A City in the Sands
Sir Malcom was greasy and fat. He smoked vile cigars. I didn’t care about that. He was rich; he owned a chain of cheap tabloids that were hawked all over England. I didn’t care about that. He considered himself a patron of the arts and sciences. I suppose he was in his fashion, albeit an incompetent one. I didn’t care about that, either. He wanted to sponsor an archaeological expedition. I cared about that.
He approached me and asked me if I would be interested in heading an expedition into the empty quarter to search for the city of ghosts. I wasn’t interested in his city of ghosts but I didn’t say so because I was very much interested in heading up an expedition into the empty quarter.
Sir Malcolm’s city of ghosts was just a bit of romantic rubbish. It’s true enough that there are lost cities in the empty quarter, cities that have been swallowed up by the dunes. Millennia ago the empty quarter had been a kinder land. Here and there one can still find traces of the old trade routes where caravans once transported wealth to the rest of the world.
The city of ghosts is another matter. Some years ago a mad Frenchman named Lemoine stumbled into Agrabar with a wild tale of a city of ghosts. It wasn’t, he said, in ruins. The buildings still stood and it was peopled – by ghosts.
The Resident thought him a madman who had been too long in the sun. The locals, however, confirmed his story. They said that there was such a city, a city of ghosts in the desert, a cursed city built by Jinni and peopled by the souls of the damned. They gravely assured Lemoine that he had been fortunate. Few had ever seen the city. Few could see it; it was an invisible city. Only those in danger of damnation could see it and it was worth your soul to visit it.
Lemoine’s wild story was a three day sensation when a report of it arrived in London. Learned savants in the universities indignantly denounced the story as nonsense. The public didn’t care; they knew it was nonsense and enjoyed it all the more because it was nonsense. In due course the next sensation came along and Lemoine and his city of shosts was forgotten. Sir Malcolm, however, had not forgotten it.
Sir Malcom thought the ghost city would make an excellent story for his papers and he was prepared to fund an expedition to look for it. . He didn’t really need to send an expedition – he could have manufactured the story out of whole cloth like so many of the other sensational stories that appeared in his papers. However, as I have said, he liked to think of himself as a patron of the arts and sciences. I didn’t quarrel with him; the ghost city may have been nonsense but it is not easy to get funding for archaeological expeditions and I was willing to take what I could get. If he wanted to pay my way I would waste some time looking for his ghost city; it was a small price to pay for the chance to do some real archaeology.
It wasn’t a proper archaeological expedition. It was neither adequately staffed nor adequately funded; I was the only fully trained archaeologist. We had no proper objective; our orders were to find something sensational, preferably Sir Malcom’s ghost city. What is more, Sir Malcom had insisted on adding a poet to our roster, one Vincent Leonides, who was with us to eulogize our discoveries. We would have been happier without him but Sir Malcolm had insisted and, after all, Sir Malcom was funding the expedition
Vincent Leonides was a wonder. To look at him you would have thought that he was a screen star. He was all the things that a screen star should be – handsome, dashing, suave, sophisticated, and dramatic. He was tall with flowing blonde locks. His voice was an exquisite instrument. When he read one of his poems he could make you laugh on one line and cry on the next.
He was also incurably vague. At any moment his mind might wander off in pursuit of some fancied inspiration. While his mind wandered his body tended to wander elsewhere to whatever destination that his legs should chance to take him. In my opinion he was a rotten poet. His public didn’t care, though; he was a master of cheap sentiment and that was what his audiences wanted.
Our first destination was Agrabar. My excuse for starting there was that we needed to retrace Lemoine’s path from there. This was just an excuse; I didn’t believe Lemoine’s story and no intention of wasting much time on searching for his city of ghosts. However Agrabar was a convenient point for entering the empty quarter and it was near sites where there was a real prospect of making a find. In his last trip here Tichy had found traces (or so he thought) of an ancient trade route not far from Lemoine’s path.
We spent a week gathering supplies, equipment, porters, and camels. A mere week is a remarkably fast pace in Agrabar for getting anything done. I had my advantages, though. I was no stranger to Agrabar; I had been there many times before and knew the local merchants and their ways. Besides, I was a friend of the Resident. Paths are always smoother for friends of the authorities. In truth we didn’t need much in the way of supplies; I didn’t plan to stray far from Agrabar.
