The Fire of Iblis
The sun rose in the east, its bright rays sneaking underneath the gathering clouds and glistening from the ebony backs of the slaves as they loaded the camels. Abdullah Al Hamadi squinted as the morning light reflected into his dark eyes from the brass armbands the slaves wore. An uncommon rumble of thunder caused him to look up at the sky from under his red and white kufiyya. After sipping from his tiny cup of spiced coffee he looked at Mustafa, "Do you think the storm brings water?"
Mustafa, a lean and sharp-nosed man, stepped out from under the tent and scanned the sky, his black jalabiyya flapping around his legs in the unusually strong dawn breeze, "It will be as Allah wishes; Peace be upon Him."
Al Hamadi grunted and made no reply. Mustafa looked towards the tent nearby that served as a mosque and said, "I would think a man such as you would pay heavy favor to Allah. Surely it is He that watches over your trade routes and has made you wealthy."
"It is I who has made me wealthy Mustafa," said Al Hamadi sourly. "Allah does not pay your exorbitant fees. He does not bring you rare sweetmeats for your table nor does he bring you fine silks for your wives."
Mustafa bowed his head and said, "You are indeed a generous man Abdullah but I fear the Imam believes different."
"That addled old man is no better than a whore!" Abdullah said as he spat. "He takes my golden baksheesh easily enough." Moving well for such a heavy man, Al Hamadi hurried angrily over to the nearest slave and struck him soundly on the back with his camel whip, "Careful with our provisions, you eater of dung! For that is all you will be eating if you drop our cheese in the sand again!"
The slave bowed in apology and quickly bent to pick up the sack of aged cheese that had slipped to the ground. Securing it next to the dried meat, he looked over the camel's neck and into the desert. At the top of a low dune nearby stood a woman. She was too far away to make out but her black asaba was blowing loosely about her shoulders. The slave, an Ethiopian whose name was Faraji, finished tightening the leather straps on the camel and looked again. She was gone. Faraji looked all around but could see no other women walking back towards the camp. Shrugging, he bent to the next task so as not to get another beating from his master.
Al Hamadi threw his cup into Mustafa's tent and went to relieve himself behind it. Rearranging his robes, he settled the old curved dagger in place on his belt and looked again at the sky. Swollen black clouds were moving slowly towards Jeddah, far to the west. This journey would take him to that coastal city, where his camels would bring a high price at the Red Sea markets. It would take him roughly thirty days to make the trip from Riyadh and he did not want some unseasonable storm slowing him down and working additional fat from his herd.
As he turned towards the camp he was surprised to see a woman at the top of the closest dune. 'What is she doing up there?' he thought to himself. As he stared at her, her right hand raised and beckoned to him. He was taking no harem for this trip but he could always use good women and the Nubians loved to trade in female slaves.
Thinking he could turn a tidy profit from her if she was pretty enough, Al Hamadi strode across the oasis and worked his way up the dune. Puffing loudly as he reached the top, he leaned on his knees while catching his breath.
'That is odd,' he thought. 'Where did she go?' The wind was not blowing hard enough to wipe out her tracks but all he saw were faint traces of cloven hoof prints in the sand.
Straightening to his full height, he looked all around. To the south and west, all was bare desert and rolling, red dunes. To the north and east, the Bedouin camp bustled about its daily business, as the city gates opened in the distance, signaling the start of the business day. Frowning, he descended towards the camp, noticing his caravan was finally packed and ready to go. The camels rested on their knees and the slaves were checking the hobbles to make sure no animals got loose.
Al Hamadi had one more purchase to make before they left. His last strong box had broken and he needed a new one to carry his valuables in. He moved purposefully through the maze of tents until he reached the souk area and found the tent of the woodworker. Just inside the entrance he stopped to let his eyes adjust to the dim light inside.
"Ah, Sheikh Al Hamadi," a man said obsequiously from the shadowy interior. "As-salaam alaykum."
"Wa alaykum as-salaam," Al Hamadi spoke the expected reply impatiently.
"What can a humble merchant provide your greatness this morning?" the woodworker said as he continued to bow.
"I need a chest," Al Hamadi said curtly.
