Shahrazád's Ghosts

Chapter 1: Ayan al-Zain

2604 AD

Ayan al-Zain shielded his eyes against the sudden burst of wind which whipped fine grains of sand into a swirl around him, tossing a barrage of miniscule pebbles into his eyes and mouth. He pulled his scarf tighter over his mouth, adjusted his kufiya on his head, and waited for the wind to still. The sands of the Saharan dunes reorganized around him as he walked, sometimes forming little misty twisters or dancing into linear patterns along the ever-shifting face of the temporary hills of sand. His boots slipped and sank as he walked and he could not go as quickly as he wished. Dawn would break soon and he would need to return to the shelter of his tents before the unrelenting sun broke overhead.

Ayan had spent his entire life navigating the wells and oases and wild places of the Borkou region of northern Chad. He knew how to not only survive but to thrive here and these lands had been the home of his people for a thousand generations. He knew how to navigate the nomadic piles of sand as surely as he knew how to follow the stars to the next spring to water his camels. He did not fear the sun or the rains or the winds or the creatures which shared the lonely desert night with him and his son.

His camels snorted and lay down to rest, tended by his second son who stood sentry over them as his father searched the sands. Overhead, the thin crescent of the hilal moon also stood guard and cast a soft pattering of light onto his trail of footprints. The steady beep, beep, beep of Ayan's metal detector continued uninterrupted as he reached the summit of his final dune. Below him, shadowed, jagged forms protruded from the desert sands like the blades of broken knives and this signaled his arrival at his destination. This view never ceased to take his breath away, no matter how many times he saw it. In all the stories his elders used to tell of the dangers of ghouls and jinn and demons, it was always in places like this where they were to be found.

Tall, broken shards of concrete and twisted metal stretched upwards into the barren sky - the final remnants of once towering skyscrapers that now fought just to catch their breath in the sea of encroaching dunes around them. The dry skeletons of trees could just be seen between them, evidence of the lush orchards that once lined this city. Collapsed street signs and statues occasionally emerged after a particularly strong sand storm. He had even found an old, rusted playground once. He had brought most of the slide and swing chains home with him immediately for fear it would be buried again before he returned next. He had received a good price for that find and regretted he was unable to uproot the poles and support structures as well. There was nothing to be done for the valuable materials were hidden again under the shifting sands when he next returned to scavenge.

They said that in days long past and mostly forgotten, long before the Saudi empire stretched from the Indian to the Atlantic, that this place in Chad once was home to a legendary city. Some had called this place Hedika al-Madina, or Garden City, and it had supported nearly a million inhabitants for over a century. But the Toubou remembered an even older name, one that had emerged long before any trees were planted or grand buildings competed with the empty brilliance of the desert. They called it Barzakh, the Place Between Life and Death. They named it after the strange discovery of mass graves hidden beneath the desert sands that was so sensational, it prompted an international investigation in the previously isolated corner of the Sahara.

The team of archaeologists, at the time, had concluded it had been "the work of mad scientists who performed unethical and unregulated experimentation with human genetic cloning," but the Toubou workers who dug through the thousands of bodies had a different explanation. They called it the "Harem of the Desert Jinni," and told dark tales about that ill-omened place. The women in their tents whispered about the daughters of a jinni, wives of ghouls, or the slaves of a demon that were held captive and drained of life there. The men on their long camel journeys, far from their tents, told of how once, in days past, it was a legendary Touboun warrior who wed one such desert jinni, the beautiful and dangerous Si'lah, and bore him a son, renowned for his strength and beauty. Whatever the truth behind the tales, all the elders agreed on their final lesson: all Toubou should avoid the region of Barzakh, even if it meant they must drive their camels far afield in search of water, just in case the Desert Jinn still lingered and thirsted for souls.

It didn't matter, in the end, what anybody called it or what stories were true or false about Barzakh. Deep Pockets wished to call it their own and their chosen names were the only ones which mattered on maps and atlases. So, Garden City, Chad, it became. Men from far lands created fantastic machines which had the power to form clouds and call rain. Overnight, the deserts of the world became watery farm-lands and cities sprung up faster than orchards across the Sahara.

While agriculture and urban oases multiplied across the land that none save the Toubou, and nomads like them, had previously wished to occupy, the Sahara refused to be conquered. It swallowed up the well-watered lands of the far south without stopping to chew. What had once been hailed as "the end of deserts" and "the way of the future," in reality only rearranged deserts instead. The cutting-edge technology called the rain away from previously fertile lands to form new deserts where they had not been before and caused more unexpected consequences than it grew sky-scrapers. The collapse of ecosystems reliant on the seasonal rains brought by the previously reliable Intertropical Convergence Zone caused a cascade of unforeseen disasters far from the fledging Saharan metropolises and voices of protest only grew louder as the rains dwindled.

