by Weston Kincade
A dark-skinned man of twenty-some years stood in front of his countryside home, but could not quite remember how it had looked. Time had left the place a dismal shadow of its former self. He knew it had changed though. The old two-story was decrepit and undecided in which way it should fall. Shutters hung from solitary hinges, hoping for release. A leafless oak of untold years stood in the expansive yard like a solitary soldier, granting little relief from the sun. A tire-swing hung from its lower bough, but sat lifeless with no wind to stir it. The color of his surroundings had been sapped, leaving it filtered and dim.
The world around the home was worse. The young man peered at his surroundings in wonderment and confusion. Along the borders of this lone house, a barrier of air climbed into the sky. It wavered as though encapsulated in churning water the color of night. Stars shone through like diminished memories of what they once were. He was trapped in this awful place, but who was he? He sifted through scant memories, attempting to find an answer. Images flashed through his mind like someone else’s experiences. The snapshots seemed more real than the world around him. They were filled with living colors, and children’s laughter echoed in his head.
The house confronting him was nothing like the images that came to mind, but it was the same place. His gut told him so. Under the tree sat a large rock he knew well. Carved on the sandstone surface was the name, ‘Nijah’. A memory flickered to life of him chiseling the name by hand. Under the large stone, he had buried his first friend. He was certain of it.
As the image faded, a large moth settled on the rock, distorting the name with its wings. The insect fluttered and flexed outward. An odd face stared back at him with a deep swirling eye on each wing. Their lower halves were decorated with two black stripes and formed what looked like a smile.
"Assalaamu ‘Alayka, Ehsan," rasped a small voice.
"Wa ‘Aleyka As-Salaam," he replied, looking around for the voice’s source. It seemed to come from the tree. He scanned it, but found nothing in the limbs.
The voice replied, "Down here, young human."
His eyes settled on the large moth. The lines creasing the lower wings moved unlike any creature he knew, and the insect’s antennae twitched like anxious eyebrows. The overall effect was a face any mother would have smothered at birth.
"Never seen a moth ifrit, have you? Not surprising considering how well your family faired without you."
"No," he replied with a shake of his head. His dark curls bounced over his shoulders. "Was this my fault? And who is Ehsan?"
"You are, of course, but I’m sure you wouldn’t know that. As to the other question, fault is a bit tricky. Many would say that you are to blame, but we all must live with our decisions."
"What do you mean? Why wouldn’t I know my own name? What decisions?"
"Because the past is gone and the future is clouded. What’s done is done. What matters is the present. Whether you survive the day, or even this after-noon, is up to you."
Ehsan’s head swam in a sea of confusion. Shaking it off, he shouted, "But why? What did I do to deserve this?"
"You chose this path. It’s of your own making. Look at your hand."
On his palm a symbol of an eye was tattooed in black. Five more orbs caressed the tip of each finger and a sixth peeked from beneath his shirt sleeve. The thought of branding himself was revolting and his lips curled back in disgust. "Wha . . . what could have made me brand myself?"
"It’s your sign, the Mark of Ehsan, and the only of its kind. It is the sign of your trade."
"What trade? And who are you?" he shouted in frustration.
"Hern ‘Aideen," the moth replied with pride, "at your service." His antennae eyebrows peaked with the name and the wings folded his lips back into a smile.
"What path? What trade?" asked Ehsan, giving Hern no time to answer. "What am I supposed to do?"
Another voice cracked through the heavens like a spurned god. "Troublesome ifrit! Go, leave at once if you wish to live." Mumbled chanting followed before the voice faded away.
Hern’s antennae flattened under the commanding words. A clawing sound began at the base of the chiseled rock. An instant later, dirt erupted from Nijah’s grave. A skeletal snout shot out of the ground and the dog’s teeth chomped down where Hern ‘Aideen had stood. But the ifrit fluttered into the tree, narrowly avoiding the large dog’s ravenous bite. His fleeting words carried to Ehsan’s ears.
"Remember, if you let the past rule you, your future will be short indeed." He left in a puff of smoke, forcing Ehsan to deal with the snarling canine alone.
What did he mean? But there was little time to think. The enraged animal howled as Hern disappeared. Rather than give up, the animal searched for its next victim.
"Good Nijah. Good girl . . . boy . . ." Try as he might, Ehsan remembered little about the dog. Giving up, he attempted to calm the animal with an outstretched palm. "Good, Nijah. Remember me?"
If it did, it gave no sign. Nijah turned with a snarling, skeletal grin. A hellish, red glow was all that remained of the animal’s eyes, and they landed on him. It stepped out of the grave and approached with sure feet. A deep growl emanated from its hollow frame.
What do I do now? wondered Ehsan.
"You, up there! I could use a little help," he shouted at the voice that had boomed moments before, but there was no response.
"Great! Drive off the only thing that will speak to me, and summon something to tear me apart," he muttered. "That’s just great. I must’ve woken up in hell."
