“Are we there yet?”
The Talama-seng was twenty days past, a long trudge through deep, hot sand. Jakub would sigh and lean against the staff, the incessant wind at his back. He would wait for an interval of silence between the constant drum-beat of the waves upon the silver strand of beach.
What had once been a girl was a wary shadow flitting upon the dunes. She would only appear when the stars were arrayed in cold glory across the expanse of night and the sunset a memory. The coils of the solar ward, left up on her flesh by the Jinn were no comfort, she hid deep beneath the shifting sands while the sun marched across the sky. The memory of ash and iron kept her at a safe distance from her guide.
“Tell me a story.”
The algul would snarl and kick her heels. When the moon was full Jakub could catch more than a shadow of her features in the washed out light. What he saw was unsettling; with each passing appearance she became more animal. She rarely held to human form, naught but a whipcord of talons and claws skulking about the sands. Along the way she had lost the choli top and the huram pants hung in shreds. A loop of rope hung around the narrow hips, a small bag attached at the side which Jakub believed contained the crystals of the afreet and the seal of Phorshomon. Jakub’s clothing was equally tattered, the sun had scorched the exposed parts of his body.
“Sing me a song,” she whined.
Jakub suffered. The inside of his throat cracked when he spoke, his swollen tongue stuck to a palate dry as the surrounding desert, even his brief denials were slurred. The algul provided for them when she could, they both drank the blood of the few desert gazelles she summoned. It was not enough to satisfy the thirst, his waterskin was filled with urine.
“I need the blood of an in…” She spoke in a scratched voice, at Jakub’s back without warning. A frisson of fear scuttled the length of his spine. His hearing had become muffled the more he suffered from thirst, her approach had been unheard. “I lose myself.” Her mouth hung open, the large canines protruding.
To say no to a ghoul in such an extremity would be to die. She would not ask again.
“Too much and I can go no further,” Jakub protested and bared his forearm. The scars were barely healed from the last time, when he had willingly let the algul drink to bring her back from the brink of destruction. Many hours had been spent on the journey debating the wisdom of the choice taken.
Head bent, she hovered over his outstretched arm. Jakub closed his eyes and steeled himself.
“Do you smell it?” she asked. Jakub’s eyes flew open. The wind had changed direction and blew from the east. The algul whipped her head about into the rising breeze. Her nostrils distended. “The smell of fear and death, the air is heavy with the taste of slaughter. Follow me…”
In moments she climbed up the sandy slope of the dune and then sprang out of sight. Jakub followed slower until he stood at the top.
He cursed. A small plume of sand drifted in her wake, already she was far distant.
“I had no idea she could move that fast.” Jakub muttered and followed the algul’s tracks.
Jakub knew he was infected, the algul’s blood ran in his veins. She could tresspass in his dreams, her thoughts could muddy his clarity. Had he truly believed the algul could be the downfall of the Necuratu, or had she somehow compelled him? His thoughts crawled over familiar circles with an apathy only matched by his pace.
The sun crept over the horizon and stalled in an ocher haze. The erg appeared to be as flat as a table top, a bedrock expanse stripped of tree or shrub with no sign of birds or insects to be seen. A silence so deep his every step against the bedrock was with his breath the only sound heard. The algul’s tracks were a clear trail of strewn pebbles and easily followed.
Jakub stumbled on. Indistinct shapes grew out of the haze and rippled in the rising heat. A solitary tent was pitched in a small depression, all around were strewn bodies. He drew his sword with a rasp and approached cautiously.
He stepped over the twisted neck of a camel, separated from the body and stopped, poised on the balls of his toes. Nothing moved. The corpses of the fallen had been torn apart as if in a horrific struggle. All the camels had been eviscerated, the stench of death filled his dry lungs.
“She did this,” Jakub choked out. “Oh Divinities… the foul little beast…”
“The feast was already prepared, they were dead upon my arrival” She drifted around the tent, accompanied by an odd jingling noise. “I came only as a guest. Am I to be judged if I found the meal to my liking?”
Jakub stared at the unexpected sight. The algul wore a shapeless garment that covered her from head to foot, a cloth mesh hid her face from the sun. Her restless hands were tucked into the folds.