Of course, the peoples of the far south did not react kindly to the "theft" of their rain and the conflict over the rights of man to summon the clouds were contested - both in distant courts and nearby battlefields. In the end, the cloud germinating technology was deemed unethical and the practice was banned. It just so happened that this occurred at the same time that solar energy outstripped fossil fuels in both availability and usefulness and the harvest of the sunlight became more profitable than the old hydroponic desert farms had ever been. The Deep Pockets quickly abandoned their investments in the Saharan agricultural projects and turned their sights (and their resources) into the sky instead of the soil. The sands of the Sahara were, once again, the arena of global attention as nations around the world fought over its unhindered feast of solar rays.

Solar panels now stretched from one end of the Sahara to the other, keeping the cities of the world alight for another generation and lining the pockets of the old fossil fuel coffers with another form of gold. But solar panels were not cities and without plentiful water, the desert sands were returned to the stewardship of the nomadic-pastoralists and their flocks and herds of livestock. The old oases became ghost towns and the haunt of jackals and the Toubou of Borkou continued, much as they had always done, with the desert as their own private kingdom. Or almost their own kingdom. Ayan's herds of camels and sheep were not quite great enough to pay the heavy taxes that their new Saudi overlords demanded and so he, and many like him, scavenged what he could from the abandoned cities to pay his yearly requirements. Ayan had never seen the city occupied, nor had his father or his father's father, but he heard it had once been a sight to behold. He did not begrudge its tattered existence since its detritus provided a steady harvest of saleable materials for his family.

Ayan al-Zain and his son and two camels were now the only living beings to disturb this particular forgotten city…save for a scorpion or two and a particularly grumpy viper. In the sandy grave of the now-silent, nearly buried city, he silently searched for any useful materials he could find. The old trees could be sold for charcoal and bits of plastic recycled into cloth or containers. Scrap metals brought the highest price at the markets in Koro-Toro and Faya-Largeau. Bits of copper wiring, iron lamp posts, steel cables, or aluminum cans would fetch a good price, Ayan gathered enough. Occasionally, he came across an abandoned vehicle. It would take two days to dig out the old machines and require borrowing his uncle's truck to haul it to market, but the materials in one old car would be enough to cover his taxes for the year and maybe those of his brother as well.

Ayan continued running his metal detector between the exposed support beams and dug through the sand to gather any small treasures he could find beneath. This trip, so far, provided an old lamp, a street sign, and a broken shovel. He placed each in the large bag he carried on his back and kept searching.

It had been some weeks since he last foraged here. He had traveled north to the villages at the foot of the Tibesti mountains for his cousin's wedding and then the brief rains came, shrouding the desert in a temporary burst of foliage and his herds flourished and grew fat in the opulence. But the recent sand storms of the last week had been fierce. Sometimes it was the winds and rains which proved the most useful allies in his foraging, more helpful, even, than his metal detector, ground-penetrating radar, or the occasional drone he flew over the wreckage to search the land with the eyes of a bird.

Ayan was not disappointed. The storm had rearranged the dunes so dramatically that Ayan could barely recognize the landscape south of where he first began searching, despite his hundreds of visits through the wreckage. Now, as two huge dunes had been blown farther east, a space had been cleared until the surface of the original city street was visible. Piles of broken glass and discarded office furniture were everywhere and the cracked asphalt of the old road still had evidence of arrows painted on its surface.

He took a moment to call his son's phone and instruct him to call for use of his uncle's truck. There would be more quarry than two camels could handle this night. He covered his hands in cloth so he would not cut them on the sharp, rusted pieces of metal he gathered, or on the edges of the broken glass they were scattered between. He began piling useful materials together as quickly as he could, but time was short. Already, the morning star was high in the sky and the edges of the nearby rock formations were growing a misty grey.

