I took the stars from your eyes and then,
I made a map
And I knew that somehow, I would find my way back
Then I heard your heart beating and it was in the darkness too
So I stayed in the darkness with you
CHAPTER 1 – BONDS
It was dark. It was always dark these days for Azir. A consequence of being in a location where the suns rays just could not reach. And no one cared enough to provide illumination by other means. But while vision was being denied, other senses were left perfectly intact.
There was hearing for example: In the dungeon, there was no way for the prisoners to record the motion of the sun as it traversed the sky. Hence the concept of time had changed for them. Time was now a thing measured by the intensity of the screams. Louder and louder and louder, until the door of one’s cell came creaking open.
Odour too was left in perfect condition. The progress of a dead body’s decay, could always be tracked by the worsening of the stench. For many, the rotting of a body was not something they would wish to dwell on, but for Azir, given his previous profession, it was something he was always occupied with. It was how he killed time, when he was not being tortured:
An accumulation of acid in the body, self digestion, the muscles harden.
The body is bloating. Almost twice its size now. The insects are feasting. Insects…and other things.
The internal organs, are collapsing. Collapsing, failing, losing integrity.
In time, just a skeleton will remain. A mere shade of a once glorious creature. A reminder to the living, that all is futile.
Odour had uses beyond tracking the decay of dead bodies though. There was another scent which Azir knew intimately. More intimately that the scents of dead bodies. It was the stench of the dwarf. The jailor, whose name Azir did not know, yet was the only human Azir ever interacted with. Their “relationship”, was very complicated.
Another sense left intact was touch—no, was pain. And since Azir only experienced pain when the imp was present, he had come to perceive the imp as a mediator to the sensation.
The relationship between dominant and submissive is very rarely simple. To the uninitiated, it would seem trivial that the relationship could be anything other than hate-hate. But down here in the dungeon, the rules were different. On most days, the dwarf came in carrying a plethora of torture devices. Tools not too dissimilar from the ones Azir had used in his past life. However where Azir had used his tools to heal, to treat and to cure, the imp used his tools to torture, to desecrate and to kill. On those days, Azir experienced pain he did not know was possible to bear.
On other days however, the dwarf came in with nothing. He would just lie by Azir all day, stroking his hair, and sobbing. For hours and hours and hours. Initially, Azir was highly suspicious of this behavior. He wondered if this was part of the torture: Sporadically replacing displays of disdain with displays of affection so that there was a psychological edge. What would it be today? The serrated knife or the caressing hand?
Perhaps these random bouts of affection were genuine. If so, did the Jailor behave this way with other prisoners? Was this behavior nothing more than a personality disorder or was Azir unique to him in some way?
Azir himself could not recall if he had met the imp in his previous life. He had treated many people then, and the jailor or a family member of his could easily have been one of them. There was no way of knowing for sure. The dwarf was mute and anytime he opened his toothless mouth, rivulets of saliva run down the corners and often fell on Azir’s face. Holding any kind of conversation was definitely out of the question.
This was Azir’s life now. Once he had been one of the most powerful men in the city. But now he was just an object. The recipient of either excruciating pain or misplaced displays of affection. There was no middle ground.
Most prisoners had given up hope of ever breathing in fresh air, of ever tasting delicious food, of ever feeling the heat of the sun on their face, but Azir still had not reached that breaking point. Whenever the dwarf seared his flesh, Azir’s desire to flee the dungeon was reinforced. Whenever the dwarf gave him a kiss his belief that there was a way, was consolidated.
CHAPTER 2 – FREEDOM
It was getting warmer and warmer. The sun would be rising soon. Being right in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but stretches of sand around him and the blazing unforgiving sun above him was not a position Azir fancied to be in. He had to move soon, but his strength was fading.
His only garment was a heavily worn rag. He had no footwear to protect the soles of his feet. Months of malnutrition had left his physique in less than perfect condition and carrying his body was a real work out. He was in desperate need of a walking stick, but instead, all he had was a lamp. A lamp stolen during his escape in order to illuminate the way and failing to fulfill that purpose as he could not light it. Though it weighed him down, Azir could not bring himself to throw the lamp away. There was just something about it.
He lay in a supine position. Larger particles of sand dug into his back as he stared at the night sky. Sights he had seen before: Twinkling stars in elaborate configurations, streaks as white as milk. Its beauty was not a thing he could appreciate anymore. Now the sky was merely a point on which he fixated his eyes.
He was deep in thought now…..Had his escape really been worth it? Was it better to die alone in the desert, than alone in the dungeon? Was the cost of his freedom worth the reality?