"A chest, a chest," murmured the shopkeeper. "Of course I have only one that will suit a man of your eminence." he finished. Moving swiftly to the back of the tent, he knelt behind some finished work, chairs and doors and such, and brought forward a small wooden chest. In its lid were set many fine jewels and heavy gold filigree. "Here is the best chest my humble shop can offer you effendi," said the man bowing low once more.
"Is it strong?" Al Hamadi barked. "Strong enough to make many journeys to Jeddah?"
"Yes, effendi, very strong is this box!" exclaimed the woodworker as if slightly offended. "This is my finest work and fit for a king!"
"No doubt you shall charge me a king's ransom for it as well," Al Hamadi muttered.
"My sheikh, I will give you the very best price!" offered the merchant enthusiastically. "But first, let me show you how truly special this box is."
The woodworker eagerly cleared off a space on his workbench and gestured Abdullah closer. "See how the lock is unusual?"
Pulling a chain from within the neck of his grimy jalabiyya, he showed Al Hamadi a key. The key was shaped like a miniature angel. It had tiny silver wings spreading regally from its back amidst the luminous folds of its robes, delicately molded from mother-of-pearl. On its tiny feet were sandals of intricately woven gold.
Looking enraptured, the merchant showed Al Hamadi how the golden sandals were removed and the ankles shifted on the smallest of hinges to position the feet and toes so as to be the teeth of the key. Once the puzzle of the key was revealed, it was inserted gently into the lock and the box was opened. Outside, thunder boomed loudly causing Al Hamadi to look up with a start.
"Are you sure you want to be traveling today, effendi?" the woodworker asked with concern. "It sounds as if Allah is looking for children to punish today."
"Let's get about our business, merchant, so that I can be away and leave Allah to his search," replied the Sheikh angrily.
"As you wish, effendi," the woodworker answered softly. The merchant quickly showed Al Hamadi all the many fine features of his most precious wooden chest.
Over sweet mint tea, the two men concluded their deal and Al Hamadi slipped the key chain over his neck, securing it within the folds of his white robes. Hoisting the small but surprisingly heavy box under his arm, he waddled hurriedly through the camp and back to his caravan. There, Mustafa was waiting; having taken it upon himself to keep an eye on the slaves and the camels while Al Hamadi was in the souk.
"Sheikh Al Hamadi!" Mustafa cried over the latest crack of thunder. "Surely you will stay in the caravanserai one more night until the storm has passed?"
"The Red Sea merchants will not wait on my camels and I must be in Jeddah to make sure it is my camels that are bought!" exclaimed the sheikh. "I will be away and we will run before the storm. It will die, out there in the desert, as all storms do."
Mustafa nodded sagely, "So it has always been, my sheikh. Then may Allah go with you and speed you on your journey and may you return in three months wealthy and wise." Mustafa clasped Al Hamadi's shoulders and kissed the sheikh three times, alternating cheeks.
With Mustafa's assistance, Abdullah mounted his camel and secured the new box in front of the saddle. With a lash of his whip and a shout, Al Hamadi bid his camel to rise and Mustafa jumped back hurriedly. His kufiyya whipping angrily about his head in the strengthening wind, Mustafa bid farewell to the caravan.
As the last of the camels moved into the desert, he turned to go inside his tent but a flash of black caught his eye. Turning once more towards the caravan, he could have sworn he saw a woman following the last of the camels but her image vanished as swiftly as a mirage into the desert. Shaking his head, as if to clear it of nonsense, Mustafa gathered his billowing robes and made his way into his tent, calling for tea and breakfast.
Al Hamadi scowled again. He watched as the slave Faraji continued his efforts to lead the caravan toward the west. Usually it was quite easy to follow the caravan route. It had been carved deeply into the desert by thousands of plodding hooves and shuffling feet, despite the ever-shifting sands, over hundreds of years.
This accursed storm, however, was making it increasingly difficult to be sure of one's direction. He had been so certain that the storm would fade away quickly once the caravan entered the deep desert. But it had stayed with them. It almost seemed as though the storm was following him, lurking like a pack of vicious black dogs, waiting to hamstring a straggler.