He worked his way from one side of the exposed street to the next, his grin growing as the pile of materials grew. His work suddenly stopped when he saw a new ruin. What had once been a storied parking structure had collapsed in the latest storm. This had upended the earth below it and around it in a chaotic jumble of metal and concrete. He approached closer, hoping to find another abandoned vehicle in the wreckage, but his attention was drawn to the hole which had once held the footings of the foundation. This had been plucked from the earth by the weight of the collapse as easily as a blade of grass is uprooted by a hungry camel. In the great chasm of concrete, rock, and soil left behind, Ayan could see evidence of a much older human structure. It was an old metal grating covering a hole in the ground twice as deep as Ayan was tall. He doubted the builders of the structure had ever dug deep enough to come across it and he wondered just how hold this exposed edifice could be.

The metal grating slid away easy enough and he decided to investigate. He tethered himself with a rope to a nearby steel beam and climbed down into the opening. Down, down, down it went and he worried at first that his rope would end before his feet found landing. He gave a sigh of relief as he felt his feet land and below him he discovered an identical second grate. He removed this and continued straight down into an even darker, danker cavernous space. When his boots fell with a soft thud in a layer of sand, he tugged on the rope once to ensure it was still firmly tethered and checked his cell phone for reception. Once sure he could still call for assistance, if required, he withdrew his flashlight from his backpack.

Like most of the abandoned structures he had explored, it was the scent of musty, unliving air that hit him first. He covered his mouth tighter with his scarf and cast the beam of his flashlight into the hollow cavern he found himself in. While inarguably a man-made structure, this was different from any of the others he had yet explored in the ruins of the old city. This was not the straight steel beams or unmarred concrete walls or yards of polished marble typical of the handiwork of architects and engineers. This was a cavern hewn into the bowels of the earth itself using simple tools. He could still see the marks of a chisel in the uneven vault of a ceiling overhead and in the rough walls shrugging tight around him.

His entrance into this cavern from the lost city was, doubtlessly, what remained of an old ventilation shaft bringing fresh air into this underground catacomb. He now stood in a plain hallway which led him to a door. This had once been an expensive door, a thick metal monstrosity with evidence of a security system to keep it from opening, but that technology had since worn out and all it took was a slight push with his shoulder to send the door creaking and groaning open.

The hallway continued before him, branching into an unfathomable number of halls and side doors. He continued straight, ignoring for now the various branches in favor of discovering the final destination of this hall. It led him to a set of ancient wooden doors, the hinges of which were so rusted that his crowbar's efforts toppled them onto the hall floor. They crashed with such a reverberating bang that the sound echoed through the many halls and passages for what felt like an eternity. It was that sound that informed him just how vast this construction was. This was not an underground building. This was an underground city and there was no telling how many kilometers it covered or what he would find within its forgotten caverns and tunnels.

Once the dust cleared and the air ceased vibrating with the sound of the fallen doors, he cast his beam of light through the doorway and he gasped in awe. It was a chamber as large as the largest mosque in Tripoli and his flashlight could barely illuminate the ceiling overhead. Beneath accumulated layers of sand, he could see rich carpets muted the floors he walked on. Tapestries covered nearly each of the five walls of the room, or once had, for two of the tapestries had collapsed due to age and now hung in crumbled, tattered heaps on the floor.

On a high dais in the farthest corner of the room stood what he first thought to be a chair…at least until he approached closer and found it plated entirely with gold. Emerald stars were inlaid between opal and pearl moons and carefully engraved plates of silver patterns lined the arm rests. Tables on either side of the dais were buried haphazardly in jewels, coins, and precious treasures which glittered in the light of his flashlight. Only a handful of their bounty would pay his taxes for a lifetime and he would never have to glean through these forgotten ruins again.

Ayan was not the first explorer to comb through the ruined city in hopes of such a discovery. In the century since it was last inhabited, many had come through, though most had come away with little for their efforts other than outdated technology and antique canned foods. Since the life and population of the city evaporated as slowly as a stream after the rains, the city itself had dwindled slowly. The elite of the city left first for figurative and literal greener pastures, taking most of the wealth of the city with them. Behind remained only those too poor to leave. Those who stayed were forced to choose between braving life in the dying city or finding their way to other struggling oases in nearby Libya or Niger.

Ayan, however, barely saw the cache of treasure surrounding the dais. Instead, his attention was stolen away by the portrait displayed directly behind the gilded throne. It stood twice as tall as him and the image it portrayed took his breath away more than any of the treasures before him for the shear loveliness of it.

A woman garbed in a nearly translucent ivory robe gazed down upon him, her eyes even more brilliantly gold than the throne below her and the pale glow of her bare shoulders more mesmerizing than any of its inlaid glittering opals. A coy smile, woven of secrets that none who breathed could ever hope to disentangle, played upon her ruby lips. Her hair fell in rich waves, as dark as the Tibesti Mountains at sunset, to just below her shoulders, making Ayan wish he could feel the tresses for himself.