Jakub turned away without a word. He bent down by the nearest camel and cut open the rumen which hung out of the disembowled creature. The algul waited until he had scooped out a handful of the stringy green fluid and swallowed a mouthful of the nauseating material before she spoke.
“There’s water in the tent.”
Jakub flung what was left aside and dashed for the tent. Her scornful laughter followed.
“This old one was still alive,” said the algul. She moved a step away and clinking sounds came from beneath the folds of her robe. “I let his final moments be of my in human form. He told me there was a man, kept bound and apart. There’s the rope torn asunder like thread, with pieces of his flesh still stuck to the fibers. He gets among the camels and begins the slaughter – he tears them apart. The others rush from the tent and cut him him down with their curved swords but another goes mad and it begins again. A fever of killing engulfs the thieves.”
“Was it madness then?” Jakub said, kneeling. He covered the old man’s head with his head scarf. He could make no sense of the slaughter. “Perhaps some caprice of the jinn, thoughts and deeds corrupted till they turned on each other in a blood lust. Who knows, none live to tell.”
“One does,” she said. “The last taken was a boy, the old man’s grandson. He was the last to go mad. He gouged the old man’s eyes out and ran from the camp screaming a single word.”
She raised a covered hand to point, but lost her grip on what had been kept hidden beneath the robe. A gold coin fell at her feet and rolled about once before settling on the stony ground..
“How do women walk in these garments?” she said quickly. “I find it so confining. The sun pains me, I think I’ll rest in the tent.”
Neither moved, both intent on the gold coin that lay between them.
The thought struck Jakub that Alayna had made a mistake. The algul had grown too confident of her power over him, only appearing at night and always hidden during the day. But here, now, she was weak and vulnerable to the sun.
“You called these men thieves, but what do you have beneath your robes, hur Alyana?” Jakub said. The algul started at the scornful way Jakub spoke, he had not called her by that name since they had left the Jann’s cave. He stood up and moved with a sudden intent towards the robed figure. “Stolen coins? The crystals of the afreet? The Seal of Phorshomon perhaps?”
“Stand back!” The algul stumbled back amongst a shower of dropped coins. “What treachery is this? My destiny awaits me in Khameri, I won’t be a pauper, spurned by my own at the palace gates. Oh…”
“Condemned by your own mouth,” Jakub cried. “No, speak no more, no more tales. I don’t like to play about, I get mad when I get told a bushel of lies. Dare not speak your good brother’s name and the oath we took. To destroy the Necuratu is my only goal and you but the sword I thrust at them. I didn’t trek the length of the great desert to deliver to them a mongrel pretender, isn’t that what the eunuch called you?”
She turned to run and tripped upon the robes. Jakub was upon her in a moment and held the struggling algul down.
“The Seal, Alayna,” said Jakub. “I’ll take it now. Or should I tear the robe off you? ”
“How dare you!” Alayna hissed. She kicked wildly, but he had her arms pinned beneath his knees. A savage exultation swelled up within his chest, a base desire overwhelmed his reason.
A sharp blow struck him in the side of the head, he fell over with a cry.
The boy was red, the skin flayed from his body hung in strips. Where his ears should have been were raw holes, and patches of white skull showed between what little tufts of hair remained. The pupils were rolled back so only the whites of his eyes showed.
“Zar! Zar!” he cried and fell upon them.
The mutilated boy struck Jakub with the dull back of the scimitar, wielding it more like a club than a sword. Only chance had made the blow less than lethal, as it was Jakub was dazed with blood streaming down from the gash. He raised his left arm against the blows raining down, and heard and felt a loud crack in his forearm.
Alayna scrambled to her feet, the boy turned and was upon her in two quick strides. Dropping the sword he pounced on Alayna and they went down onto the hardscrabble rock in a flurry of arms and legs, both shrieking.
Jakub staggered over. The boy was on top, hands tearing apart her robes with blinding speed. Jakub thought with a wretched flash of insight, the boy had only exchanged places with him.