Two days out from Agrabar we set up camp at the base of an extensive rock outcropping which the locals call Shaitan’s Siekh. The formation is an impassable jumble of vast slabs of stone, upended and turned every which way as though God had spilled a box of giant building blocks. I had no intention of exploring that rocky fortress but it was a convenient starting point for our searches.
I told Vincent to stay out of the Siekh. I warned him of its dangers. He promised that he would. My commands, my warnings, and his promises were so much wasted breath. One day the porters came to me and said that the man with golden hair had gone into the rocks and hadn’t come out.
Vincent Leonides was lost again. I wasn’t surprised.
The man had a talent for getting lost. He could get lost going from his study to the bathroom. I’ve seen him do it. His proclivity for getting lost during his bursts of poetic composition didn’t matter in England. The civilized world is kind to scatter brains. In Agrabar his habits were another matter. Strangers who wander into the back streets of Agrabar are all too likely to wake up with a headache and no money. Wandering off and getting lost in the desert is still another matter. A thief will take a fool’s money; the desert will take his life. I was going to have to track him down and find him.
It had to be me. None of the locals would venture into the Siekh. They were frankly scared of the place. It wouldn’t have mattered if they had been willing to go in because I was the only experienced tracker and climber in the expedition. I gathered together my climbing gear and followed his track into the rocks.
Tracks on rock are usually hard to follow; Vincent’s were easy. Vincent was the sort of person who accidentally steps on thing, the sort of person who crushes precious mosses while sniffing roses. Vincent shed things – scraps of paper, crumbs of food, pencil shavings, bits and pieces of this and that. A baby could follow his trail.
His path meandered. At one point he had clambered up a local peak, presumably for the view. It didn’t seem to answer because he had clambered down the other side and zig-zagged through some crevasses. His course was utterly reckless; by rights he should have been killed half a dozen times. Eventually his tracks led to the lip of a precipice. I was startled when I looked over the edge; there was a valley in the middle of this rocky ruin!
It was a slit about a quarter mile wide, a gash in the stone with sheer walls guarding either side. It wasn’t deep; the floor was only a hundred feet down. The path down was almost a sheer drop. Vincent had apparently half climbed and half slid his way down; it was a miracle that there wasn’t a broken body at the bottom. He obviously hadn’t thought about how he was going to get back up again. It would be a difficult climb without a rope. Naturally, he didn’t have a rope. Naturally I did.
I found a good anchor point for the rope and worked my way down. We would need it there to get back up. Once down I looked around. The bottom of the valley was flat and covered with sand. It was a little world enclosed within walls of stone.
The expanse of sand in the valley floor was broken here and there by blocks of stones protruding out of the sand. They looked as though they might be the remains of ruins half buried in the sand. I spotted Vincent in the distance, sitting on a block in the midst of some jumbled stones. He wasn’t far – only a mile or so – but it would take at least half an hour to reach him. Haste is not wise in the desert.
The ruins were forbidding; they seemed to be silently saying, “GO AWAY”. I would have been happy to go away but Vincent showed no signs of moving.
I walked. The desert sun burned above, spilling hot death upon the world. The sand danced in little dust devils around my feet. The flagstones of the pavement had baked in the sun; I could feel their heat through my boots.
About half way I stopped to rest in the shade of a stele that stood beside the road. I inspected the cabalistic designs engraved upon it; they appeared to be in some script, one not known to archaeology. I pulled out my notebook and began making careful copies of the glyphs. After half an hour or so I realized I had better push on and collect Vincent. There were some succulent plants growing in the shade. I picked a leaf from one, crushed it, and sucked on it, savoring its moisture. It’s an old desert trick. Refreshed, I pushed on.
The outer walls of the city were crumbling; in places they had fallen completely away. I spotted a scorpion darting from one crack to another. The pillars of the city gates still stood. They were inscribed with the same strange marks that I had I had seen on the stele.
Within the walls the passage was easier. The flagstones were smooth and unbroken. The shade from the palm trees that lined the street was welcome. A dog, mangy with neglect, trotted across the street. It stopped, eyed me suspiciously, and trotted on, evidently deciding that I was no threat.
The buildings were such as might be seen anywhere in the middle east – wattle and daub, with covered walks and arch ways everywhere. Darkened windows brooded, hinting at mysteries within. Their silence was pregnant as though they were saying, “We are not empty; we bide our time before we give birth to sound.”