In her delicately outstretched hands, she poured liquid from a golden cup. Real gems were mounted onto the painting, catching his flashlight and making the painting seem even more alive. From the cup, a stream of scarlet wine flowed into the open mouth of a man below her, a man who had been nearly invisible to Ayan's eyes until he followed the path of the wine to its final end. This man lay prostrate before the woman and his features were as nondescript as if he were a flea next to a lion. His posture was filled with as much adoration as ecstasy and yet the woman paid him no heed. Her eyes were fixed straight ahead, straight into the room where Ayan stood, as if she were gazing straight into Ayan's own soul, ferreting out his secrets and inviting him to join the prostrate worshiper at her feet.

Ayan felt as if his feet were turned to lead and he could not turn his head from the painting for fear if he did, he would discover it was all a dream. He knew that face would haunt his nights from that moment on and he no more decried that fate than he would throw away all his herd of camels.

The sudden ring of his phone jarred him from his stupor and if he answered his son more harshly than was warranted, none could blame him.

"Father, Uncle has come," his son said in Chadian Arabic.

"Meet me at where my rope is tethered," Ayan answered.

He swallowed and inhaled deeply, attempting to bring his senses back into the necessity of the moment. He chastised himself for his reaction. He understood now why the Hadiths forbid creating images of humans in art. He felt too keenly the temptation to shirk and fall into the lure of sinful adoration for the painted goddess and he felt his cheeks burn with his shame at such a response. He swore he would not think of that face ever again and he moved to fill his backpack with as much of the heavy treasures as he could carry.

It was then that he noticed there were other profane human images in the room, this time in the form of statues statues lining three of the walls of the cavernous room. At least, he thought they were statues. The busts appeared to be carved out of white or grey marble and each face would have been called a masterpiece for the beauty of the features of each face, save that each displayed the most grotesque, contorted expressions he had ever seen. The masterful sculptor managed to immortalize forever the very moment of agonizing death. Solid black eyes gazed blankly out from each face into the sandy isolation of the forgotten cavern.

Each of the heads lacked any sort of neck but were instead held upright by metal spikes. These spikes were carved to protrude through the crown of each head, creating more of an effigy of a mass execution than that of an art gallery or throne room. Even more terrible was the life-like quality of each carving. The hair that fell upon each brow and lined each set of eyelids was so realistic that Ayan had to blink to make sure the faces remained motionless. His skin crawled with the feeling that he was being watched from all sides and the hairs on his arms stood on end as he still felt the weight of the painted beauty of that woman's smile burning into the back of his head.

With such an audience as this, he dared not touch any of the treasures in that hall. Curses or sorcery must taint the very gold they were forged of and he feared lest the wrath of the shayāṭīn demons fall upon him.

"In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful," he said as he backed away. He recited the familiar verses of the Basmala over and over again to ward off any lingering attacks of the invisible evils that worshipped before this illicit alter. Then he turned and ran as fast as his feet could carry him towards the door that first gave him entry into this grand and terrible cavern.

He did not reach the door before he was so unfortunate as to catch a stone with his toe. He stumbled headlong into the tapestried wall before him. He braced himself for an unpleasant collision with the rock face, only for the fabric wall to melt away into another dark, empty space beyond. He shouted in surprise and his shout turned into a cry of pain as his knee collided with the sharp stones of the floor which caught his unsteady entrance into the hidden room. He cursed and felt the blood flow beneath his cotton kameez. He scrambled to grab hold of his flashlight from where it had fallen and to reorient himself. His heart pounded so fiercely that it sounded as if hammers pounded away in his chest and he was convinced, at any moment, he would hear voices or foot steps in the oppressive, almost living, emptiness of the cavernous city.

His beam of light revealed the matted backside of the tapestry through only a man-sized narrow crack. A series of rock walls were carved to slide through ruts in the floor and align to the opposing side, creating a formidable and nearly invisible barrier between the grand cavern and this much smaller enclave. Yet he could see no obvious lever or machinery to close such heavy doors. He slowly turned and saw the new cavern he had stumbled into may have been small in comparison to the one it adjoined, but this one was still as large as a wealthy man's house. A plain metal chair, table, and lounge were the only furnishings save for piles upon piles of boxes. The furniture was all arranged to focus on the central part of the room, which was entirely taken up with a cylindrical wall of glass, glass as thick as the walls of a house. It formed a perfect circle which was entirely engulfed by the external cavern. The glass walls would have been perfectly transparent at one time, but the tiny cracks and fissures lining the glass made visibility difficult.

