The vengeance of Zaoar
When the bus stopped in the village square, there in England, the man with the white cane stood up. The driver helped him get down from the bus.
"Will you be all right, sir?"
"Could you please take me over to the pub? From what I've been told, I believe we must be right across from it."
"Yes, sir. Let me help you."
It was already dark, even though it was only five thirty in the evening. The humidity from a fine, cold winter rain made its way into everything.
The bus driver was kind. He brought the passenger to the pub and then got back into the bus and drove off.
When the man entered the small pub, four men were playing cards at a table. Two others were throwing darts in the far corner. An elderly man sat under the yellow light of a lamp reading his newspaper. The owner of the pub was drying a glass.
"We are here, at your service. Oh, I'm sorry. I did not realize that you were blind."
The owner of the pub put his towel on the bar and went to help our visitor find a seat.
"Give me something substantial. I will need it," the man with the white cane said. "Speaking of which, is the Magpie mansion far from here?"
"About ten minutes, maybe fifteen, by car. But on foot, it is pretty far, sir."
One of the card players turned around.
"If you give me fifteen minutes to finish my hand, I'll drive you there. I go by the Magpie manor on my way home. I'll leave you at the front gate."
Half an hour later, our man found himself before the stately mansion. Made out of yellow bricks and built during the last century, it was practically a fortress. The top of the towers had battlements looking like a set of teeth with every other one missing. The walls were high. The bridge spanned the moat. It all seemed heavy, oversized, a bit too proud.
The traveller walked past the entry gates. These had not been closed. He tapped with his cane, making his way over the sand and gravel of the alleyway, groping his way to the main entrance. He banged several times with the door knocker before anyone opened it.
A man, in uniform, asked him what he wanted.
"I would like to meet your master."
"The master of the house doesn't receive guests at this time of day. You must make an appointment."
"In that case, tell him that the Raven has come to visit the Magpie."
"Please forgive me sir, but I must show you out. Those are his orders."
The butler closed the door and climbed the grande staircase. It was very well lighted and joyfully decorated. He knocked and then entered a big office library, its walls lined with books and tastefully furnished. A big fire crackled in the fireplace.
"Yes, go ahead, Andrew."
"A blind man came to the door. He insists on seeing you. He wanted me to tell you that the Raven has come to visit the Magpie."
The master of the mansion straightened up in his seat.
"Andrew, did you just say, 'the Raven has come to visit the Magpie'?"
"Oh, my goodness, has it been ten years already? He's blind?"
"As a mole, if you permit me to say."
"Let him come up. But be sure it takes a good four or five minutes. I must prepare myself to receive him ... "
The butler bowed and closed the door behind him.
The man, let's call him the Magpie, got up and went over to a dark closet. He opened a drawer and took out a revolver. He checked that the magazine contained the expected rounds. With a smile, he put it on the blotting paper on his desk.
"Blind as a mole ... he won't even see it."
Then, he headed over to a little bar. He washed and dried two glasses and selected a bottle of old whisky. He sat in his big leather armchair. Memories, distant memories, came back to him.
It was ten years ago. At one of the most appalling penitentiaries in the world. Guatemara's biggest prison. It was one of the last remaining prisons in the heart of the jungle. Of course, the men who lived in that prison, convicted felons, were not choir boys. They all had to have been convicted of very serious crimes to end up there.
Two men shared the same squalid cell. One was called the Magpie, and the other the Raven.
One day, they were both injured during their work duties. The Magpie and the Raven decided right then to make a blood pact with the blood from their injuries. They became blood brothers and they promised each other lifelong loyalty and aid. They swore to each other to always share the best as well as the worst. They were living the worst right then. But, one day, the best might well come. Who knew? They swore an oath to each other.
Two or three months later, the two men were cutting down trees in the jungle alongside the banks of a silty, greenish river. The Magpie and the Raven both saw the trunk of a tree that was being cut suddenly break and roll down the steep slope towards the river itself.
The trunk fell into the water, causing a huge wave and numerous large eddies.
A dugout canoe was passing by just then and, because of the backwash, a little girl fell into the water. The Raven threw himself into the river and saved the girl's life. He returned her to her father. The prison guards, however, interpreted his efforts as an escape attempt. The Raven found himself locked up for ten days in solitary.
On the evening of the second day, he heard his name whispered through the wall, through a crack between the bricks.
He stood up and tilted his ear.
"Are you the man they call the Raven?"
"Yes," he replied.
"Listen to me closely, my friend. I'm the father of the little girl whose life you saved. I'd like to do something to thank you for your heroism. I don't have the power to get you out of this prison, and I know that those who escape from this place are always caught because they wander through the jungle without knowing where to go and without the money to buy tickets for a boat or a plane to get back home."