The walk was strangely tiring. I stopped to rest and sat down on a little stone bench in a rose arbor by the side of the street. The scent of roses was intoxicating, the sweet sound of the birds singing in the distance enchanting. The sticky sweetness of the moment whispered to me, “Abide in this place for a bit. Enjoy. Rest for a while.” I knew that I must not. If I were to rest here my stay would be forever. I shook my head as though to clear it of a fog and went on.
The streets were lightly peopled. Some children ran before me, shrieking, playing some game with a stick and a ball. They saw me. This I knew, for they moved out of my way as I passed, but they paid no attention to me. I thought their indifference odd for I was a stranger there and children are attracted to the unusual. A pair of women passed, bearing baskets on their heads. They were not dressed in the Moslem style – their arms were bare and their faces were uncovered. I thought them fair in the Mediterranean style.
At length the street opened up into a great square. The center of the square was filled with floral gardens and fountains. Fountain spray glittered in the sun. Shops filled with crowds lined the square. Here and there, respectful audiences listened as philosophers in robes held discourse.
At the far end of the square there were steps leading up to an open air temple, much in the style of the Parthenon. There was a row of statues on each side of the stairs, disturbing figures of chimeras, half man and half animal. Oddly enough, despite the crowds, the steps were empty; no man, woman, or child disturbed them.
I spotted Vincent in an outdoor cafe, sitting at a stone table. I waved to him; he saw me and waved back. I moved to join him. He had been served; there a platter of honeyed figs on the table and he had a cup of wine in his hand. I took a seat opposite him and popped a fig into my mouth.
One of the young women who were running back and forth serving people stopped briefly and set a cup of wine in front of me. I smiled at her and thanked her. She ignored me. It was as though she knew that there was somebody there who had to be served but that it wasn’t anybody in particular. She had the simple beauty of youth. She wore a belted tunic and eye makeup that emphasized her almond eyes. It was a pity that she wouldn’t speak to us.
Vincent smiled broadly. “It’s good to see you, Professor. It may be beautiful here but I don’t know their language. It’s good to see a familiar face.”
“For heaven’s sake, Vincent. What is this place and how did you find it?”
“I don’t really know. I was searching for a vista to go with a poem I was working on, for a view with a view you know, when I spotted the valley. It called to me and I had to see what was in it.
It was the same with the city; when I saw it I had to go to it. I don’t know where we are, though. This place seems familiar, somehow, and yet it is unlike any place I’ve ever been. Their speech puzzles me; I know a dozen languages including Arabic but I don’t recognize their’s. I feel that I should; the words almost make sense to me.”
I replied, “I know what you mean. What’s maddening is that these people don’t even seem to notice that we are here.”
Vincent sipped his wine. “Yes,” he said, “I’ve noticed that. I wonder what it means.”
It had been a long walk and the day was warm – not as hot as it had been in the desert – but pleasantly warm, none-the-less. Vincent and I sat there, sipping our wine and watching the spectacle of people rushing back and forth on mysterious errands. Children ran everywhere, laughing. Young women walked on the promenade. Young men eyed them and called out suggestions. For all the bustle, though, it was intensely still, the sunlit silence broken only by the sound of nightingales in the distance.
As we sat there we saw an enclosed sedan chair make its way up the street. As it was about to pass in front of us it stopped. The curtain twitched open and a woman’s face peeked out. She spoke in startled tones, “You two. You don’t belong here. You’re not part of the dream.”
I fell in love on the spot. Any man would. She was beautiful; she was more than beautiful. A woman’s beauty may drive a man mad with desire but that madness and that desire are things of the flesh. A beautiful woman, after all, is still a woman. She was something more; her beauty had all the majesty of mountains and the all violence of hurricanes.
I sat there, stunned. I suppose Vincent was stunned too but I didn’t notice. I had no eyes for anything but her.
She spoke. “You two. Come here.”
We rose like zombies and shambled over to her sedan chair.
“Who are you? What are doing here?” She snapped the words out in tones that bore witness to her being accustomed to be obeyed without question.
Vincent and I stumbled over each other as we struggled to explain. We babbled about Sir Malcolm and expeditions and ghost cities in a confused medley until she raised her hand in command.
“Enough! I understand nothing of this. You two are strangers here and that is enough. It is not often that we have visitors. Those chosen few who make their way through our gates are welcome, more than welcome. Come and be welcome!”