He grabbed a handful of what remained of the boy’s hair and pulled the head back as far as he could. The boy’s mouth gaped like a maw, the lips discolored by a dried froth. Jakub hacked down at the exposed neck. The blow cut halfway through and blood sprayed out. Jakub threw him aside.
“It burns, it burns,” Alayna squealed and rolled about. “The coils of the solar ward are not enough, get me to the tent you fool.”
Jakub bent over to assist, but a heavy weight threw itself against the back of his knees, he fell with a high pitched scream of pain, he had tried to catch his fall with his broken arm. The boy scrabbled over Jakub with the agility of a spider, he caught an alarming glimpse of the head dangling loose from ruptured tendons and flesh and then it sprung on Alayna and with an outstretched hand touched her now exposed flesh.
There was a crack, sharp and flat as dry wood breaking apart. The boy dropped to the ground, lifeless. Another series of cracks and Alayna wailed, convulsing on the ground, heels and hands kicking up a storm of pebbles and dirt. The robe tore apart and something long and sinuous leaped into the air from Alayna with a crackle of blue lightning and then vanished.
Jakub watched, unable to move. He waited for the inevitable roar and hiss of flames as the sun burnt apart the naked form of the algul. But nothing happened.
“By the divinities three, I beg your forgiveness, Colonel Valkris,” said Jakub. “I was wrong to ever doubt. Your sister has been restored to humanity, though I fear she has no sanity to enjoy what has been returned. I swear I will care for her to the best of my abilities.”
Jakub clenched his fist and touched his chest, then rose with difficulty from his prayer. His forearm was swollen and bruised, but a horrific throbbing pain had dug into his temples and taken residence. He could barely think, could barely walk in a straight line. The blow to his head had addled his senses.
Alayna stood by the tent as if the soles of her feet were nailed firm. Her face was blank, her mouth hung open.
Jakub took her wrist and felt the steady pulse. When he looked in her eyes, he was shocked to discover her eyes were green. But when he moved a finger about the pupils stayed unfocused and didn’t follow the path. There wasn’t the slightest glimmer of intelligence.
Nonplussed, Jakub stepped back. The wind grew harder and the blown sand beat a rhythm against the nearby tent. At least he should get Alayna clothed again, he found her nakedness too disturbing to bear. He was ashamed now of what he had almost done before the attack. Upon unsteady feet he stripped the nearest corpse of clothing and pulled the ragged jalabah over Alayna’s head. She didn’t move, her arms hung limp and useless. Worse the flies swarmed about her in a thick cloud, heedless of the carrion that lay nearby
The glint of the coins caught his eye. They were strewn about the sand where the struggle had taken place between Alayna and the boy. Jakub looked away from boy’ sprawled body and knelt down with difficulty and inspected the nearest.
The coins were either octagonal or square in shape, some were pierced with holes so they could be strung together. Each was half as thick as his fingernails and appeared to be solid gold. Those that were solid had the images of warrior queens who were unknown to Jakub. He remembered the legends of the ancient amazons and how the Talama-seng had once been their stronghold in the ancient past. He reached out his uninjured hand to pluck one from the sand.
Jakub groaned. Cymbals and drums beat in his head with the passion of the cry.
“Do not touch the coins. The Zar watches! It has taken me.”
Alayna had not moved or spoken. But when Jakub rose slowly to his feet he knew something spied upon him from the corners of Alayna’s eyes.
“What am I to do then?” he asked hopelessly. He moved to brush away the gathering flies that grew thick about her.
But Alayna, or her voice was silent. Only the hum of the flies grew louder.
The wind grew in force and lifted a dust into a veil, through which shone the red ball of the sun. Jakub sat by the ashes of the campfire and suffered the muffled howls coming from the tent.
Without warning, Alayna had begun to spin. Her thin arms stuck out out like spindles, with the sleeves flapping like sails. Then she stopped and arched her back till her hands met the ground and she scuttled about with an unnatural speed. Jakub was barely able to catch and wrestle the girl to the ground, yelling at the pain when she struck at his injured arm.
“Zar! Zar!” the spirit within her bellowed with a maniacal glee, the eyes rolled about wildly and suddenly fixed upon Jakub with malevolent purpose. She opened her mouth and vomited forth a black bile upon him.