Ehsan fumbled at his waist for something…anything, and his hand found a small leather pouch. He opened the bag at his belt. A jumbled collection of smooth sticks met his fingers. Without warning, another memory unfolded like petals opening to the sun. They were not sticks, but small avian bones. Words from the past leapt to mind as he selected a short one. They were from an archaic language he didn’t recognize, but he uttered the chant as it came to him.
"Sishenn ach ‘ebel sorishem." The words slid off his tongue like a long-lost friend.
With the last sound, he threw the bone at the approaching animal. The fragment burst into florescent flames the instant it left his tattooed fingers. As it flew toward Nijah, it grew into a ball of swirling blue fire. The dog yelped in pain as the spell found its target, engulfing it in a florescent blaze. Ehsan watched with pity and astonishment as his old friend was reduced to a pile of smoldering ash. While surprising at first, his own abilities oddly comforted him. The six orbs adorning his fingers and wrist burned with an inner fire. He stared at them in wonder before turning to address the heavens.
"Is that what you wanted?" he demanded. No birds chirped, and no one replied. A still silence was all that answered. Ehsan shuddered at the absence of life. His rebellious cries turned to unconscious mutterings of frustration. "You are no God! Allah doesn’t speak with mortals, let alone summon lifeless creatures to do his bidding. And I am something different. You will not tell me?" He waited a moment, but still there was no reply. "A path awaits me . . . for Allah and Fatimah." His mind halted after the words left his lips. What unnerved him was the addition of Fatimah. He had spoken without thought.
Why would I pray to such a revered woman . . . especially after branding myself? No answer came. He knew the Arabic traditions, stories of old, but where did he fit into it all?
Ehsan set the mystery aside. He spotted a small stone at his feet and picked it up. He flung it at the murky wall enclosing the small plot of land. It stopped at the edge, held in place by the odd substance. The enclosure absorbed it at a snail’s pace, coating the rock in the oily material. Each part the wall touched sizzled and dissolved, as though dipped in acid.
"Well, there’s no way out," he mumbled. "Nowhere to go but forward. If the ifrit was right, then I must go on. If not . . . this had better just be a nightmare." Ehsan gathered his bearings and stepped over Nijah’s grave. Dead grass crunched beneath his boots and paranoia enhanced the sound as though it were echoing gunfire. He cautiously peered over his shoulder as he crossed the yard.
The front door swung open with a banshee’s squeal. Flaking plaster and skeletal walls lined the entryway. A barren hallway coursed through the center of the house and around deteriorating stairs. Rays of light filtered through gaps in the roof, spotlighting rotting floorboards, but little else. The windows were curtained and boarded up, but some light seeped in. Footprints were visible in lit portions of the dusty floor. A pair of small prints led into the room to his left. Guttural sounds emanated through the cracked door, along with a rhythmic shink . . . shink . . . shink. It was as though someone were sharpening a blade with belted leather. Ehsan tiptoed up to the cracked door and peeked in.
The roof had collapsed, and the rubble was strewn everywhere. A small boy, no older than eight, wavered in the center of the room under an open sky. A yellowed shirt and jean shorts hung in tatters, exposing his body to the world. Rays of light illuminated decomposing skin stretched around exposed ribs. Interlaced in his fingers were the fuselage and wings of a model airplane. Incoherent mumblings echoed off his lips. Lifting the sharpened edge of the airplane’s wing to his forearm, he slid it down to the wrist. Shink! The boy’s skin peeled away like potato skin and fell to the floor, joining other shreds of meat in a pile.
Ehsan forced down a bout of nausea as another vivid memory appeared. This eight-year-old boy, healthy and with eyes that danced, sat Indian-style on the floor and listened to him read stories from a book.
It can’t be. He’s the same age, thought Ehsan. But there he stood, disfiguring himself.
"Abdul," Ehsan whispered.
Abdul froze with the sharpened wing half way through his arm. His pale, deep-set eyes locked on Ehsan. "Ehsan, you dog!" he shouted, carving the rest of the skin from his arm in one motion. Shink! He stooped down and picked up the strip. "I was going to feed this to Nijah, but she isn’t around. Here, fit for a dog." Abdul flung the peeled skin across the room. It landed at the foot of the doorway. Maggots wriggled in the exposed flesh.
"What happened to you?"
"What happened to me?" Abdul mocked. "You left while the soldiers were coming. Father wanted you to fight for Allah, but you ran. Don’t you remember? Who do you think Father looked to when you vanished?"
In a gruff voice, he mimicked their father, "Here’s your weapon. Use it to strike fear into the infidels. It is the will of Allah."
"He handed me a vest. It was heavy," he added.
"Push this button when you are close, Abdul," he mimicked again. "Your brother ran rather than serve Allah, but it is God’s will that you serve him. You are the servant of the Reckoner. You will not fail him, or me, will you . . . not like your brother?"
"I didn’t run, Ehsan," Abdul stated in his childish voice. "I fought like the sword of Allah, but still I failed. Fifty feet away and the building beside me exploded. I was trapped, but I didn’t run. You left us . . . Mother, Father . . . you left me!" Abdul leapt across the room with a blood curdling scream, his model plane held high in his hand. "You dog!"