We stood transfixed. Finally I managed a red-faced, “Thank you, my lady. We are greatly honored. Pray let me introduce ourselves. This is my friend, Vincent Leonides. In our land he is a poet of some renown. I am Professor Collins. I am an archeologist, one who studies the ways of people who lived long gone.”
“Vincent Leonides. Professor Collins. These are names that sound strange in my ear and yet they suit you exceedingly well. Do forgive me. We have so few visitors that my manners have quite flown away. I am called Ayesha; I am the mistress of this place. I am on my way to the palace. I would be delighted if you would join me and be my guest.”
Vincent was not yet ready to speak. He stood there, staring at Ayesha, red-faced and rapt in awe. It was incumbent upon me to manage things. I continued, “We would be very pleased to do so. However we are strangers here and do not know the way.”
“That is no problem.” she said. “Come with me. The palace lies beyond the temple. I only travel by chair to the temple steps. Thereafter I walk. The three of us may go together.”
She gave commands to her bearers. The local speech was lovely; it flowed in melodious tones. With Ayesha, however, it was more than lovely. When she spoke it was as though she were an instrument through which the gods themselves made music.
The bearers lifted the sedan chair and set out. Vincent and I looked at each other and shrugged. Evidently we were to follow her. We fell in behind her procession. As we walked I noticed that the locals gave way. They did not make any gestures of respect but their voices stilled as we passed and their faces went carefully blank.
We arrived at the base of the steps. The bearers set the chair down and Ayesha dismounted. Heretofore we had only seen her face as she spoke from behind the curtain. Now she stood revealed before us. She was tall for a woman and yet not so tall as Vincent or I. She was slender and yet fully curved. She was definitely female and yet there was none of the passivity that is so often the way of women. Her femininity was more that of the lioness; one was acutely aware of a sense of the dynamic tension of the huntress.
She wore a gown of pure white which dazzled in the sun. The edges were trimmed with beads which looked to be pearls. It was modestly cut and yet it defiantly proclaimed the femininity of she who wore it. It is not given to men such as I to be able to describe the clothing that women wear; I cannot describe her dress better than I have. But even I could tell that women of fashion would kill to own and wear such a gown.
Ayesha smiled at us and the sun came out. “Come, my fine new friends,” she said and offered an arm to each of us, Vincent on her right and I on her left. Together the three of us mounted the steps. It were an easy climb; the steps were broad and there were no more than thirty of them. As we climbed I inspected the statues that stood on either side. They were of a pattern. Each of them had the figure of a man; the head and the arms, however, were those of a beast. The figures crouched as though they were about to complete the transformation into beasts and take off on all fours. The effect was disturbing; these were beasts that one would not want to meet unarmed.
We arrived at the temple at the top of the stairs. It was a simple affair, open, little more than a roof supported by marble pillars. On the other side the arched entrance to the palace was visible. Within the temple itself, however …
Within the temple were twelve sarcophagi, each on its own platform, each chased in elaborate gilt, and each with a frieze inscribed with the unknown script. Behind each stood a statue, again the figure of a man with the head of a beast. Each figure had the head of a bat and the folded wings of a bat. Their mouths gaped open as though they were about to feed.
We had been silent as we climbed but now I had to speak. “Excuse me, madam,” I said, “but places such as this are what I study. If I may ask, what is nature of this place. Who sleeps in these tombs and what Gods are worshipped here.”
Ayesha stopped and turned to me. “We have no gods here. These are the tombs of the dreamers.” I must have looked blank for she continued.
“This is an old city, you know. We have dwelt here in peace for a hundred centuries and more. Long ago, when the world was young, this land was green and much magic dwelt within the land. In those days there were great magicians; the lords of our city used their magic to lay the foundations of our city.
In those days we were a power throughout the land. Then one day the men of Sumer came to us and asked our aid. They sought to learn the use of magic. Our lords spoke with them and heeded their plea. They taught the men of Sumer much lore and much of the craft of magic. Alas, the men of Sumer were not wise. They used their magic to raise cruel gods who fed first upon their magic and then upon the men of Sumer themselves.
Our lords saw that they had done ill by aiding the men of Sumer and that much ill would come of it. They foresaw that the rains would fail, that all that was green would wither away, and that the magic that dwelt in the land would fade away also.