They had been in the desert four weeks now and still the dark clouds glowered menacingly all around them. Great spears of lightning crackled earthward nearby, flashing blindingly in their eyes and raising the hair on their arms. Rolling crashes of thunder assaulted their ears and threatened to spook the camels. Without the sun to guide him, and with the fierce wind blowing sand over the trail, doubt was slowly creeping into the corners of Al Hamadi's mind.
"Allow me to guide you, effendi," spoke a soft voice in between claps of thunder.
Abdullah, jolted from his somber thoughts, looked around. Puzzled, he lifted up from his camel saddle to scratch his rear end. He was riding a few lengths off to one side and no one was nearby.
"Wise effendi, my wish is but to serve you. I humbly submit that we are moving too far north to reach our destination safely."
"Who said that?" barked Al Hamadi in a low voice, glancing around nervously.
"It is I, my sheikh."
Startled, Al Hamadi looked down at the strong box. Shaking his head, he looked around again to see if anyone else had noticed the voice. "How is it that a strong box can talk?" he whispered tightly.
"I am called Hiraz, effendi; I am a Jinni."
"If you are a Jinni, why can I not see you?" inquired the Sheikh.
"I am not that type of Jinni, effendi. Some of my kind can only inhabit inanimate objects."
Thunder boomed again as Al Hamadi looked over at the main body of the caravan. Rubbing his heavily jowled face, he said, "I must be going crazy. The storm has addled my mind."
"On the contrary, my sheikh. You are as sane as the next man. Simply luckier!" exclaimed Hiraz.
"Lucky?" Al Hamadi laughed mirthlessly. "How can this be true? My business, my very reputation hinges on people believing in my shrewdness. If I am caught talking to a box, I will be ruined!"
"Effendi, I am here to help you. Even now, your untrustworthy slaves are taking you very far north of your intended course." Al Hamadi looked up sharply. His slaves were guiding the camels along the ridge of a low dune. Strong winds were blowing the sand into a stinging mist and the slaves had wrapped cloths around their heads to try and protect their eyes from the coarse grains. Al Hamadi looked down at the strong box once more. It sat there, silent.
"How can you tell we are off course, jinni?" Al Hamadi asked slowly, still not sure whether he was imagining things.
"I am a jinni, effendi," Hiraz sounded slightly amused. "We know many things."
Feeling apprehensive but overcome with desire to escape the storm and reach his destination quickly, Al Hamadi asked haltingly, "In which direction should we go then, jinni?"
Hiraz answered, "Do you see that tall dune off to your left, effendi?"
The merchant looked and saw a towering dune off in the distance. It stood taller than any around it. In fact, it was unusually tall. Unnaturally tall. Shivering in the breeze Al Hamadi said, "I see it."
"Steer your caravan towards that dune, effendi, and you will be back on course towards your destination."
With the wind howling about his ears it had almost sounded like Hiraz had said, 'On course towards your destiny.' Al Hamadi looked around at his caravan. The camels were plodding on, seemingly oblivious to the storm while the slaves struggled thorough the deep sand and fierce winds.
Pulling hard on the reins and tapping his whip Al Hamadi guided his camel over to where Faraji struggled to keep the camels on course. "Faraji!" Al Hamadi yelled loudly. The slave looked up, his black eyes peering through a slit in his head cloth. "Turn the caravan!" Al Hamadi shouted over the wind, pointing at the large dune to their left.
Faraji nodded slowly and taking a firm grip on the lead camel's reins began turning the caravan. The other slaves followed suit and soon the caravan was heading in the new direction.
Almost at once, Al Hamadi felt the wind slacken. He glanced down at the silent box, wondering. Looking up, he could see the huge dune directly ahead. Growing on either side of the caravan were two large ridges of red sand, stretching ahead as far as he could see. With the dark clouds above and the walls of sand on either side, it was as if they were in a tunnel. A tunnel that lead towards the giant dune in the distance.
Many hours later, Al Hamadi noticed no difference in their surroundings. In fact, the only difference was that it was getting dark. Urging his camel up to Faraji he said, "Let us make camp for the night. It looks like the storm may be passing and we should be able to get new bearings in the morning."