In the silence of his cell, the Raven listened carefully.
"This is where I can help. If you manage to escape from the prison, walk about six miles straight east through the jungle. You will come across a pyramid, one of the ancient Aztec pyramids around here. At one of the corners, you will see a brown statue of a crocodile carved in stone. Pay close attention to the direction its head is pointing in. From there, you will see a series of alcoves. Count twenty-one from there. At the twenty-first, you will see a skull, a human skull.
Turn it one hundred and eighty degrees. A door will open and you will be before the entrance to the secret meeting place of the Zaoar sect. We are the guardians of one of the treasures most coveted by the conquistadors of Spain and Portugal. They never found it."
The Raven, intrigued, stayed silent.
"Tell anyone you meet that Pablo sent you and that you saved his daughter's life. You will receive as much gold, precious stones, diamonds and pearls as you can carry in your arms. Unfortunately, I have to warn you that, on your way out, we will burn out your eyes.
It's the sect rule. There, that's what I can do for you. I thank you for what you did for my child. Goodbye."
A few days later, the Raven once again returned to the cell he shared with the Magpie. He then shared the secret.
Some time after that, they managed to escape. They ran through the jungle and reached the pyramid at nightfall.
Soon, they spotted the statue of the crocodile.
Following the direction indicated by the head of the animal statue, they counted twenty-one alcoves. There, they saw the human skull. They turned it a hundred and eighty degrees. A door opened.
At that very moment, they heard the prison alarm bells sounding.
A man in a purple outfit welcomed them as the wall closed behind them.
"We're two escaped convicts. They are after us. Pablo said we'd be safe here. They call me the Raven. I saved his daughter."
With a smile, the man who had received them said, "They'll never find you here. Come with me, my friend. You can take as many gems and as much gold as you can carry. Your friend must stay up here. Still, I warn you that on the way out must burn out your eyes. You will be blind."
The two friends had discussed the subject at length. The Magpie had sworn to assist his friend for life. They were blood brothers. Now, having known the worst, they would soon know the best. The Magpie had said that he would be his friend's eyes.
The Raven followed a great number of underground passages in the company of his friend. They descended stairs, opened doors, and closed others behind them. It is impossible to describe every detail to you.
Finally, they reached the treasure room, a room the size of a movie theatre. There, they found about a hundred large urns, all filled to overflowing with precious stones - diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, rare pearls that shone with a thousand lights. Necklaces of gold, crystal-set crowns, inlaid bracelets ... An incalculable wealth.
"This, my friends, is one of the treasures long sought but never discovered. We, the members of the Zaoar sect, keep it secret. Help yourself, my friends. You can take whatever you want with you."
The Raven took off his shirt, knotted the sleeves and buttoned it up. He filled it with gems and all kinds of gold jewellery. Finally, barely able to lift his treasure, he headed to the exit.
On the way, he noticed something. On one of the black stone altars against the walls of the treasure room, there was an ugly statue with a menacing look on its face. But that was not what caught his eye. It was what was on its finger. Slipped on its finger was a strange silver ring. It had a skull and crossbones on it. Very sinister.
"Can I take this?" he asked, pointing to the ring.
"You can take the ring, my friend," replied the guide. "It's Zaoar's ring. Look. A skull is carved into it. Be careful when you put it on your finger... If you slip the ring on with the skull facing other people, nothing will happen. But, if the skull faces you, you will be faced with the evil of Zaoar. Half of your body will dry out. Your leg will shorten. Your arm will retract and become nothing more than a claw, glued to your shoulder. Your hair will turn white and fall out. On the side affected by the evil, your eye will come out of its socket and hang down on your cheek. Your lips will twist up into a horrible grin. On the same side of your face, your skin will become covered with black wrinkles."
As they approached the exit, two men dressed in red grabbed the Raven while a third, dressed all in yellow, held what looked like a poker for a fireplace. The metal glowed red with the heat of the embers it had been resting in. He brought it up to the Raven's eyes. The man screamed in pain. The last thing he saw was the red glow. Then he sank into the darkest night.
He was brought back to his companion, who, taking him by the shoulders, helped him make his way out of the pyramid.
"Come," said the Magpie. "I found a good place for you to hide. Wait for me here. Rest the treasure on the ground and guard it as best as you can. I'll just take some gold coins and exchange them for tickets to England. Soon we will be free, happy and rich in our country. See you soon, Raven."
And the Magpie went away.
A few hours later, the Raven was found and brought back to prison by the prison guards. For a long time, everyone laughed at him because of the bag he was holding in his arms when he was caught. He was carrying a bag made out of his shirt full of stones and pebbles from the path ...
the Magpie, his blood brother, his friend, had fled to England, taking the treasure with him and leaving his companion at the mercy of the convicts in that horrible prison.