Ehsan leapt back into the hallway. His hand went to his pouch without thought, but no words came to mind. Abdul threw open the door and pounced on his older brother like a ravenous animal, biting into his shoulder. Ehsan grabbed his younger brother’s arm as it came down, but his strength was unnatural. The fight took all of Ehsan’s attention. As Abdul’s teeth tore into his shoulder, he screamed in pain. Fire coursed through his veins while his attacker slurped the blood seeping from his wound. Summoning all his strength, Ehsan flung the boy through the doorway. His frail body flew through the room and hit the opposing wall with a large thud. The plaster caved in and the house shifted under the impact. The wooden structure creaked above, threatening to collapse.
Memories of his bearded father flooded Ehsan’s mind…shouting and screaming . . . grabbing the nearest plank of wood and wielding it as a club. Ehsan huddling in the closet, crying after his father bludgeoned him in a fit of rage. This was what he left Abdul to endure.
"Abdul Muhsi, I’m sorry!" Salty tears clouded Ehsan’s vision.
What remained of his brother unfolded itself from the floor and stood up. "Sorry won’t cut it, Brother," Abdul rasped. He sped toward Ehsan with the sharpened wing bared.
Seeing Abdul’s approach through flooded eyes, Ehsan shuffled backwards and fumbled at his waist. He gripped another bone and his palm grew heated. Words tumbled into his mind. Tears streamed down his cheeks while he chanted. "Ach ‘letour borough fetune ‘esmundo." The small bone shot out of his hand and into Abdul’s stomach. A loud pop resounded in the room. Abdul changed course and flew through the wall. His small body landed in a bloody heap a few feet from the acid barrier.
Ehsan stepped up to the hole in the wall and wiped the tears from his eyes. It had to be done, he thought. But he wasn’t convinced.
A shrill voice pierced his sadness. "Ehsan!" He spun in place.
An elderly woman shambled through the doorway and emerged into the lit room. Her face was pale and rotting like Abdul’s, while clumps of hair remained on her scalp. But, her pale eyes held recognition.
"My son. You came back. I knew you would."
"Y-Y-Yes, Mother," Ehsan stammered, remembering a time when he sat on her lap as a babe. "Are you okay?"
"No, Ehsan. We aren’t, but now that you are here, maybe you can stop him."
"Your f-f-f . . ." she answered, but before she could finish, her eyes bulged from their sockets and her voice faltered. "What did you do?" she screamed, spotting Abdul lying in the yard.
"H-H-He attacked me, Mother. I had no choice."
She rushed at Ehsan with claws extended, her fragility forgotten. Ehsan dodged to the side, avoiding the aged woman, but she raked him with an outstretched hand. Her nails dug deep into his chest before he managed to distance himself.
"I had to, Mother," he pleaded, but it was futile. He didn’t believe the excuse, so how could he convince her? "I had to," he tried again, but the words were just a whisper. He was already dead, wasn’t he? How can I kill something that’s already dead?
The old woman turned to him with hate in her eyes. His blood streamed from her clawed hand, dripping onto the floor. Rotten teeth protruded from her mouth as she hissed like a feral cat.
Yes, she’s got to be dead. They’re all dead. Mother wouldn’t do this.
The woman plodded toward him. He bounded across the room, avoiding her flailing arms. As he unconsciously backed into a corner, the woman let out a garbled scream and charged forward. Ehsan tried to sidestep her, but bounced off the wall. With nowhere to turn, he balled his fist and readied to meet her.
Again, his tattooed hand burned and words materialized on his tongue. "Sho’lan," he shouted as his fist met his mother’s drooping chest.
Energy sizzled through his clenched fingers. The enraged woman flew across the room with a shriek. She lay prone for a moment before pushing herself onto unsteady feet. Standing erect, he saw that her bared chest was charred where his fist landed. Remnants of her shredded blouse crackled as they burnt. The smell of scorched flesh permeated the air, and one decaying breast fell to the floor. She didn't notice.
"You dare touch me. I’ll eat your heart."
"Mother, stop," Ehsan begged. "I know I wasn’t there for you, but it doesn’t have to be this way."
The woman steadied herself and took a step toward him. "Did the soldiers have to lock us inside and burn the house? Doesn’t have to be this way? It is this way!"
"Burned?" Ehsan whispered. It explains why they haven’t aged. I should have stayed. I shouldn’t have left.
The woman meandered toward Ehsan, muttering as he stood lost in thought. "But now it’s time for you to join us, Ehsan. Welcome to the fold. Embrace your future." With her final word, she surged toward him.
She was closer than he realized when her babbling broke through his thoughts. The few feet remaining left him no time to think. He thrust his hand in the pouch and threw a handful of bones into her face.
Only one phrase came to mind, and he shouted with all his might, "Para t’lif ee dusinte!" He needlessly flattened himself against the wall, struggling to put as much distance between them as possible.
The bones flew true, but no sound resounded. The effect was deadly. The fragments dug into her face, disintegrating everything they touched. Her hand reached for him and grasped his dark tunic. There was but a moment when he felt her touch before her hand followed her body to the floor. Within seconds, all that remained was a mound of dust.