Eventually he began to think of his previous life. Before he became Azir the slave. When he was Azir the court physician.
Back then, he had been one of the personal advisors of the Sultan. He was rich and powerful and very few people dared to defy him.
Azir had always been cut from a different cloth than his colleagues. While they feasted and drank with the Sultan, he was always away in his sanctum learning and investigating. Of course there were nighttime escapades of the flesh, but not of the carnal kind. Azir was always cutting, dissecting, investigating.
One day, the Sultans daughter and her handmaiden had been involved in a horse riding accident. Though both bodies had been brought to him in critical condition, Azir was only expected to save one. Of course, no one expected him to ask himself “which one?”
Both girls were injured, but quite differently. The Sultan’s daughter, Pharah, had a severe injury in the head. Surely if he saved her, she would be impaired for life. A hollow, lacking the ability to talk, to think and to create. Would he allow her to exist as an empty vessel, abandoned and ignored as she wasted away? Or would he give her a graceful death?
The other girl was quite treatable; though she was losing blood at an accelerated rate. He had to take action immediately.
Azir believed that it was the duty of a physician to determine not just how a person should be saved but also if a person should be saved. However, Azir’s desire to only give people lives they would want to live, lives that were worth living, was misconstrued as playing god.
The Sultan, overcome with grief, did not understand Azir’s reasoning. He did not want to understand. His pearl, his little princess, was at the door of death and in his eyes, the only man who could save her had chosen not to. His sorrow was the catalyst for Azir’s destruction.
Thus, the royal guard marched into Azir’s sanctorum and put him in chains. They dragged him through the streets as they set his library, containing scrolls upon scrolls of valuable research, on fire. Years of hard work disappearing in seconds. The Sultan’s fury did not end there. Azir’s wife and children were captured, stripped naked and tied up at the town square; denied of food and water and left to bake in the scorching heat. In time, Azir learned that they had been stoned to death by a mob.
Azir the physician died that day with them and Azir the slave was born. A being born with an intense hatred for the Sultan and his people. He gave them life, he gave them solace, and this was how they decided to repay him. Azir the physician had nothing to live for, but Azir the slave went through every day in that hellhole of a dungeon in the hopes that someday he might escape and the Sultan would feel his wrath.
Let me live, so the Sultan will feel my pain. Let me live, so his people will perish by my hand.
It became some sort of a mantra for him, pushing him through hours of torture, day after day after hateful day.
Hot coals would be pressed against his flesh. Let me live. Splinters would be pushed beneath his fingernails. So the Sultan and his ilk may know my wrath. They were words uttered not just with his mouth, but with his heart. Formed not just with thoughts, but with his soul.
They were words spoken to no one in particular, but what Azir did not know at the time was that some dark god was listening.
Lying in the desert, Azir could not make sense of the trajectory of his life, try as he may. He had gone from street rat, to errand boy, to student, to apprentice, to physician, to court physician, to advisor-in-chief, to slave, to nobody. Was the Sultan really going to get away with his crimes? Would the murders of his wife and little girls go unpunished? Would the people continue to go about their lives unbothered? It was too much to think about.
Hush. No more thoughts. Now I rest.
The sun was rising. Azir did not care.
Chapter 3 – FORTUNE
On the third day of their travels, they found the body. They were returning to the city after their most recent mission in the crypts had been unsuccessful when they saw it. Where most people would see just a body, they saw an opportunity. The dead pharaohs had not been munificent. Was the desert, desolate as it was, being generous instead?
The one called Ahmed was the first to dismount the camel. He tightened his scarf around his head in order to protect his ears from the roaring winds and knelt down by the body partially submerged in the sand. He discovered then that it was not a corpse as he thought. It also didn’t seem to be carrying anything of value. It was fast swinging from being an opportunity to being a liability.
Ahmed was contemplating what to do when his companion, Set, asked, “Anything useful?”
Ahmed hesitated and said, “It’s still alive.”
They had both dismounted now. Kneeling in the sand and examining the body. It was wretched and emaciated and the eyes were milky white. Unseeing eyes. Destroyed by staring into the sun for too long. No one would blame them for assuming it was a corpse. It was all but dead.
“We should leave him,” Set said.
“No. Just because we are grave robbers doesn’t mean we live without honor,” Ahmed replied.
“So what do you want to do? Carry him across the desert and back into the city? You don’t even know this man!”
“To leave him now would be very cruel.”
“But we have very little food Ahmed. Our water is running out.”
“Let me worry about that.”
