.”
“Yes, that does sound like something I would do.”
“And Fourth, you quite regularly control these sorts of forces in ways that indicate you also completely understand them.”
“So you’ll stop all this nonsense, and be burnt?”
“And you’ll make it look good for the audience? They’d be disappointed to find out that you’re not a real sacrificial woman.”
“I am a real sacrificial woman.”
“No. You are, at best, a woman. A woman that has not only been dead for centuries, but has also been Death for all of those centuries. Technically, this won’t cause you any problems at all.” Stag wondered if he should mention to Daisy that, although a good burn wouldn’t harm her, the experience might sting a little. He decided against it.
“Okay then,” Daisy acquiesced. Although not in a way that suggested she was very pleased about it.
“You’ll put on a good show?”
“Yes. But tell Simon to move his arse. I have become very thirsty.”
“You won’t hang around after the ceremony? You’ll make sure that everyone thinks you were properly incinerated?”
Daisy glared at Stag. Or rather, gave off the ‘vibe’ of a glare. Naked skulls are hard to get facial expressions from.
“Alright. I’ll just go and give Simon the hurry up, shall I?”
“You do that.”
Stag trotted over to a still anxious Simon. “All sorted. But I suggest you get on with it. She’s not very happy with us at the moment, and I fear she’ll break free to start reaping you all out of spite.”
Simon was shocked. “Really? She can do that?”
“Oh yes, most certainly,” said Stag. This was not, in the strictest sense, true. Death could only reap lost souls. That is, the souls of those who were already dead, but hadn’t managed to become fully departed. But Simon didn’t know that, and Stag felt like an incentive was needed to help spur him to action. “I’ll just be over there. We’ll talk when it’s all over. Okay?”
Simon gulped uncertainly. Stag decided to take that as a yes, and wandered off before he could get caught in another conversation that would take too much time. He’d need a drink after this, too. This had become a very long evening.
Simon turned back towards the Altar-Of-Finding. Sounds of bad tempered mutters wafted in his direction. Alright Simon, he thought, you can totally do this. He picked up the pace of his drumming, and began a haunting, onomatopoeic chant.
“Coo, coo, sizzle, thring,” Simon sang in a passable tenor.
Sixty-and-a-half Shamanic voices echoed Simon’s words back in harmonius refrain.
“Ding, sizzle, dong, sazzle, thring, sizzle.”
Again, the refrain came back. It was all nonsense, of course. But this was how it had always been done. Every Shamanic practitioner did it differently, and some were highly regarded in the art. Simon, for his part, was not held in any kind of regard for it at all. Yet, that was not so important, and was mostly a matter of personal style. Of which, sadly, Simon was considered to have none. What mattered, was not the meaning of the words, nor how cool they sounded. What was important, was how they complimented the rhythm of the drums, and the intent that lay behind the nonsensical words. Taken together, drums and words became the vehicles of that intent. Specifically, they carried the intent of whoever was leading the ritual; an intent amplified by many voices, and the cosmically significant number of percussive instruments. To get the best ritual results, different objects and actions were also required. These objects and actions helped to focus the intent generated by chants and drums, so as to achieve the correct outcome. On this occasion, the correct outcome required an altar, a fire, and one sacrifice.
“Zizz, zizz, sazzle, sizzle.” Simon was really warming to his task now. This felt really great.
The stars, that had been clearly visible all night, became cloud covered. The wind picked up, and lightning began to dance in magenta arcs overhead.
“Zizz, zazz, zazz.” THRUMM, thumm, thrump. “Zazz, zazz, zizz.”
Thunder boomed. Drums and chant reached intense crescendo.
Simon threw both his arms skyward in supplication. “SIZZLE,” he screamed.
A bolt of lightning arced out of the sky and ignited the the Altar-Of-Finding. All at once it was a pillar of flame. Voices and drums fell silent.
“Oh, how it burns,” came Daisy’s voice from inside the conflagration. “My… uh… bones? No wait, that’s not right… umm, not bones…. Oh, I got it: My delicate alabaster skin, how it scorches…. Actually, this does sting a bit….”
BOOM. A pressure wave radiated out from the altar. Simon’s eyes rolled back into his skull, and he keeled over into the dirt. His body shook, contorted, and convulsed. His mouth frothed. His head filled with strange visions.
He saw dead worlds, with bleak skies, and hollow voices. He saw strange hermaphrodite beings with luminous skin, and watched as they spread out into a cold expanse. He saw the terror of a multitude of now long extinct races. He felt pain, fear, and a collective longing for existence to end. He saw starships, weapons, blood and waste. He saw a gun, cruel and efficient. Then he saw Mamma Universe, and knew what had happened. Finally, he saw nothing at all, his body motionless, his intent exhausted. He lay as if his soul had left him.
END OF PART EIGHT