In other lands men let the magic die. Here in Numidor we did not. Our mages used their magic to seal the city off from the rest of the world. It is veiled from the outer world as though it were within a dream. That dream does not live by itself; all dreams must have a dreamer and so it is here. When the city was sealed off our twelve greatest lords sacrificed themselves to dream the dream that keeps this city in being. Those sarcophagi hold the dreamers. They are not dead, only asleep, but they will sleep forever as they dream. We honor them but we do not disturb them. We dare not disturb them; who knows what might happen to the dream when the dreamers wake.”
All of this was said in hushed tones. “Come,” she said, “Let us pass on. Let the dreamers dream their dreams in peace.”
Beyond the temple there lay a small courtyard, all bricks and no flowers, and beyond that, the palace. We stood before it and looked. The palace facade was brilliant in the sun, elaborately decorated with carvings, mosaics, and great enameled plaques. Above and behind the facade the eye followed turrets and towers that reached towards the sun but which darkened as they reached upwards until they seemed to vanish in a darkness which denied the very existence of light and even the towers themselves.
Ayesha gestured for us to enter. The great entry way was brilliantly lit at its edges. Towards the center, though, it darkened until, at the very center, all light vanished. As we walked into the entrance the light of the sun vanished behind us. We were not in darkness though; the very air seemed to glow with a subdued pearly light.
We stepped through a vestibule into a great common room. The ceiling was high, twenty feet at least. The walls were elaborately decorated with gilded friezes and mounted heads. There were no windows and no torches but it was lit with the same pearly light.
Ayesha clapped her hands and servants appeared. “You have spent a long and wearying day,” she said. “My servants will take you to your quarters where you may refresh yourselves. Leah, take Vincent Leonides to his room. Mahte, you shall escort Professor Collins. We dine in two hours.”
One of the servants, a pretty young woman with almond shaped eyes, spoke quietly to me and said, “Please follow me, sir.” I followed her willingly. Ayesha was stunning but her beauty was formidable. Mahte was more humanly accessible. She led me up the grand stairs and through corridors to a suite of rooms which evidently were to be mine.
One of the rooms contained a steaming bath already drawn. I eyed it longingly – I hadn’t had a decent bath since leaving England and I was hot and dusty. I thanked Mahte for her services and indicated that I wanted privacy. It was then that I discovered that her notions of her duties were quite different from mine. She insisted that she was a body servant and that she was assigned to me. It was her duty to undress me and wash me as I bathed.
I was very embarrassed and red-faced as I explained to her that in my land we didn’t do such things. She laughed and said that we weren’t in England, wherever that was. I was in Numidor now and I should do as I was told and let her do her duty. I argued with her but she was obstinate. Why is it that women can be so pretty and yet be so stubborn?
In the end she had her way. It felt strange. As an adult I had never been undressed by another adult, let alone by a woman. I was acutely aware of her femininity as she removed my garments, of her aroma and the softness of her hands as she touched me. It helped that she was utterly unembarrassed but it didn’t help that she quite unselfconsciously commented on my body as she washed me in the bath. It was pleasant but it made me very much wish to be back in England.
In the end I was bathed and dressed in fresh garments. I was further embarrassed as Mahte commented liberally on how dashing I looked in the local garb and as she made admiring and quite mendacious comments about the merits of my figure. Given the chance I could have said much about the merits of her figure but she had me thoroughly at a loss.
The odd thing was that I had no idea what I looked like. I asked Mahte for a mirror that I might view myself. It seemed that there were no mirrors in the palace. Indeed, the very concept of a mirror was foreign to her and she seemed unable to comprehend why someone would want such a thing.
When I was dressed and decorated to her satisfaction she escorted me to a dining room where Vincent and Ayesha awaited me. We had barely sat down when a stranger appeared. He was tall, lean, and dark with an exquisitely trimmed beard. He wore a fitted tunic that might well have been the height of fashion five thousand years ago. He moved with the controlled grace of a predator cat stalking its prey. I am no judge of these things but I fancy that if I were a woman I would have difficulty resisting his charms.
Ayesha spoke, “Ah, my dear, dear brother. So good of you to join us.”
He replied, “So good of you to ask me.”
Ayesha turned to us, “Gentlemen, this is my beloved brother Belash. It appears he will be joining us for dinner. Belash, may I present our guests, Vincent Leonides and Professor Collins.”
Belash smiled, “Charmed. I’m delighted to meet you.” He spoke to Ayesha, “And what have you told them, dear sister?”
She flashed him a look of annoyance. “I’ve told them what they need to know, that there is a dream and that there are dreamers. That is all they need to know. Now do be nice, Belash, and sit down.”