Set wanted to protest further, but given his position as the younger of the two men, he was unlikely to prevail. Hence he kept his mouth shut.
Thus, they placed him on a mat, strapped it to the camel and dragged him across the desert.
On the fifth day of their travels, it became apparent to Ahmed that being honorable was doing nothing other than hurting him. The stranger they found in the desert was dead weight. Set refused to share any of his rations with him, hence it was up to Ahmed to keep the stranger fed. He deprived himself, so he could sustain the stranger. And for what?
Set was growing increasing vocal about his annoyance. His body language had changed significantly and his words were hostile. Ever since they came across the stranger, He seemed to perpetually be in a state of irritation.
They had stopped so the camel could rest. Set was sitting in the sand, leaning against the kneeling camel. Ahmed was pacing, thinking about his predicament. It was late afternoon, their shadows were growing longer and longer.
The stranger made a sound but Ahmed could not discern what he said. He knelt down and listened more closely.
Ahmed immediately moved for the water pouch. As he reached out to remove it from the saddle, he felt something holding him back.
Set gripped his upper arm and whispered “don’t”.
Ahmed turned to face the boy. His features were firmly set into an expression of determination. Ten years his junior, yet he had the audacity. Ahmed wrested his arm free of Set’s grip and retrieved the water pouch from the saddle. He started towards the stranger but something else blocked his path. This time it was long, curved and shone brilliantly in the sunlight. It was Set’s sword.
“What is the meaning of this, boy?” Ahmed said.
“I’m sick of your nonsense Ahmed,” Set said. “You lead me hundreds of leagues to a tomb in the middle of nowhere with nothing to show for it. Then, you bring this corpse along with us just so it can use up our rations. Why do you care so much? So you can prove to yourself that you are more than just a thief? So you can atone for sins performed ages ago? I will not allow you to kill us slowly. Not anymore.”
Ahmed could tell that from the tone of his voice and the look on his face, that the boy was very serious.
“Move away boy”, Ahmed said. “I will not ask again.”
“Go to hell!”
Set charged at Ahmed, with his sword high above his head, screaming. A sound which was manifested by a desire to kill. A sound so feral that it jolted the camel into wakefulness.
Ahmed stepped to the side, avoiding Set’s blow, and while the momentum of his strike still drove the boy forward, he unsheathed his cutlass with quick movements and drew a crescent in the air, cutting through Sets torso.
The boy fell to the ground, lifeless. The camel let out a scream equally as terrifying as the one made a few moments before. As the boy’s blood soaked the sand, the camel could not be pacified.
Ahmed casually stepped over the boy’s body and delivered the water pouch to the stranger. The stranger sucked at it peacefully, seemingly oblivious to the horrifying incident that had occurred moments before. Pity that it had come to this. I actually liked him a bit, Ahmed thought.
It was dusk and they had to be moving soon. Ahmed did not bother burying the boy. He merely stripped him of his garments and footwear and left him in a pool of his own bile and guts. As he moved to dress the stranger, he noticed, for the first time, the lamp.
Initially, it was visible only as a bulge in the stranger’s cloak. Ahmed investigated closely, and saw it for the first time, in its full glory.
It was gold and silver, adorned with rubies glowing pale red in the waning sunlight. Ahmed was beyond euphoric. The expedition had not been a total failure after all. An antique like this was sure to fetch over a thousand rupees in the black markets back in the city. Who would have thought, that a corpse halfway into the underworld would bring him such good fortune. It probably should have occurred to him then that gifts delivered from the jaws of death were never as they seemed to be.
The lamp felt heavy in Ahmed’s hands. A little too heavy, despite being made of gold and silver. Almost suspiciously heavy. His greed was taking his imagination places now. What could possibly be inside? Some golden coins? A couple of diamonds?
In his impatience, in his excitement, he pried open the lid, and all hell broke loose.
Black smoke shot out of the lamp with such fury that it knocked Ahmed on his back. Growing and growing in size until it filled up his entire vision. The camel was hysterical and surely would have fled but for the bonds fastening it in place. The black smoke was shaping itself into a distinct form now.
A head, eyes, a mouth, a torso, arms, arms adorned with golden bracelets. No, not bracelets. Shackles.
In a voice as loud as thunder, the genie said, “I have one wish to grant. One wish, and I will be free of these bonds. Speak, if you dare.”
Ahmed still lay on the ground, spectacularly in shock and absolutely overwhelmed. His mind was having a very hard time processing everything. While every other aspect of his being was struggling to perceive his current reality, the opportunist in his brain was very alert.