Ehsan breathed a sigh of relief. He still felt her phantom touch on his chest. Shaking it off, he slid to the floor and guarded himself behind bent knees as questions ran through his mind. Okay, why am I here? The moth said it was my own choosing. How can I be alive when they’re dead? Am I supposed to put them out of their misery? The questions swirled through his head like a whirlpool. He pondered each one, but kept a wary eye on the door. Eventually, he remembered a question he'd asked his mother. Protect them from who? She said ‘Your f-f . . .’
My what? There was only one answer that came to mind. Ehsan’s father was a curse throughout their lives. The scant memories that had returned assured him of it. If his father was lording over them in death, it was too much. He has to die!
Setting his jaw, Ehsan rose to his feet and pulled up his cowl. He patted his chest, checking for his hansa. The small amulet bulged under his shirt. Fatimah will protect me. He grabbed another bone from his pouch and unconsciously spun it over his knuckles. After summoning his courage, he began a search of the house.
The rooms of the lower floor proved empty. His mother had been right though. As he progressed through the house he saw evidence of the fire. Charred remains were scattered all around. How did I miss it before? The answer was simple. He hadn’t been looking for it.
The stairway displayed more of the inferno’s devastation, and the upper floor contained the majority of the fire damage. Feeling his way along ashy walls of the hallway, Ehsan peered into rooms hoping to find his father. Scanning the hall, his eyes came upon a singed picture. It was still intact and hung where his family had left it; a family portrait. All three of them, including his mother, were seated for the photo. However, their father stood over them with dark, brooding eyes. They were hard as stone. There was nothing left of the man his mother had married, no love or concern; only duty and vengeance remained. His mother’s eyes peered back at him. In them, he saw fear. The sight renewed his faith.
I will kill him! Nothing will stop me.
As he approached the end of the hall, a memory flashed through his mind. A few feet away lay the door to their bedroom. He was forbidden to enter as a child, but it was where he would find his father. "Sarim Abu Ehsan ibn Mukhtar Al-Amin, your treachery is at an end," Ehsan whispered. "The day of reckoning is here." He grasped the doorknob and flung it wide.
"Hello, my son," echoed a voice from his past.
Memories of the same crude tone flooded his consciousness. Sarim cursed him at every chance. Feelings of ineptitude and futility weighed on his shoulders like an anvil. Ehsan’s hatred grew to a boil, fueling his rage toward the man. He shrugged off the feelings of inadequacy and looked up at his father. He was still taller than Ehsan and his hair had grayed, but not enough. Long curls fell to his shoulders like Ehsan's, and two stony eyes stood perched on a narrow nose. A dusty robe shrouded his form, but his hands and face were blistered. Flakes of skin hung from his chin as though attempting to escape his frazzled beard.
Ehsan threw back his hood and met his father’s haunting gaze. "Yes, Father, it’s me, Ehsan. I’ve returned."
"I knew you would, eventually. You scurried away with your tail between your legs. That day, I knew I was wrong to have given you such a cherished name. You are no more powerful than a frightened mouse. And now, you come begging at my doorstep. I have nothing for you, Ehsan. You mean no more to me than that mongrel you shot when you were a child."
Memories of the event flowed through his mind. He sifted through, searching for what happened. "I didn’t shoot her!" he exclaimed. "A local boy did. She was already dead when I found her."
"Did you make him pay for it?"
"No," mumbled Ehsan, feeling as though he were five years old once more. His eyes fell to the floor.
"Then, you did it. She meant nothing to you, and you’ll get nothing from me." Sarim took a step toward him, then another.
Ehsan’s eyes searched for something, anything to look at other than this man. Then, he realized his father’s game. It was one he had played Ehsan’s entire life. Sarim was good at it. Ehsan served this man in the futile hope that he might find a word of praise. He never did. But when his mind took him down a separate path, his father spurned him.
Never again! The words echoed through his body like a canyon. He raised his eyes from the floor and met his father’s once more. The gap separating them shrank a few feet. "No, Father, you chose the correct name. I am trustworthy and powerful. Believe this, I will kill you."
Sarim guffawed. "You, you think to kill me?" His words turned to a maniacal laugh.
His sanity is gone. He thinks himself invincible. That will be his downfall.
The young mage seized the moment. Words flowed across his vision unbidden. Ehsan chose two of the larger bones and lifted his hansa from beneath his robe.
"The Hand of Fatimah. You think to banish me with it?" shouted his father with a gut-wrenching laugh. "I am the will of Allah. I am no more evil than Muhammad himself. But go on, wretched dog, try if you must. I can’t wait to see this."
Ehsan widened his stance and ignored the insult. Lifting his hand to the sky, he threw the fragments into the air and chanted for the gods to hear. "Tu ‘rach ‘ah-man felides para ‘ah-tune! Fatimah bin Muhammad, I send Sarim to meet you. Let him find no peace." Gray clouds roiled above, stirring the air to life and blocking the sun from view. The glow of his raised hand was a beacon in the shrouded sky.
"Y-Y-You serve Shaitan," muttered Sarim. "You, demon spawn. Khadim Shaitan. Iblis has found you." The patronizing smile slipped from his face and for once, fear gleamed in his eyes.