Ten years went by ... And, this evening, the Raven came to pay a visit to the Magpie ...
The door opened. The visitor entered, leaning on his white cane.
"Raven!" the Magpie said quietly but with compassion. "Come, sit down."
The man said nothing. He stood motionless, in the middle of the room.
"If you only knew how I've been looking for you the world over! I wondered what had become of you ... I kept your share of the treasure ... I'm saddened to see what happened to you."
"I fear," replied the Raven, "that you have not looked for me so much as that. You didn't once visit me in the prison where we spent some time together. I can't imagine that you've been all that unhappy the last ten years, enjoying the treasure, while I was rotting in a Guatemaran cell ..."
The Magpie was about to answer but, suddenly, the man who had seemed to be blind walked up to his desk, leaving his white cane on the floor. Without groping around for it, he grabbed the revolver and pointed it squarely at the Magpie.
"You can ... see?" the Magpie said, shaking with fear.
"Yes," replied the Raven. "I was released from prison almost a year ago. After nine long years. You know, medicine has made a lot of progress. I had cornea surgery in each eye and I regained perfect vision. And now, Magpie, I've come for my share of the treasure.
First, though, I'd like to give you something, a very small part of the treasure that you forgot to steal from me. This silver ring. Please, my friend, put it on your finger."
"But ... but I can't take that from you," the Magpie stuttered.
"I insist," said the Raven, pointing the revolver at him.
The Raven held the ring in such a way that when the Magpie slipped it on his finger, the skull would be turned towards him. Under threat from his own revolver, he slipped the ring on his finger.
Immediately, the right half of his body transformed. His leg twisted up. The man fell to the floor. His arm shrivelled up, his hand turned into nothing more than a claw, shrunken up to his shoulder. His eye came out of its socket and hung down on the side of his cheek. His hair turned white. His face was covered in black wrinkles. Within seconds, the right side of the Magpie's body shrivelled up.
"Now," continued the Raven, "show me the treasure, so I can take my share of happiness."
The man filled an entire bag with precious gems, gold and expensive jewellery, everything that was left in the chest. Then, as he was leaving, he added:
"Magie, let me remind you that we're blood brothers. For better or worse. We swore it. So far you've had the best and, in prison, I've had the worst. Today we're changing roles. It's your turn to know the worst by suffering in your now deformed body, and me, the best, with the rest of the treasure.
Magpie lay curled up on the ground. He raised his only good arm and extended his only usable index finger, pointing it at his foe.
"Go away Raven. Buy yourself a mansion. Surround it with walls, cameras, and the best guards. Get yourself a top-notch security detail. Because, from this moment on, I will have only one thought," continued the Magpie, "to kill you. I'll devote the rest of my life to it. I swear to you."
Another ten years passed.
The Raven lived as a recluse. He had a mansion, of course, but he didn't dare leave it. It was a big manor surrounded by high walls, topped with electrified barbed wire, and watchtowers. Fierce guard dogs ran through the grounds. The best trained men watched over him night and day. He never went out for a walk, never dared to open any of his bulletproof windows, to breathe the fresh air or feel the wind in his hair. Yes, he lived in as a recluse, with fear as his only companion, fear of being shot.
This is how his ten years passed.
A car stopped in front of the mansion. The man who got out of it seemed very weak. He used a cane. He rang the bell.
One of the mansion guards went up to the gate.
"Can I help you?"
"Tell your master that the Magpie has come to visit the Raven. You can frisk me. I have no weapons and carry no poison."
"Stay within earshot," the Raven ordered his guards. "But give us the room and close the door. Anyway, with his handicap, he can't do anything to me."
"Hello, Raven," said his former companion as he entered. "Ten more years in this gilded cage must be starting to weigh on you pretty heavily. A bit of fresh air would do you good ... You don't even have the courage to go outside anymore."
That was right. He didn't even dare leave his mansion to go and buy a newspaper or some scones at the corner shop. He was too afraid of being shot by the Magpie or one of his paid assassins.
"What do you think you're doing coming to my home?" the Raven demanded.
"I have not brought any gun, knife or poison. I just came to give you back your ring ... and offer to put it on your finger."
"And what makes you think I would ever put it on my finger?"
"I'm not going to make you. But listen to my story. After, you'll want to put the ring on your finger. You'll be asking me to do it in a few minutes."
The Raven sat down in front of the Magpie and, without a word, listened to the incredible story.
"For nine years, I had done everything I could to bring you down," began the Magpie. But without success. Contract killers, spies, all failed. You never left your fortress here, and hid behind your bulletproof windows. You lived locked up like you were back in prison. Tried as I might, I couldn't get to you.
