Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Sand

The sky was clear and blue with the sun beating mercilessly upon the drifting sands. There was nothing but sand all around for as far as eyes could see. A scorching hot breeze was playing with the powdery earth, sending it flying and swirling in mystical formations.

A pair of veiled eyes locked their gaze upon a dust devil gaining intensity upon a small dune to the south, tiny particles reflecting and bending the light, laughing irreverently at the lifeless expanse, itself a form of life from beyond mankind's wildest imaginations.

Those eyes were as calm as the desert sky in their gaze as they peered out the black burkha from the rear window of a black SUV - the last in a fleet of three as they scurried across the desert like a procession of shiny black scarab beetles. Her pupils were bright green like emeralds glowing in a cave, and even that much of green in The Empty Quarter seemed to lighten the mood in the vehicle somehow. No one ever spoke, except for quiet requests to be passed the flask of milk or water or the packet of dates.

"Would you like some dried apples, Zainab?" said a frail young man wearing a shabby white turban, sitting behind the driver, turning around nervously with a pack of sliced apples rubbed with a paste of poppy and saffron in his hands.

She took some slices without a word and started chewing on them mindlessly, then saw him looking intently at her. He jerked back, as if scared. She bobbed her head up questioningly, brows twitching behind the veil.

"Your eyes..." he said in a heavy, shaky, voice.

"Yes?" her voice was sweet like camel's milk, smooth like the finest hashish.

"They glow!" he said, shivering a little. Her lips veiled under layers of thin muslin curled up into a fox-like smile.

"They glow green like Gibrael's breath as he speaks the Quran to the Prophet in the blessed cave."

"What you see, Jamaal, is real." she says.

"I know." he says slowly.

"Never confuse truth with reality," she said soothingly, "truth just is, reality is what is perceived. Perceptions can be misleading because truth is strange, self-referencing, conflicting."

He nodded slowly, and settled back in his seat, looking at the sands, lost in thought. A strong wind blew against them and sand from the large dune they were climbing blew all around them. Jamaal felt a slight tap on his shoulder. He turned around. The girl's eyes were glowing even greener in the transient darkness that engulfed them, holding out her hands crawling with small white spiders glowing eerily in the light from her eyes.

"Consume." she said.

He grabbed some spiders without a word and chomped down on them and swallowed. They were salty and reminded faintly of spoiling goat's cheese. That was when he noticed the dog sitting calmly outside on the bonnet of the vehicle roaring upon the dancing dunes. It was a jackal, really - lean and black with a long nose and judging eyes.

"He got on when we left the rocks." she explained gently from behind.

"I've heard" said Jamaal after a few seconds of intense silence - "the Mad Poet was devoured by invisible beasts in broad daylight."

"Yes," she said, "in the bustling markets of Damascus. He was raving mad, too. One of the most feared blasphemers of his times. His mere presence was said to inflict damnation upon onlooking souls. Then Master took him."

"Aren't you afraid?"

"Of the Master? I sure am. He is whimsical, unreadable."

"The One with a Thousand Masks."

"Yes. He has no face. Do you know the tale of the Great Sphinx of Giza?"

He shook his head.

"It is very, very old, Jamaal. Older than you could possibly imagine. When Pharaoh Kephren found it four thousand years ago, it was already in ruins, face weathered and unrecognizable."

"It was ancient to the ancient Egyptians?"

"Yes. His true name is better left unspoken, for to name him is to invoke him and face his whims. He tells powerful secrets but leaves out crucial details. He delights in watching mortals fall prey to their own desires. He roars with mad laughter and it echoes in the desert at night, often accompanied by the muffled playing of a broken flute."

"The book..."

"That book is the most dangerous artefact known to our race. It is dangerous because it speaks of secrets that can destroy if not earned through great penance. Realities that can crush if learned without first understanding. There is a reason Master is also called Eater of Souls."

"He who laughs alone,
He who has no face,
He who should not be named,
The one with a thousand masks,
Eater of Souls... What other names does he have?"

"The Black Pharaoh. The Chaos that Crawls." Her eyes were glowing with supernatural energy despite the desert sun. Layers of muslin cloth fell to the floor, revealing her small pink lips, supple and faintly green from the glow from her eyes. Her toungue slipped slowly out the left corner of her mouth, coming out about four inches before twisting and going back through the right corner and disappearing into her again. "Master of Lies." she said, smiling.

"But he speaks the truth?"

"Half-truths, white-lies. Best of the best."

"Where are we going?"

"Wherever he takes us." she gestured for him to look outside. The dunes were shining like golden scales on a mythical, fantastic creature. A shimmer swept across them from the southwest to the northeast, and the cars slowly changed course.

At night, they camped down the windward side of a large dune. Stars shone brightly in the night sky. Jamaal sat by the fire next to Zainab. Her eyes were glowing very slightly. Some were eating beef curry with bread, all were talking in hushed voices. A short, stout old man with a thin beard was telling a huge baby-faced man how he had once heard of ancient cities lost under these sands.

"Why do insects kill themselves in the fire?" Jamaal asked.

"Their souls have been called for by The Master," Zainab smiled. "Once they have heard the call, they go in a frenzy and want nothing more than to immolate themselves and be one with him." she paused for some time. "The nomads say the sounds insects make in the desert at night are the echoes of the howling of djinns. We are His servants, all of us. Not much more than crickets in this limitless expanse of creation."

She moved closer - a lot closer, lips almost touching his ears, and whispered a short poem in between warm breaths in a language not from any reality he understood. It seemed to fill his head, roll around from one ear to another, increasing in pitch then falling so low as to make his heart shudder and induce a sense of immense dread. She spoke in rasping, guttural sounds that could not have possibly been produced from a human shell.

He didn't know what she was saying, but the meaning in those sounds was inherent, like a magical incantation. He felt thirsty - very thirsty. Thirstier than he had ever been before. His throat felt like sand-paper. It was parched and itching something awful. The sun was baking his skin, making it slowly tougher and sucking energy out of him that showed up as short-lived drops of cold sweat. Far away in the distance, he could see water shimmering. "A lake!" he thought, "If only I could reach it!" He walked mindlessly for hours, legs walking in the general direction of water, but never seemed to get any closer.

"He lies..." she said slowly, moving away from him, getting up, bowing a little, and walking into her tent. Jamaal sipped his tea, lay back on the mattress, and fell fast asleep. In his dreams, he saw a little girl playing with a furry rabbit under an apple tree on a mountain farm. She was feeding it nuts and wild berries and leaves, and it was gnawing away at them patiently, savouring every bite. It was wearing a small little blue bowtie that was easily lost in the carpet of little blue, yellow, pink four-petaled flowers.

After nibbling patiently at a leaf and some sniffing and looking around, it turned to the girl and said in a deep, gruffy voice - "The apples are ready."

"They are?" she said, amused.

"They are, my love. Very ripe, and begging to be gnawed at." Its crimson eyes burned with fire from somewhere deep inside the earth, and Jamaal blinked as his eyes fixed on the glowing embers that were all that remained of the bonfire. Everyone else was either in their tents or cars. A cold wind blew suddenly from the west, moaning and howling around him. His mind shimmered in resonance and he heard the rabbit's voice say -

"Nyarlathotep.
The crawling chaos.
I am the last, I will tell the audient void."

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