"No, Father, I serve Fatimah bin Muhammad. She guides me in the light of Allah." Ehsan smiled as fear entered his father's eyes.
The mage twitched his finger, and a lightning bolt struck the floorboards at Sarim’s feet. Flames sprang up, catching the next board, and the next. Soon, fire coursed across the room. Sarim did not flinch. His rigid eyes held Ehsan, unmoving, and it was as though the fear had never existed.
"The next is coming for you, Sarim," Ehsan said with confidence.
"I’m sure." A hidden smile played at the corners of Sarim’s lips as he watched through a wall of flames.
The house cracked and groaned around them. Ehsan ignored the noises and flexed his finger again. A bolt streaked down from the heavens. Seeing the movement, Sarim tumbled through the fiery barrier. He came up flourishing a dagger in his hand. The blade slipped between Ehsan’s ribs like a knife through warm butter. His father tilted it upward and slid it in to the hilt. Ehsan’s breath caught as pain lanced his heart. His gaze fell from the skies and returned to Sarim, who stared from bare inches away. The mage’s eyes widened before he fell to his knees.
The older man ripped the dagger free, wiped it on his son’s shoulder, and sheathed it with a laugh. "Khadim Shaitan, in what life did you think you could kill me? I am the Lion, Servant of Allah. Iblis will make you his bride for failing him. Enjoy Hell."
Ehsan flattened his hand on the heated boards, struggling to steady himself. This can’t be . . . I can’t fail . . . I will kill Sarim!
He took a labored breath and searched for an answer. Fighting to hang on, his emotions delved through his hand and into the house itself. A soul answered him from afar. Abdul Muhsi, his brother and servant of the Reckoner, begged for release. Without a body and imprisoned by the walls, Abdul was even more of a captive than before.
"Help me, Brother," Ehsan cried silently. The boy’s body lay motionless in the yard, a shell without its lost soul. "There . . . there!" Ehsan shouted into the unseen world, signaling Abdul’s blind soul.
"I am here, Ehsan," whispered Abdul. "Make me whole."
Sarim turned and paced across the decrepit room, ignoring the flames lapping at his elbows. "It is a wretched pleasure
watching you suffer, Khadim Shaitan. Death will not come easily."
Ehsan plucked one of the remaining avian fragments from his belt while bowed on the floor. Lifting it to his lips, he exhaled a cherished breath on its surface and chanted, "Ser ‘ah-letim Sa-or ‘dil epies. Fatimah, return this soldier to me." Opening his hand, the bone vanished.
"I am ready, Brother," was Abdul’s silent reply.
His vision darkened, but Ehsan pushed it back. He was not yet ready for death. Just then, a cry thundered from outside.
"Allahu Akbar!" shouted his young brother. His ghoulish strength still remained, and he leapt to the second story without hesitation. The house groaned as he landed on fractured timbers. If it pained the young boy, he did not acknowledge it.
"You’re too late," muttered Sarim with a smile. "He’s as good as dead. I would have saved him for you if I’d known you were coming." The lie was convincing, and gave away his ignorance. The two brothers smiled while Sarim’s eyebrows furrowed in confusion.
Ehsan’s hand went to his belt. One left. Gotta make it count.
"Fine, I’ll end this now," muttered Sarim. He strode over to Ehsan and gripped him by the throat. He threw him onto his back with the strength of a bull, then lifted a clawed hand. Sarim tore into his son’s chest without hesitation. His fingers curled around Ehsan's fluttering heart and ripped it from his torso. "Finally, you troublesome youth, it is over."
"Yes, Father, it is," rasped Abdul from behind. He leapt onto the man and thrust the sharpened metal wing into Sarim’s back. A fury overtook him, and he brought the toy up and down with repeated vengeance.
Their father howled and stumbled away from Ehsan, into the firestorm that had engulfed the far side of the room. Abdul jumped off at the last second and watched the flames consume their father. Sarim reached over his shoulder, struggling to reach the toy lodged between his shoulder blades. The inferno grew, and he cried out for help, but only the inferno answered. Abdul’s eyes danced with glee as he stared at the afflicted man.
"Abdul," Ehsan whispered, "help me."
He gazed at his younger brother from the floor, fighting futilely to keep the darkness at bay. Blood poured from his chest like a sieve. He stowed the last bone fragment in his off hand. As Abdul approached, Ehsan ground it to dust in his fist.
"You’re dieing, Ehsan," the small boy announced without emotion.
"Yesss . . ."
"But you don’t wish to?"
Ehsan gave his head a subtle shake. He flexing a finger at his brother, and Abdul went to his knees. The six orbs circling his palm’s eye shone brightly, but the boy ignored them. Summoning the remainder of his strength, Ehsan plunged his hand into Abdul’s chest. His young brother didn’t flinch. Instead, he stared knowingly at Ehsan. Abdul's body jolted as his heart was plucked from its cradle, and then he crumpled to the ground.