“One wish? I thought genies granted three”, he said. Much to his surprise, his voice was not hoarse, even though his throat felt as dry as the dessert. A dryness so severe, it hurt.
The genie, it seemed to Ahmed, sighed. When he did so, his features became less defined, losing all form and sharpness temporarily. “Two wishes, have already been granted”
“Very well then”, Ahmed said. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. “I wish to come in possession of a treasure larger than the great pyramids.”
“Mmmm….On your next expedition out of the city, your wish will be granted.”
And with that the shackles on the genie’s wrists began to glow. They glowed to a red brightness and exploded, freeing the demon.
“And now, I am free”, it said, as it dissipated into the night.
As he rode back into the city with the stranger, Ahmed kept thinking about his good fortune. It seemed too good to be true, but alas, who was he to question the gods?
He rode quickly, seeking to rid himself of the stranger and prepare himself for his next expedition. Against all odds, the stranger had miraculously survived, growing in strength as he received appropriate nourishment and care. His vision, however, did not return. He would probably live the rest of his life in the streets of the city as a nameless beggar, forever in an eternal midnight.
This was good for Ahmed. He did not want to be found, he did not want to be asked for a share.
As day broke, the great walls of the city came into view. This was the first time that the sight of those walls did not fill Ahmed with depression. For once, they signified hope. For once, they signified opportunity.
CHAPTER 4 – BIRTH
Sheik Habib Al Mouktom woke up with a smile on his face. In the Sycamore trees just outside his window, birds tweeted a most melodious tune. Today would be a good day indeed.
For months, preparations had been ongoing, all leading up to this day. Today was the day of his daughter’s wedding. A marriage to none other than the crown prince himself.
The day itself had been carefully selected. Every astronomer and soothsayer in the city had been consulted and all had approved. The cola nuts, the tea leaves and the stars all agreed, this was a day of fortune. This was the day of affluence.
Sheik Habib was fully awake now and was walking around his quarters ensuring that all was in place for the ceremony. He had so many servants that he didn’t even bother to ask their names. They scurried about the premises carrying cutlery, garments and of course, wine. Lots and lots of wine. Wine obtained from vineyards in the most verdant oases.
Sometimes, to the Sheik, it all seemed so surreal. Ten years ago, he never would have believed that he would be standing where he was now. Back then, he went by a different name. They called him Ahmed Al Mouktom and he made his living by doing the most dishonorable work; robbing the graves of the fallen kings.
One day however, his life took a turn for the better. By supernatural means, the site of his greatest bounty ever was revealed to him. He laundered that money by posing as a trader of fine garments and in time he rose to become the wealthiest merchant in the entire city. And it was all thanks to a body in the sand.
He chuckled at his own good fortune.
The guests started to come in one by one. These were no ordinary men and women. They were people with enough influence to make the sun go round. One by one they came and the Sheik greeted each and every one of them by his doorstep. The dining and wining would begin soon.
By noon, the Sheik’s mood had changed significantly. He had been filled with so much happiness in the morning, but now, all he could feel was dysphoria. Even the sound of his daughter’s laughter could not lift his spirits.
He left the guests and the party and stood on the balcony of his bedroom as dark thoughts consumed him. As if to mirror the state of his mind, the sky became engulfed by dark clouds. The streets cleared up as darkness fell over the city. Odd. No rain had been forecast for this day.
He looked beyond the city walls and towards to horizon. In the distance, a dark cloud seemed to be approaching the city at great speed. Like a storm. Like the hand of darkness. The Sheik felt nauseous.
What he did not know was that for the past ten years, a curse had been in gestation and now it was finally mature. A curse forged in darkness and paid by pain, suffering, sorrow and death. A curse intended not just for one man, but for an entire city. A curse forged between a man and a demon.
The first wish had been one pleading for survival. Let me live.
The second wish had been one seeking retribution. So the Sultan and his people may feel my pain.
Both had been granted, and the scientist known as Azir had been delivered from the mouth of the abyss and into the desert. There he came upon the thief known as Ahmed, who made the final wish with a blood sacrifice. A trivial request for blood money. That too had been granted with ease, but had forever implicated him in the cycle of vengeance.
As Ahmed grew in wealth, so did his power. As Ahmed inherited the city, he also inherited the sins of its people.
Now the hour of accountability was nigh and the forces of darkness where upon the city. Forces persuaded by an old blind wizard. A wizard who had once been a kind man. A wizard whose touch was formerly of prosperity and not of blight.
The forces of darkness where upon the city. As part of the cycle of vengeance, a cycle powered by hatred, there would be culling, and there would be reaving.