Prologue:

Asbeel

Pop.

Yusuf Abaza looked up from his meal, his dark eyes scanning the desert horizon from underneath his curly black bangs. A light breeze slipped into the small shack where he was eating his breakfast and he instinctively turned to face over his shoulder, his brown cheeks relaxing as the cool wind pushed in from the Red Sea. He sighed as the gust stopped and the room became completely silent. He returned to his beans and onions.

He couldn't tell which way the sounds of the gunfire had come from. The desert and the sea were both blowing at each other today and Yusuf, while thankful for the breezes, was getting confused. He had several deliveries to run today and had so far completely wasted his morning, as he was forced to listen for the skirmishes. He didn't want to head north if the Jordanians were attacking.

Pop. Pop.

His head jerked up at the sound. It was faint, but it definitely came from the south. Yusuf smiled; the Egyptians were fighting to the south and, from the sound of it, they weren't anywhere nearby. In fact, none of the other people in the restaurant had even reacted to the sound of gunfire. Yusuf smiled and thanked Allah for such good hearing.

He scooped the last bits of ful medammas into his mouth and pushed his plate up onto the counter. He placed a few shekalim next to his plate and stepped away from the stool he'd been sitting on for the past hour. He grabbed the package he'd brought with him – he knew a few powerful men that would be extremely upset if he didn't deliver it soon.

"Ma'a as-salaamah," he muttered in departure as he walked out onto the sandy streets of Eilat.

Yusuf hated being in Israel. It had nothing to do with the people, he got along with the Israelis just fine. Israel was simply not his country. He'd first come here two years ago on a visit to some family in the Naqab when the Egyptian border suddenly exploded into a battle zone, blocking him from his home country. Nobody knew exactly what happened, but several temples and mosques had suddenly been destroyed. The locals claimed that it had been the Egyptians who'd struck first, but Yusuf had seen plenty of anti-Arab sentiment in his time here and decided to reserve his opinions. He tried his best to stay out of the debates. He just wanted to go back home.

He turned and headed north. He smiled lightly as another small gust of wind peeled off the sea to his right and slid through his curly hair.

Pop!

Yusuf ducked his head at the sound. After a brief moment, he stood again and looked around. That gunshot had been far closer than he'd calculated back in the restaurant. It sounded as though it had come from only a street over. He looked around and saw two old women, dressed in all black. They both walked along as though nothing had happened, neither of them showing any worry in their wrinkled faces. Yusuf recovered and walked along, saddened at how gunfire and fear were now a daily part of his life. He wondered when he would become as desensitized to it as the two old women, dressed in black, looking at dead fish.

His mind began to drift to the stories of the borders, of how people would go out into the desert and never return. As always, the accusations were flung out from every side of the city. Jordanian soldiers killed you at the north border and Egyptians killed you south or those acclaimed Israeli pilots took you out in secret fighter jets that made no noise when they snuck up on you.

As ridiculous as all that seemed, he'd heard even crazier tales come in from the deserts.

There was the one man who came into town from near the southern border, his face drenched in blood and his clothes in tatters. He was screaming about a demon, an Ahemait that had appeared from the sands and devoured his family and his herd. He was delirious with dehydration. Two men eventually had to drag him to the hospital to keep him alive, but he kicked and cried the whole way, babbling on about monsters.

Another woman claimed that she had seen another monster rise from the ocean one evening before prayer. She claimed that it had lumbered towards her when a man rescued her. Out of pious fear, she wouldn't give much more detail than that. A monster and a savior.

Most townsfolk didn't believe in any voodoo demons like that, but the typical marketplace discussion always seemed to turn to the newest paranormal reports. More and more tales were being passed through the grapevines, and more people were beginning to believe that the stories were true. But Yusuf considered them all nonsense; some sort of hysteria was rippling through the city and he wouldn't be surprised if some doctor had already classified it as a form of cabin fever. Unless you could afford a boat or plane ticket out of the city, you were stuck within its borders. With most of the population consisting of trapped nomads, two years in the same city would easily bring out the crazy in some people.

He turned down an alleyway to his left, immediately enjoying the shade provided by the buildings. He was already making good time with this one delivery. He could probably make another two before the hour was up and hopefully get himself back on schedule.

Pop.

The sound wasn't far away this time.

It was right over his left shoulder.

Yusuf Abaza's heart almost stopped pumping in his chest. His body was tingling; it truly felt as though his blood had become frigid within his body. The sound hadn't been a gunshot after all. It sounded like a child popping a bubble, but it was much deeper. It had to have come from something much larger than a simple soap-bubble. He could feel the size of whatever had made the noise. He didn't know how he could feel it, but he could. It was something very large.