Ehsan fell back to the floor with his brother’s heart pumping in his hand. Parts had begun to rot, but it was still intact. A shadow descended as he fumbled it into his chest. His breath came in shallow gasps, accompanied by a mouthful of blood. He coughed and sputtered as panic inundated his mind, but a serene sensation settled his emotions. Words fluttered before him, and he fought for focused calm. It was the first spell he had learned. The Hand of Fatimah, he called it, like the medallion he wore. This simple spell of healing was never intended for something as abominable as this. All of this, he knew within seconds, but it was his only chance.
He gripped his hamsa in an illuminated palm, closed his eyes, and prayed. Fatimah bin Muhammad, I do what I do in your name and for the glory of Allah. Please give me the strength to finish what I started.
Without opening his eyes, Ehsan sprinkled the powder over his chest and took one, final breath. "Sha ‘ra-lieom susses abdil al-towan." The words flew from his lips like ships to sea and resonated with the glow emanating from his amulet. A seventh orb appeared on his palm. The inner circle of the eye shone brighter than the rest. Illuminated within it was the ancient scrawl of his name, Ehsan.
Sinew and bone began to knit under the glow of Fatimah’s Hand. The hole closed and left only a scar to remember it by. Ehsan arched his back in pain, then breathed deeply as his body sealed. Although the heart remained rotten, it beat within his chest with vigor.
Out of thin air, a skeletal door appeared at his feet. He rose from the floor with labored steps and drained of energy. His body pleaded for sleep. Just a little farther.
He took a step toward the apparition when his gaze fell on Abdul Muhsi’s empty form. He paused. "Thank you, Abdul." Without another thought, he turned the chilled bone handle and strode through.
Ehsan stepped from his burning home into a sealed chamber chiseled from sandstone. Faint lights illuminated the room’s four corners. Five elderly men sat before him around a long table. They gazed at him through sunken eyes and wrinkled faces. They were all dressed in robes with their cowls thrown back. The slender man at the center of the table spoke as Ehsan entered.
"Assalaamu ‘Alayka, Ehsan Al-Amin."
"Wa `Aleykum As-Salaam," he replied.
"Ehsan, how do you feel this test went?"
"Test?" Something tingled in the back of his skull, but nothing explained the test the elderly man spoke of.
"Uh-oh, the old man forgot to fix him," goaded a voice from the far wall. The seated elders stiffened. Turning to see who would dare, they found themselves face to face with a large, brown moth. Ehsan’s earlier acquaintance was perched high on the wall. Hern ‘Aideen’s winged face was still grotesque, and somehow the ifrit stuck his tongue out at the assembled members of the order.
"Figures," mumbled the largest of the men. He turned back to the table with a wheeze.
The mage who greeted Ehsan grimaced, and his wrinkles spread into his crown of white hair. With a wave of his hand, a deluge of memories streamed into Ehsan’s mind: betrayed lovers, oaths, his years of apprenticeship, his mentor Latif Al-Jafari, and the reason for his prayers to Fatimah. Everything made since. Fatimah, the savior of humanity, was their last hope. Only she could forgive their necromatic sins.
"Forgive me. Better now?"
The apprentice nodded low. "Yes, Latif Al-Jafari. Thank you."
"Hello there, Ehsan," interrupted Hern. "Remember me?"
Ehsan nodded. "And if my memory serves, aren’t ifrit mischievous troublemakers?"
The occupants of the room nodded in unison.
"Then why did you help me in the test?"
"I did, didn’t I?" answered Hern with a smile. "Well, I’ve had to make a few changes, but not for long." He quirked an eyebrow at the mages seated below.
"Not by choice," added the obese mage. "I have him on a short tether, but evidently it’s not short enough."
"Well, you made the rules. I need my freedom," Hern retorted.
The man sprung from his seat faster than Ehsan believed possible. His rotund form tightened under the ifrit’s condescending gaze. "Not by violating our sacred laws!" he thundered. The mage’s hand blazed to life, his own symbols illuminating the room as he singled out the ifrit with a quivering finger. "Another word and-"
"Tobia, that’s enough," commanded Latif. His dark eyes bore into the two with the weight of the world. "What’s done is done." He motioned for silence, and Tobia carefully returned to his seat. Hern’s antennae quivered, but he said nothing more.
Turning to his apprentice, the head mage continued. "This test was intended to destroy the boy you were. To join the Order of Necromancy, you must be hard, more than a man. Cling to the past, and it will get you killed."
"I understand," Ehsan replied.
"And do you feel you have met the demands of the test, my pupil?"
The question was expected, as was the answer. However, his last ounce of childhood innocence screamed to be heard. It pleaded for a voice. But Abdul’s heart beat in his chest with the strength of youth, and that of a servant of the Reckoner.
"Yes, Latif Al-Jafari."
"Then you are ready for the final test?"
Ehsan knew there could be only one answer. "I am," he replied and squashed the last of his humanity like an insect under his boot.
"Good. While unprecedented, your creativity has certainly proven itself," added the mage at the far end of the table. "You’ve passed the test and come out, somewhat unscathed. However, I use that term loosely. Good luck, and Fatimah help you if you live another hour."