She broke free and scored her face with her fingernails. Jakub found rope and after an intense struggled bound her arms to her side. Then he dragged the struggling girl and threw her within the tent and closed the flaps tight against the swarming flies.
The bile dried quickly on his clothing and he scratched the flakes away. He could do nothing about the smell that clung to him and everything else in this open air abbatoir.
The only blessing was the water, he drank more from a waterskin and stared numbly at the ashes.
To the southeast in the far stretching erg, figures moved. Jakub blinked and watched without interest at the approach of a line of camels and men.
“You have to get up. They must be greeted, hail them in shilhal or they’ll kill you.
They were making for the campsite with increasing speed and he could not move.
“Get up, now!”
Alayna’s voice banged louder in his head than their shouts. Jakub rose from the campfire and heard unfamiliar words spill forth from his mouth. A moment of dark humor took him, Alayna’s body was possessed by a spirit, but he was possessed by Alayna.
The camel riders lurched to a halt in a swirl of sand and the riders leaped off. He recognized them as batui, the desert wanderers. Spear points glistened and scimitars flashed as they swarmed about him in a frenzy, they began to strip the bodies of clothing and articles.
They did not touch the gold coins.
A large man with a gray beard pushed the others aside with barked commands. He was clad in robes of blue linen, a head dress of ostrich feathers bounced with each step.
“Who are you who speaks the desert tongue and knows the greetings of our kind?” the leader demanded. His eyes flashed as he spoke. “You’re not one of these locusts, these flesh without bones who we’ve pursued these long days through the waste.”
“I come from the west,” replied Jakub. The shilhal rose to his tongue with a fluency beyond his knowledge. Alayna spoke through him. “Though not of your blood, my daughter and I claim the hospitality and respect accorded to those in need.”
A series of whooping screams drove the men back from the tent in confusion.
“My daughter,” said Jakub. “She suffers a sickness I do not understand. She came upon this encampment ahead of my steps and was set upon by the last survivor.”
“The sickness is known to us,” the man said fiercely. “She is a thief as must you be, the Zar only takes thieves. Seize them.”
No stars glimmed in the dark vault above. Jakub stood against a hard wind blowing down the stark, sere slope. It would be so easy to succumb, to turn and let the gusts tumble him away like a withered leaf.
“Walk away, Jakub.”
Another clung to his back, arms about his shoulders, he felt the desperate strength of her thighs locked around his waist.
“What is this place?” But he knew the answer already. “What has happened?”
“You fell sick,” she replied. “But it was I who dragged you here when the Zar took my body. My blood runs in your veins, without that hold I would have been blown away, but I cannot hold on forever. Now walk.”
“Then let go.” Jakub replied.
“Am I to be ash under your feet? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your honor?” Alayna snarled. Her grip tightened upon his spirit. “I won’t let go so easily.”
Time meant nothing. Each step was not a surety, the wind plucked at them with a purposeful will.
“What is the Zar?” he asked. “Another of the Jinn?”
She stirred against his back.
“Look up,” she whispered. “Not In and not Jinn; the Zar crowd in uncounted numbers in the dark labyrinths of the sky beyond. They should not trouble the waking world.”
Fear returned, his steps grew rapid as he scaled the slope. But suddenly he had a thought. In this hinterland between the seen and the unseen, her true spirit could be discerned. Only here could he truly see if Alayna had any trace of humanity left, or if she was nothing but the equal of the interloping Zar.
“Let me see your face, Alayna!” He turned his head about.
For answer she sunk her sharp teeth into the crook of his neck and shoulder.
Jakub started, perhaps he had only dreamed for a moment. He stumbled along at the end of the small party. A taut rope stretched from the saddle of the camel to his right wrist, pulling him along behind the last camel. His left arm was slung across his chest by another rope. The swirling column of flies about the howdah of the camel he was forced to trail revealed the location of Alyana.
When he looked about, vertigo stabbed at him. The sudden fear overrode the persistent throbbing in his temples, the shakes took his limbs and the slightest misstep could send him plummeting into the dusty depths below. The ground fell away inches from his feet in either direction. For the batui and their camels traversed a narrow span soaring across an open canyon.