And it was right behind him.

He began to turn but stopped as his eyes caught their first glimpse at the monster behind him. He couldn't see much of it – it was far too big and far too close. He could really only see a sliver out of the corner of his eyes. But he could hear it. It was slobbering like a beast behind him, each breath making small popping noises.

Yusuf began to run away from it as fast as he could.

His mind was blank as he sprinted down the alleyway. He knew he wanted to scream for help, but he couldn't. The thing was directly behind him, somehow touching him, somehow forcing his voice to remain crammed down his throat. He dropped the parcel from his left hand, his mind absurdly nagging at him to turn around and pick it back up, that his employers would be furious if it was left behind. Yusuf didn't care. His chest was burning and his legs were starting to tire and his mind was racing as the monster behind him grew louder and closer and it seemed to want to swallow him up within itself and for the two of them to become one single beast in hunger.

Yusuf burst out from the alleyway into an open plaza, tripping onto his face as he missed the step-down of the curb. His ankle exploded in pain as he struggled to stand again, the weight he'd forced on it causing it to roll inwards. He fell once more and looked at his foot, grimacing at how twisted it looked at the end of his leg. There was no way he could run now.

The monster's shadow spread out over him.

Yusuf looked up in fear at the beast. It was almost transparent, a dark and nebulous cloud taking the form of something wicked and vile in front of him. It was twice as tall as he was, the torso containing a large hole where his own head would come up to if he could stand against it.

He looked around frantically at the people that filled the square, dismayed at how nobody seemed to notice him or the creature that was drooling over his fallen figure. He tried to shuffle backwards without rising to his feet when the beast let out a deafening roar. Yusuf stopped struggling immediately and covered his ears with his dirty hands. The rest of the people in the plaza immediately began looking around for the source of the noise. They could all hear it, but none of them could see it at all.

Pop!

Yusuf flew back at the shockwave the sound made, his body tumbling like a doll along the ground for a few meters. The sound echoed outwards through the courtyard, causing buildings to crack and crumble. Merchant tents fell as the walls supporting them turned to rubble and dust. People began to run blindly at the sudden destruction, women and children screaming as men tried to take control while they themselves were fleeing.

Yusuf felt hopelessly alone as people ran past and over his hurt body. He tried to crawl away once more but he couldn't take his eyes off the dark cloud in front of him. It was walking closer to him, its silhouette becoming clearer with each lumbering step forward. It seemed to have pinned him down completely somehow; an invisible was hand reaching out and crushing his whole body into the ground. He was stuck and the monster was coming closer and the force trapping him was growing stronger. With another roar, the beast lunged forward at him and Yusuf could see its mouth gaping from within a skeleton's maw.

Darkness. His eyelids were squeezed shut. Everything was silent.

But he wasn't dead.

Yusuf Abaza opened his eyes cautiously, the sunlight filling his vision and momentarily blinding him. Standing in the center of his white-washed vision was what looked like a young man, dressed in trousers and a white tee, back towards him. The monster was on the ground in front of the mysterious man, its body slowly disintegrating and blowing away towards the ocean. A large sword was gripped in the man's hands.

He rubbed his eyes hard and looked again. The young man was now bending over him, his face only about a meter away from his own. Yusuf was completely shocked at the sight of this strange rescuer: he had bright orange hair and light brown eyes and he looked very foreign. Chinese or Japanese or something. East Asian. Yusuf found himself absurdly wondering why he'd never seen such a stand-out before.

"Are you okay?" the young man asked in perfect Arabic, shocking Yusuf out of his thoughts.

"Y-yes," Yusuf stammered as people began to reemerge from their frightened corners.

The sword-wielding stranger smiled warmly for a second before vanishing completely.

Yusuf sat on the sand-spattered floor of the plaza, his mind reeling from everything he'd just seen. He could hardly believe that he was awake. The throbbing in his ankle was the only thing that convinced him that he was not dreaming. He slumped over onto the ground, his chest heaving, people finally coming to his aid as he stared up at the sky.

The stories were true.

A monster and a savior.


author's note

in case you're confused, you should probably read So and Anonymous before you continue on with this story.

for those of you who kinda know what's going on, but still said "wtfffff", trust me; you will get what's going on sooner than later.

thanks as always to jazzpha and matsumama for taking a look at this beforehand.

pace salsa,

jta~!

asbeel - the crakow klezmer band