House Al-Amin - Published in TPP Publishing's Creature Feature Anthology, December, 2011
The second story I received the rights back too is a very twisted tale, but not supernatural. It is demented, as are many people in the world, fighting abnormal urges.
by Weston Kincade
Standing amidst the decrepit house, Sam’s foldout chair wobbled under his feet, teetering over the warped, termite-ridden floorboards. Sam stabilized himself on the balls of his feet, then looped the rope over a large crossbeam. Other than lingering spots of plaster, the roof’s supports were mostly visible. His royal blue rain jacket flexed against the elastic waist as he jerked the rope, testing its steadfastness. Without heat, electricity, or completely constructed walls, it was chilly inside. Thunder rolled in the distance, drowning the sound of groaning planks as he stepped off the chair. He couldn’t see through the boarded windows, but sheets of rain were suddenly pounding the roof, and the ceiling began draining in places. Sam moved the table and kerosene lantern out of one growing stream and turned the knob. The flame rose and cast shadows across skeletal walls.
Prison was hard and the sight reminded him of the barred rooms, but at least he was alone here. In prison, the guys were unbearable. How was he supposed to deal with them when they all knew his secret? ‘Hey Pretty Boy’ they snickered as he walked by. ‘Meet me in the showers. We’ll play patty-cake.’ The taunts continued, but he tried to ignore them. One incident was all it had taken for him to lose years of hard-earned respect. He couldn’t go back there. Not now.
Damn Simon for rattin’ me out. Why couldn’t he have just kept his trap shut? The relationship hadn’t lasted long, if it could even be called that. Sam had kept it to himself, hoping it would last. Besides, who could he tell… his wife? Yeah, that would’ve gone over well. Simon had stayed silent, too; at least, that’s what he told Sam. But things never work out. Word had gotten around about Sam and the young fish.
“Thump . . . thump . . . thump,” echoed a sound from out front. The warped door opened a crack, squealing as its hinges flexed. “Ka-thump . . . ka-thump,” the sound continued, now resounding off the loose wooden floorboards like the clop of horse hooves on cobblestone. A boy, no more than ten, stepped into the room with a basketball and backpack, his hair a matted mop of black waves. The boy bounced the ball on the uneven boards again unconsciously.
“Hey, mister. What you doin’?” His eyes rose when they found Sam, climbing him as though he were a mountain.
“Uhhh . . . what you doin’ here, boy? Go away.” Sam turned back to the rope and began looping the end around itself.
“Ka-thump . . . ka-thump,” echoed the sound twice more. Sam thought he could hear the floor joists crack under the bouncing ball’s pressure. He ground his teeth, slipped the rope’s end through a loop, and tightened the knot. He let the noose hang free and turned back to the boy. “Get out,” he growled.
“Why?” asked the boy, nonchalantly pounding the floorboards again.
“What do you want?” Sam demanded.
“It’s wet out there. Just started pouring down. Can I wait here with you?”
Sam’s eyes went to the corners of the small room, rain leaking from the collapsed ceiling, and the solitary foldout table and chair he’d brought with him a few days before. “I only got one chair,” he announced.
“That’s okay,” added the boy, as though interpreting Sam’s complaint as an offer. “You keep it. I’ll use this.” He dropped the ball and retrieved an empty paint bucket from the other side of the room. He plopped down on the upturned bucket with a smile, then scooted up to the table as though awaiting his dinner.
Sam sighed and mentally kicked himself. How was he supposed to stop this insanity with a child here? The boy’s grin sent a shudder down Sam’s spine. He clenched his fists and looked at some point on the far wall, determined to shut out the alluring thoughts that crept to mind. “You can’t stay long, just till the rain lets up.”
“Okay,” the boy chimed. “Got anything to do?”
Sam dropped a deck of cards at the boy’s hands. “There. Now, leave me alone.”
“You don’t want to play with me?” asked the youth, crestfallen.
“Sam’s fists tightened once more, and he muttered through clenched teeth, “No, I don’t.”
“Oh, come on . . . please. I can’t play alone.”
“Haven’t you ever heard of Solitaire?”
“Yeah, that game sucks.”
Sam harrumphed and pulled over his folding chair, then plopped down in front of the youth. His young eyes twinkled behind cherubic cheeks. “Fine. Give ‘em to me, boy.” Sam yanked the cards out of the child’s grasp.
“My name’s Kaleb. You can stop calling me boy.”
“Uh-huh,” replied Sam as he shuffled the cards, focusing his attention on the sound of plastic-coated edges slipping against one another.
“So, what's 'S' stand for?" Kaleb asked, pointing at the left side of his jacket. ‘S. Clayton’ was printed in blocky letters below a cluttered emblem. "And why are you staying in a place like this?”
“Sam, and it’s the best place I could find conciderin’. . .” His voice died, and he began dealing the cards.
“Considering what?” Kaleb inquired.
“Nothin’. Don’t worry about it.” Sam flipped over a card and laid it at the center of the table. “Ever played War?”
“Yeah, I like that game.” Kaleb flipped a card off the top of his pile and took the trick with small, excited hands.