He sat. Silent servants appeared and set a place for him. Ayesha continued their banter. “So, brother, you would know these things. Tell me. Why would a lioness let a jackal feed at her kill?”
Belash replied, “That would depend on circumstances. A thwarted jackal might call upon his pack to support him. A wise lioness would let that jackal feed in peace rather than quarrel with the pack. I think, though, that it is not wise to speak of dividing spoils while the prey is still afoot.”
Ayesha mused, “Perhaps you are right. We will speak of this later.” She turned to us, “Gentlemen, you do not eat. Pray, eat. Enjoy. My cook will be crushed if you do not eat. While you dine perhaps you can tell us about the world beyond our walls. We see few strangers and we hunger for news.”
Belash murmured, “That too …”.
Her words were a signal for us to begin speaking. Vincent and I had been silent up to now, over-awed by our company. We spoke at length as we ate. I discoursed on Archaeology and England, on the fate of nations, on the conflict of religion and science, on the trade war in Asia, and on the treatment of the American Indian. Vincent was less eloquent. He confined himself to reciting a few of his poems and, quite oddly, to relating the tale of the death of a kitten while he was a child. Ayesha and Belash were quite taken with his tale; they listened intently to his rendition, their eyes gleaming as they took in his face and his voice.
At length the evening died. Ayesha called for servants to lead us to our quarters. Mahte appeared to guide me to mine. She insisted on undressing me. I was getting used to the notion of having a body servant. When she undressed me and had seen me into my bed she stood there for a moment and then slipped off her robe and joined me. Evidently she intended to be my body servant in all ways.
It had been a long time since I had had a woman. Mahte’s body was warm against me and her kisses were sweet. She clutched at me as though her need was as great as mine. We surrendered to each other in long passages of passion.
When I woke I reached for her but she was gone. She appeared quickly though, already fully dressed. She helped me dress as though she were only a body servant. She was demurely decorous but she smiled with that self-satisfied smile that women wear when their passions are sated.
Vincent and Ayesha and Belash were waiting for me in the common room. Vincent looked baffled. Ayesha had the look of a cat that has trapped a mouse and is playing with it. She dashed forward and coquettishly grasped my hands. “It is good to see you up and about,” she said. “You will be pleased. Belash and I have been making plans for your entertainment. You are, I understand, a student of history who wants to know what happened in the past. Belash is just the man for you. He knows everything. He will show you about and satisfy your every curiosity. Me, I have no head for such things. I will entertain Vincent and he shall recite poetry to me.”
Belash was good. He was very good. Numidor’s history had ended when the veil was lowered. Since it had been sealed off, century after peaceful century had passed without event. Before then, though, its history had been tumultuous and Belash knew it all. Being with him was an archaeologist’s dream. He was a chronicle of all of the happenings in the ancient Middle East. His knowledge of the handicrafts of the past was enormous and when he spoke of the politics of those times he made it seem so real that you would have thought he had been there as an active participant.
In truth, I spent very little time or effort on archaeology. My days were spent with Mahte, exploring Numidor. We spent long, lazy afternoons in the square, watching street performers, listening to the philosophers, walking hand in hand, absorbing the perfume of the flowering trees, and sharing the touch of each other.
Belash indulgently encouraged our affair; indeed he seemed to share our rapture in each other. I noticed, though, that he never joined us in the city.
The days progressed languorously. I could have gone on forever in an effortless dream but I began to worry about Vincent. I became afraid that he was afflicted with some wasting disease. He grew progressively more gaunt and his moods swung wildly. At times he would be wildly animated and at other times he would sink into depression. And then the day came when he sank into a coma.
I roused myself enough to suggest that I should go back outside to fetch a doctor. Ayesha would hear none of it; she told me not to be foolish, that she knew what ailed him and that she would care for him. Day after day he lay on his pallet, white, still, unmoving. Ayesha was with him constantly, tending him, her hand forever on his brow.
Her curative arts were enough; the day came when he stirred again and was almost his old self. He had changed though. He and Ayesha had been lovers. For all I knew they were still lovers but one could see that he was no longer her love slave. What was truly strange was the way he looked at me. We had been companions, outsiders in the city. Our relationship had changed in some inexplicable way. When he looked at me there was something in his eyes that he shared with Ayesha and Belash.
One evening, not long after he risen from his coma, he asked me to join him on the high balcony. We rested our arms on the railing as we stood there, looking out on the city in the darkness of the night. Here on the balcony it was always night. “Professor,” he said, ” I must speak with you. You must leave the city. You must leave now.”