Beneath him in all directions, spans and bridges soared across the depths of the gorge, whose sheer sides were striped with alternating shades of red and yellow. Soaring spires, twisted and fluted thrust up from below. Perhaps it was the blood of the algul in his veins, but Jakub recognized the work of the Jann. He could smell the sulfurous taste that accompanied the solitary one that had protected Alayna in the ravines beyond the salt pan of the Talama-seng.
All the camels had cloth coverings drooped over their heads so they could not see the perilous span they were being led across with great care by the batui. The party moved in silence, except for the creaking of the saddles and the occasional groan from the camels. The men marched with their heads down, intent only on the next step they took along the limestone arch.
They were at the apex of the arch’s span so Jakub took stock of the landscape. Beyond the canyon stretched a long series of ridges that stretched away to the south, to the east was the blinding glare of the desert and behind was a narrow dark strip of the ocean between dune and sky.
But to the west, and his breath caught momentarily in his throat. To the west, the horizon was touched with green, surely the hinder lands of fabled Khameri.
It took almost half an hour to cross the remainder of the soaring span and reach the far side of the canyon. An audible sense of relief burst out among the batui, they began to chatter excitedly among themselves. As one they clambered upon the camels and spurred them forward.
The rest of the day was a grotesque blur as Jakub was forced to run along at the rear.
Before nightfall the party entered a bend between the ridges. They followed a well trodden path that turned to the southwest through a narrow ravine. The looming walls opened up into a small valley with a small pool of water framed by palm trees located at the center. The camels smelt the fresh water and bolted en masse. Jakub had worried the rope free from his wrist with his teeth, otherwise he would have been dragged along to his death.
None of the batui stopped him as he slipped down the muddy embankment well away from the frantic camels. Jakub slumped to his knees and plunged his head into the cool water. He drank until he could drink no more.
A walled ksar was nearby, perched upon a small rise. It was surrounded by a thornbush hedge that rose taller than a man’s head.
The leader of the party, recognizable even in the gathering gloom by Jacub by his head dress of ostrich feather, strode to the gate and shouted loudly. Heads bobbed along the parapet and looke down upon the uninvited guests.
Several of the batui were shouting at Jakub now, waving wildly with their hands for him to get up. Jakub climbed the embankment too slowly for they laid hands upon him and pushed him roughly along to the gate. He gritted his teeth against the matching pains in his head and arm.
The leader of the batui crossed his hands in front of him so they rested on the hilt of the large dagger thrust through the swath of a belt. He threw back his shoulders and shouted again.
“Evening to you, blessed and sweet!”
Jakub winced as he felt Alayna’s presence against his temples. The batui spoke in a guttural tongue that wasn’t shilhal, but he understood the words perfectly through her.
“And to you also,” was the careful response back. The tone was feminine in nature.
“The welfare of a guest is to the host’s good luck,” the batui leader shouted. He spread his arms wide. “But the guest has more than hospitality to request, bring forth the Kahena so we may speak.”
“The Kahena is here,” said a new voice, regal in tone. “Is that you, Sedi Hassfara? Long has it been. What do you wish of the Witches of the Ufar?”
To Jakub’s amazement and total bewilderment a terrible wailing arose from all the batui. They tore at their robes and plucked handfuls of their beard free from their chins. Some fell to their knees weeping.
“Kahena, Kahena,” said Sedi Hassfara, a pillar of stoic tragedy amongst all the drama. “A terrible thing has befallen one of my own. One of the accursed Zar has possessed a girl of our tribe and we seek your help. We will pay much in gold and camels, no price is too high.”
“What the…” mumbled Jakub, but the prick of a knife point silenced him. One of the batui stood close behind.
The gates to the ksar creaked open and out walked the Kahena. She was a woman of enormous girth, a moving world of flesh. She puffed and blew with each step. An entourage of women surrounded her, wild of appearance with faces striped with blue and green colors that lent them a repulsive air.
“Bring to me this possessed girl,” commanded the Kahena.