A smile crested Sam’s lips as he watched Kaleb’s reaction. When he realized what he was thinking, he looked at one of the boarded windows, purposefully avoiding the boy. A frown cemented itself on his face. Can’t give into this. It’s wrong. God, I’m horrible.
Kaleb smiled again, catching Sam’s attention. The boy flipped the next card and his grin widened. “A Jack. Beat that, I dare ya’.”
“I’m not sure I can,” Sam muttered and flipped another card. He didn’t even look down, just let Kaleb move the cards to the appropriate side of the table. As the game continued, Sam grudgingly murmured, “You’re doing well,” against his better judgment.
“I always do.”
“Uh-huh,” Kaleb admitted with a nod. His hair was beginning to frizz as it dried.
“Do you like cards?”
“Oh yeah.” Kaleb took down another hand.
The next hand, Sam won. He reached for it and set his fingers on Kaleb’s. The feel of the young boy’s soft skin was unnerving, tempting. Sam flinched from the touch.
Kaleb stared at his new acquaintance in confusion. “What’s up with you? And what’s up with the rope? Isn’t that . . .?”
“No, it isn’t,” interrupted Sam. “It’s a solution. But you have to go before you get us in trouble.” Sam rose and ushered the boy out with his ball. Even the touch of the youth’s shirt and back was almost too tantalizing to resist as Sam rushed him out the door. “See, it’s barely raining now.”
“Okay, my mom’s probably wondering what’s taking so long anyway. She might have called the school.”
“Even more reason,” Same muttered and swept the door closed. It groaned and wouldn’t shut completely, but Sam let out a relieved sigh and leaned against it. He was breathing heavily, as though he’d just run a marathon. As hard as it was to resist the temptation, the absence of Kaleb immediately began eating at him. Should he call him back, pull him back inside? It was a longing that made him question which was worse, the action itself, or the feeling after avoiding such things. If they knew, the boys in the joint would never let him live this down. Just something to add to the fire, a bit more kindling before they skewer me and throw me on top.
“That’s exactly why this can’t continue,” he whispered. After a few minutes, he rose to his feet trembling, unsure when he had slid to the floor.
Sam returned to his room and weighed the noose with his eyes. I got nowhere else. Clare don’t want me. The boys'll just jack me. And I can’t blame them either. Stepping onto the chair, Sam fit the rope around his neck but fumbled with the short, Gore-Tex collar of his jacket. The two materials chafed on one another. It wouldn't matter, but irritation won out. He slipped out of the noose and set the jacket on a carton with a few of his other things. Taking a deep breath, he climbed the stool once more and slid the noose over his head. The skin around the rope tingled anxiously. God, give me strength.
Kicking the chair back, Sam jolted against the strain of his own weight. His neck snapped to the side with a feint ‘pop’. Another torrent of rain fell along with him, and the rivulets streaming through the house grew as though a dozen ghosts had chosen this minute to piss in Sam’s skeletal resting place.
A moment later, the door squealed as small footsteps passed back into the room. “Hey, mister. Hey, mist . . .,” called Kaleb as he rubbed his cold arms, but his youthful tone died like the startled chirp of a cricket. The rope creaked while Sam’s body swiveled in place, the sound echoing over loose floorboards like wind through desert dunes. Kaleb peered up at the man, watching with morbid curiosity. Sam’s rotating body sent shadows across the dark room as though the kerosene flames were hosting a puppet show. In the flickering light, Kaleb glimpsed something printed on the back of Sam’s t-shirt. ‘Stanton Security’ it advertised in the same blocky print as the jacket, as though the letters themselves had lost their flare for life.
A chill sped down Kaleb’s spine, and he rubbed his crossed arms for warmth. Rain water dripped off his soaked jeans and shirt and onto the warped boards. Kaleb’s gaze drifted from Sam’s rotating body and scanned the room. Every few seconds his wary gaze returned to the hovering man as though making sure he was still dead. Finally, the boy's gaze landed on something, Sam's blue rain jacket. Kaleb grabbed it, stretching the front side to clearly discern the emblem stamped over the left breast. Something long, black, and heavy rolled from underneath and clattered to the floor with a double thud. Kaleb leaned down and picked up the foot-long flashlight. His eyes widened as he hefted the weighty object. He flicked it on and illuminated the emblem on the jacket. It was of an axe and pick crisscrossed in front of barbed wire gates.
Kaleb shivered again, glanced back at Sam apologetically, and slipped his arms into the jacket. Light in hand, he retrieved his basketball and trudged back into the storm without another look. Rain quickly spattered a larger logo on Kaleb's back, 'Stanton Correctional Facility'. The basketball thumped wetly as the boy dribbled on the pavement outside. The door creaked closed, sealing the ghostly tomb.
Prison Torment - Published in TPP Publishing's Murder Anthology, April, 2012
Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed these stories, you might like my co-written short story anthology, Strange Circumstances. Or feel free to try one of my novels. All are available on Amazon.com and other online retailers.
All content on www.kincadefiction.blogspot.com is copyrighted by Weston Kincade. To post content elsewhere, please give credit to Weston Kincade. For publishing rights, contact Weston Kincade.