Ayan squinted his eyes and placed his flashlight directly against the cold glass to try to make out what was within, but at first he could make out very little in the darkness. When his eyes focused, he could recognize piles of rags, shredded boxes, and broken chairs, which at first made him think it was some sort of storage room. He changed his mind when he noticed the series of metal chains hanging from the ceiling and embedded into the rock floor. These were shackled to a set of barbed manacles and those manacles were anything but empty. Hanging from the ceiling like a bull in a butcher's window was the limp figure of a man.

The figure appeared as eerily grey and wan as the statues lining the walls of the grand cavern, but if this was a statue, then the sculptor had captured the final moments of a tortured prisoner and the overall effect was as terrible as it was beautiful. The beauty came from the figure himself. Angular features, as desperate as they were carved of a fey grace, drooped heavily towards the floor. The dark rows of lashes showed the eyes to be closed and it would have almost been serene, if not for limp limbs bound with metal chains on his wrists, ankles, neck, and abdomen. These forced him to remain upright and away from the welcoming embrace of the floor beneath him, his arms forcibly outstretched as if he were a man crucified without the benefit of a cross. A burgundy burnus cloak lay in tattered shreds around his neck and over the dirty white kameez robe covering his lean body. Both his beard and the braid of hair that fell down his back were as burnished a red as the sandstone towers of the Ennedi Plateau.

Ayan's first response was a wish to break through the fractured glass wall, tear off the cruel shackles, and free the tortured soul before him. It seemed an incomprehensible evil to bind a creature so lovely, but it was that thought that made him pause and reassess himself. Why did he assume this was a "creature" and not a "man"? What inner voice of truth informed him that the being before him was not a fellow human, but something else, something other? This realization made him wish to flee as quickly as his feet could carry him and run as far and as fast as his camels could take them. Far away from the temptations this evil place.

His feet did not have the chance to make even a single foot step away from the glass wall for before he could make a movement, Ayan heard the slightest tinkle of metal chains. His heart stopped along with his feet and he dearly wished it was his mind playing tricks on him and creating the musical sound to play on his fears. He was not so fortunate. At that moment, the captive's previously unmoving nostrils flared and his eyelids flew open. Black eyes met Ayan's own, followed by a growing cascade of metal chains slithering like snakes against the rock-hewn floor. Before Ayan could register what was happening, the bound prisoner lunged with the strength and speed of a viper and crashed directly into the barricading wall of glass with all the fury of an angry water buffalo.

All Ayan could do was scream.

Author's notes: First off, I'm trying to make this one work as both a stand-alone and as a sequel. If any of you, dear readers, have not read The Remnants and are still giving this one a go, bravo! Please let me know if you get lost or require additional explanation anywhere and I will adjust accordingly! For this chapter, no prior knowledge is really needed. ;) You will not recognize any canon characters in this chapter, but they will appear in the successive ones (hint, Rosalie is next).

Next, I love ideas and suggestions. For those of you familiar with the previous story, let me know where you think this story should go. I guarantee you, it probably won't go the way you expect (these tales rarely go the way I expect, either), but I love the ideas and inspiration you provide!

Next, the concept of jinn (singular jinni) in Islam/folk Islam referenced in this chapter: (where we get English idea of genie, i.e. Aladdin's lamp). There's a complicated spiritual worldview here-basically, there are angels and demons and somewhere inbetween there are jinn. Jinn, like humans, can be good or bad, depending on the decisions they make and how well they follow the Pillars of Islam. They are supernatural creatures who can aid or hurt humans. Legends abound about the jinn. I've placed the Twi-verse concept of vampires within this category (as opposed to the flesh-eating evil ghouls or the shayāṭīn-demons) because they do have the potential to for good or evil, depending on how they live. They can blend with humans (and interbreed with humans). It seemed like a logical fit (though hardly perfect).

We won't spend much time in this particular worldview...but it was a fun place to start (yes, I am intentionally evoking literary references in this chapter, though quite broadly. Kudos to anyone who figures it out...hint, it is related to the title, which refers to the framing narrative of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights.)

Finally, did you notice that this story is not labeled as a "tragedy"? I'll warn you it will get very dark and you will want to bash some characters on the head, but I think we may have a happy ending this time around. At least, the ending I have already drafted is happy-ish, though I never know what surprises the characters will pull on me between my first draft and final product.