"About six months ago, I had a visit from someone you don't know. My former partner, the one I had set up a hit with, the hit that failed, where I got caught and tried and landed up in prison.
"He came to see me one night.
"He asked for money. I met him in my mansion. I put the ring on his finger, Zaoar's ring.
"Immediately, half his body was transformed. His leg twisted up. The man fell to the floor. His arm shrivelled up, his hand turned into nothing more than a claw, shrunken up to his shoulder. His eye came out of its socket and hung down on the side of his cheek. His hair turned white. His face was covered in black wrinkles. The right side of his body withered up before my eyes.
"He was in pain, and dragged himself across the floor. I don't like to see other people suffer. You know me. I have a sensitive little heart. After a few minutes, I couldn't stand it any more. I shot him twice in the head, so he wouldn't suffer more.
"I let my staff go. I had to do this myself. I tied him up and dragged him through my halls. Oh, it wasn't easy with only one hand. Then, outside, I dropped him into the water of my moat, tied to a large stone. He sank and disappeared to the bottom into the mud and silt. No one knew we worked together and the police wouldn't discover his body."
In silence, the Raven listened to the grim tale.
"I thought I was rid of him," continued the Magpie, "but it wasn't that easy. From that day on, more precisely from that evening on, he came every night, to haunt me. I don't believe in ghosts nor in ghouls. They're all just stories; at least that's what I thought until then.
"But, from that first night on, as soon as I was in bed, as soon as I closed my eyes, he appeared before me, always preceded by a musty, rotten, muddy smell, a dreadful smell. He circled my bed moaning or saying words that were often incomprehensible. The horror! Pure horror, Raven. Pure horror.
"At first I thought I was hallucinating, trapped in a nightmare. But if it were only a nightmare," the Magpie said, "how is it that in the morning, each time, I would discover sometimes a nail, sometimes a finger, often shreds of rotting flesh on the carpet and around my bed ... The undead, a ghoul came to haunt me every night!
"I couldn't sleep. As soon as I closed my eyes, I would see him. My nights were turning into a hell. Within a few months, I was a shadow of my former self. It was awful, Raven. Every night, every night and non-stop, whenever I tried to sleep, even locked in my cellars, even in a hotel, he would be there, moaning.
"One day, when I couldn't take it anymore, I got on a plane to Central America. I returned to Guatemara. The prison had been closed, nothing more than ruins. No one there. All that's left are cracked walls, overtaken by jungle. But that's not what I wanted to visit.
"I went to the pyramid and saw the crocodile again, counted the twenty-one alcoves. I turned the skull a hundred and eighty degrees. The men from the Zaoar sect watched me in the room where their secret corridors begin.
They understood when they looked at me. I asked them if there were a way to get rid of the ghoul, the undead, that haunted me every night. Raven, they explained Zaoar's vengeance, the real one.
"If you slip the ring on a man's finger and then kill him, he will return as a living corpse to haunt you every night until your last day. Unbelievable, Raven. But, above all, terrifying. And Zaoar's revenge lasts as long as the author of the crime hasn't in turn convinced someone else to put the ring on."
The Magpie was silent for a moment. The Raven didn't say anything.
"I've come to free you from the gilded prison you've been living in for the last ten years. Slip this ring on your finger. You'll be half dried out, but you'll know that your sworn enemy, me, the Magpie, will never think of coming to kill you. Because, after this, if I were to come and shoot you, Raven, you would haunt my nights as a living corpse until my last day. I couldn't bear that. Too awful. But, on the other hand, I will be delivered from the horror that haunts me now. We both win. Then we'll destroy the ring."
The Magpie handed it to his former friend.
The Raven took it, hesitated for a moment, and then slipped it on his finger.
Immediately, the right half of his body transformed. His leg twisted up. The man fell to the floor. His arm shrivelled up, his hand turned into nothing more than a claw, shrunken up to his shoulder. His eye came out of its socket and hung down on the side of his cheek. His hair turned white. His face was covered in black wrinkles. The right side of the Raven's body withered within a few seconds.
"There," said the Magpie. "Now, let's destroy this ring so that neither of us can, behind the other's back, slip it on the finger of some other living human and, ridding ourselves of Zaoar's nightly vengeance, come and kill his old friend."
They smashed the ring with several hammer blows. They smashed it to pieces, taking turns to hit it, each with his one good hand.
As he was leaving, the Magpie added:
"Farewell, Raven. You know, after all, what's going on is only normal. We share the best, the treasure. We share the worst, the drying out of half our bodies. We are blood brothers ... Farewell Raven ..."
"Farewell Magpie ... "
The man left. He disappeared into the mists of the night, never to return ...
Translation : Andrew Gordon Middleton