“And they call us the thieves,” remarked Alayna caustically in Jakub’s bewildered thoughts. “I see how it is now…”
“A tomb of an ancient queen lies deep in the wastes,” explained Alayna. “Those mutalib, those treasure hunters we found butchered in the desert knew not of the curse when they plundered the tomb. Long ago, when the queen was buried a Zar was plucked from beyond by blackest magic and enchained with spells to guard the queen for eternity. If any enter, the Zar can consume the mutalib one by one and then must return to the endless vigil. Until now…”
“How do you know this?” muttered Jakub beneath his breath. He clutched at his pounding temples.
“The batui talked openly whilst you were insensible, but still I listened,” said Alayna. “At least till I had to retrieve you back from the wastelands of the spirits. These batui have long wanted to avail themselves of the ancient treasure but none would dare the peril of the Zar. Now the Zar has been captured, before it could discard my flesh and return – and so it stays as long as there are no thieves here to take as specified by the ancient geas.”
“My head hurts,” said Jakub. “Now what?”
“The kahena and her sisters will attempt to release the Zar and send it back to the skies beyond – it will be free of its bondage,” whispered Alayna. “If they succeed in the exorcism, then I shall be returned to the flesh. But as the Zar took me during the day I will be too mortal upon my return, I fear. Isn’t that what you desired? To spend the rest of my days like you… as a slave to these people, to wither and die a miserable existence.”
“Divinities be praised,” Jakub said and groaned at the stab of pain in his arm. At least Alayna would have a chance for redemption, if only she could see it.
Alayna’s response was unmentionable and obscene. She was silent thereafter.
The batui reluctantly placed their spears, sword and knives by the wall before they were allowed to enter the ksar. The silent women stared at the batui as they entered with hostile eyes and arrows poised on the bowstrings. Except for the Kahena, none of the women were clothed. Their naked bodies were heavily daubed with pasty swirls of blue and green paint.
The dwellings within the were small crude huts of wattle and daub, the roofs covered with branches and palm fronds. Goats and kabir chickens wandered about the walled enclosure.
The Kahena led the way with mincing little steps and a sway of her enormous hips. Her hair was braided into a high pillar. She led the girl along by a rope, as if she was a leashed animal. What had been Alayna howled dismally among the flies that swarmed close about. She sobbed and let loose horrific groans of pain and threw herself about against the binding ropes.
“A Zar will not be easy to coax free,” said the Kahena with a tentative tug at the rope. “But we can offer the creature what it desires most, for we cannot drag the Zar free of the girl. We must entice it, lure it from the flesh. But I am curious, Sedi Hassfara. This possessed one does not appear to be of your kin. She is too pale to be of the desert brethren. What is there to the tale?”
“She is a devout child of Tu-bahl,” said Hassfara with a prompt vigor that made his headdress shake. “My sister, blessed may she be in the Forger’s one eye, begged to adopt the outland child when she was found as a sole survivor on the shores of the great sea. I love her as my own daughter.”
“What a load of camel dung,” whispered Alayna.
The sideways glance the Kahena gave Hassfara showed a likewise thought. But then her wandering eyes, buried small within folds of flesh alighted on Jakub and she stopped in her tracks with a surprised squeak. The entire procession came to a halt.
“What is this?” she said and raised a hand with a pointed finger towards Jakub. “Yet another one possessed. What have you brought among us? Step back my sisters.”
“Nothing but a slave,” said Hassfara with an uneasy laugh as the witches of the Ufar sprang back with shouts and raised their bows. “Flesh and bone from the outlands. He’s nothing but a bent back.”
The Kahena rubbed her eyes and stared hard at Jakub. All the batui stepped away hastily from the menace of the raised bows. He stood alone before a gaze that pierced flesh and bone to see what was beneath. But then her inspection wavered and she let loose a gusty sigh.
“Sedi Hassfara,” she said. “Tu-bahl is both forger and potter. When the spirit of an In is created in the birth fires, another spirit is created from the black smoke. What I felt for a moment was the other – I felt something foul clinging to this man’s spirit with sharp claws. But now… I feel nothing. I was mistaken.”