I was puzzled by his words and his intensity. “Why?”, I asked. I didn’t want to leave. I couldn’t leave Mahte. Mahte was the world to me, the first true happiness I had ever had.
“Professor,” he said, “you don’t understand this place. You don’t understand what has happened to you, what is happening to you. You don’t see yourself. You can’t because there are no mirrors here. If you could you would see that you are wasting away as I was wasting away.
These people, these dreamers as they call themselves, are vampires of the soul who feed on the life force. They were always vampires. That is why they are hidden away from the world. Their kind was hunted down and slain long ago, every where but here. Here they dream and with their powers they make their dreams real. They feed endlessly upon the people in their dreams. Do not think that the Ayesha and the Belash that you see are real. They are not. Their bodies lie in their coffins; what you see are their dream selves.
They feed on dreams but the stuff of dreams runs thin; they would rather feed on life. They’ve been feeding on us, stealing our life force bit by bit. You haven’t much left. If you don’t leave now you will never leave. You won’t be able to.”
His words were like cold water that wakes one from sleep. I looked at myself and saw what had been happening to me. He was right! It all became very clear to me. This dream, this city of dreams, was a trap, a construct created by immortal vampires endlessly feeding on their own dreams. Vincent and I were fresh meat, the raw stuff of new dreams. We had to flee.
I said, “God help me, Vincent. You’re right. Let us go. Let us go now.”
Vincent looked at me. Tears streamed down his face. “I can’t go, Professor. It’s too late for me. Don’t worry about me; don’t even think about me. Just go. Go now and save yourself.”
I argued with him but he was adamant. Finally I gave up. He would have to save himself, if he could. I went back into the palace and down the stairs. At the base of the stairs I met Mahte. She became alarmed when she saw me. “Professor Collins, what’s wrong?”
“I must leave here,” I told her. “Come with me. I love you. I will always love you but I can’t stay. Come away with me into the real world. Please, Mahte, please. Please come with me.”
“But why?” she said.
“Ayesha, Belash, and the rest of the dreamers. They are vampires. They are killing me bit by bit, stealing my life force. If I stay here I die.”
“But what is wrong with that,” she said. “They will kill you and then you will be part of their dream and we shall be together forever in their dream. Don’t you want to be with me? Don’t you want us to be together forever?”
She was honestly puzzled. I was horribly tempted. Mahte would be mine forever. All I had to do was give up my life and my soul to the vampires and let them feed on me for eternity. I didn’t pause to think. If I stopped for even a moment I would never leave; I would be forever damned. I rushed past her, ignoring her cries, down the stairs, through the common room and out into the courtyard.
I made my way into the temple and paused. Something had changed. I counted sarcophagi. There were thirteen of them! I knew then why Vincent would never leave, why he could never leave. I didn’t stop. I ran, panic stricken, down the stairs and through the square. Never stopping, never looking back, I ran down the long street and through the gates.
When I got to the stele at the halfway point I stopped, utterly exhausted for the moment. As I stood there gasping for breath I turned and looked back. There was nothing behind me but desert sand and broken stone. Just for a moment, I thought I saw faces, Mahte’s face and Vincent Leonides’s face and, behind them, dim and indistinct, the face of Ayesha. Her face swelled and filled the sky and then the hot wind blew and the faces were gone. All was gone, even the stele and the pavement beneath my feet.
There was no rush now. I made my way back to where the rope had hung; it was gone but I managed to climb up anyway. The situation was dangerous. I was two days out of Agrabar with no food and no water. If the expedition had given up on us and left I was a goner. I retraced my route through the Siekh and came out to where our camp had stood. There was nobody there!
My heart sank. For a moment I considered going back to Numidor. I couldn’t. That way was closed to me even if I wanted to return. Besides, it would be better to die like a dog in the desert than die forever in Numidor. Then I spotted the cairn. When they left they had left a cairn of supplies in case we had somehow survived and made our way back to camp. I tore it open. The food was all rotted away and turned to dust. One of the sealed jugs still held water. That was enough. It would be a grim and desperate trek but I could make it to Agrabar. I almost died on the way but I made it. When I got there I found that the expedition wasn’t waiting for me. There was no reason that it should have.
Fifty years is a long time to wait for somebody to come out of the desert.
Copyright © 1999 by Richard Harter