“Be assured great Kahena,” said Hassfara with another forced laugh. “This man is truly of little weight, therefore of no importance.
To prove his words, Hassfara walked over to Jakub and struck him to the dirt.
“We will proceed with the exorcism,” pronounced the Kahena. “Take the girl to the midan. We shall begin the dance.”
The girl opened her mouth and let loose a high pitched scream.
Sounds of piping and drumming rose and fell from the midan, the dancing house, as the twilight deepened. The batui ate a dinner of khuzzi, a roasted baby camel set in a large platter for all to eat from. They all sat on a raised platform, Jakub included – though he sat to the side, set to the side of the midan. They talked freely among themselves, their tongues loosened by wine. Through Alayna, Jakub followed the discussion.
“The witches have provided for us well. Even the slave is taken care of.”
“And they will provide for us further,” at that, the entire group was consumed with laughter.
“My sister was once taken by a Zar,” said one when they were finished with their mirth and returned to eating the khuzzi. “She wed Yusuf of the Tamra and was taken in the third year of their marriage. She fell to the ground and shook till they thought her bones would break. But it only took an hour or so for the Zar to be coaxed out by the witches of the Tamra.”
“How is she now?”
“She has led a blameless life and has had many children.”
“But this is no ordinary Zar,” said Hassfara. “For years uncounted, before our tribe took these lands, this creature has guarded the tomb of the ancient queen. It has grown bloated and dark and will take all the efforts of the Kahena and her sisters to send the Zar back.”
“And then we loot the tomb for all the ancient wealth,” crowed Hassfara with the grease running through his beard. “Let these witches have all the gold we got from our trade in east, let them have all our camels. But we will return to our village and set forth again to lay our hands upon the greatest treasure known in these parts.”
“It is good,” the batui exclaimed, their eyes round with the promise of greed. Then they all cringed at the wails and yelps that burst forth from the midan.
“All creatures, even the Zar feel the pain of parting,” exclaimed Hassfara. He sprang to his feet in anticipation as one of the witches appeared. He fell back disappointed as she shook her head and disappeared into the midan.
“This will go into the night,” muttered the batui nearest Jakub. “But we have wine.”
The moon had barely crawled above the walls of the ksar when the drumming and singing stopped. Then there was only screaming.
As one, the batui rushed to the edge of the platform and stared anxiously at the midan. But Jakub stayed seated rubbing at his foreheard with his good hand. The headache had vanished, the unsettling spectral presence of Alayna was gone.
A loud crackling noise could be heard through the screams. “There!” Hassfara shouted and pointed with a trembling finger.
The head and torso of one of the witches had been thrust through the palm fronds and weaved branches of the roof. Her mouth opened in a soundless rictus of agony as her body was suddenly seized and pulled back within the buildingdy.
“The Zar has been unleashed,” screamed a batui. “Tu-bahl preserve us, it will kill us all.”
But the batui stood frozen on the platform even as the witches of the Ufar fled from the slaughterhouse, fled even through the gates of the ksar out into the valley. They stood frozen until an object flew across the orb of the moon and crashed onto the platform among the men.
It was the head of the Kahena.
Then the men took to their heels and fled shamelessly, Jakub among them. He knew the Zar was not behind the slaughter.
The algul caught up with Jakub the next night, even though he tried to hide among the rocks.
“We have so much to talk about,” Alayna said. She squatted upon a height of a plinth and looked down at Jakub. He sunk to his knees near crying at the sight of the creature. “I caught up with Sedi Hassfara and cracked his head open. I know where the treasure is. We have to go get it.”
“But how!” shouted Jakub hoarsely. “You said you would be returned to mortal form if the Zar was driven from your body!”
“Perhaps so,” said Alayna. “If the witches had succeeded in their rituals when the sun was still in the sky, perhaps I’d be mortal again. But tis a perilous task to drive forth a dangerous spirit when another equally dangerous waits in the wings. And I was very hungry.”
She licked at the flakes of dried blood on her talons.
“Magic is all about timing, they chose the wrong hour to exorcise the Zar,” Alayna said. “Beware the evil of night as I to, come with the darkness.”
Copyright ©2010 by John Eric Sweat