At that moment, as if by magic, the caravan moved into a wide area between the towering dune walls. Date palms arose from the desert and a smooth pond, unruffled by the softening wind, appeared in the middle of an unexpected oasis. Al Hamadi and Faraji looked at each other then looked back at the oasis that had appeared, seemingly out of nowhere.
"Effendi?" Faraji asked questioningly.
Al Hamadi jumped, as if startled, "What is it?"
"Shall we make camp here?"
Looking worried, Al Hamadi thought for a moment and then said, "Of course we shall make camp here. Look around you Faraji; we have everything we need here for the night. Hobble the camels and set up my tent quickly, the storm has tired me!"
"As you command, my Sheikh." Faraji said, bowing his head. He quickly began organizing the other slaves to do Al Hamadi's bidding. All of them looked worried, Faraji noticed. He didn't blame them. There was something wrong here. He felt it in his bones. Faraji had traveled the deserts of Arabia with his master for many years. They had camped in many oases and he had never felt this before; this feeling of doom and despair that was threatening to overcome him.
Busying himself with setting up camp, he glanced over at Al Hamadi. The Sheikh was sitting on his camel, staring at his new strong box and talking to himself. More worried than ever, Faraji barked at the other slaves, urging them to hurry.
Flickering light from copper braziers carved deep shadows in Abdullah's dark, heavy face. He sat inside his tent with the flap closed. The braziers dimly illuminated a large room richly appointed with silken carpets and cushions. The strong box sat before him and he twisted the unusual key slowly at the end of its chain.
"Effendi, you should sleep after such a hard days' journey," murmured Hiraz. As if in a trance, Abdullah Al Hamadi nodded absently and settled more comfortably on his cushions. His eyes closed and soon, his snores filled the tent.
Outside, Faraji stood sentinel at the entrance. He had heard voices emanating from within all evening. When he had entered to offer food and drink to his sheikh, he had been rudely dismissed. Now, he looked around the strange oasis and shivered in the desert night. No moon could be seen, shielded as it was by the low ceiling of clouds. The other slaves had completed their nightly labors and eaten their meager supper. Settling down for the night, they appeared as shadows; dimly seen specters glimpsed from the corner of Faraji's tired eyes.
Faraji's eyes flew open, the sound of horrible screams echoing in his ears. He looked around frantically, hoping the screams had been in his dreams. The slaves were in a group at the edge of camp, staring fearfully into the desert night. Glancing backwards towards the tent of Sheikh Al Hamadi, Faraji hurried over to the other slaves. "What is this?" he asked sharply.
One of the men whispered fearfully, "They are gone."
"Of whom do you speak?" asked Faraji looking around in the darkness.
The same man, still whispering, said, "Six of our number have disappeared into the night. We were all asleep. I was having a dream of paradise. A beautiful woman was beckoning me. Just over the dune from here was a wonderful place. My heart's desires fulfilled!"
"That was the same dream I was having!" exclaimed another quietly.
Faraji looked at the remaining slaves. All of them were nodding and whispering in agreement. "We must go and find our brothers," he stated.
"We cannot search for them in the darkness," the first slave began quickly. "Whatever is out there will surely attack us as well." Others, dimly seen in the pitch-black night, nodded fearfully.
"You would have us leave them to whatever roams the desert?" Faraji asked quietly.
Looking ashamed, the slaves hung their heads and made no argument.
Faraji was a brave man. Before becoming a slave, he had been a warrior in the country of his birth. But the memory of the screams, and the certain knowledge that none of the men would venture out of camp this night to help, overcame his desire to know the fate of his fellows.
Finally, with a last glance towards the blackness of the dunes, he said, "Move your pallets in close tonight. Let us stay near the fires and then we will investigate at first light."
As the men hesitated he spoke again, "We still have a long journey ahead of us. Quickly now, so that we may get what rest Allah will grant us."
Slowly, crowding close together, the slaves picked up their bedding and moved into the center of camp. Faraji went to the tent of Abdullah Al Hamadi and looked inside.
By the light of the dying braziers, he could see the Sheikh snoring softly. 'How could he not have heard?' Faraji asked himself.
Entering quietly to tend the braziers, he looked down and saw the key resting against the chest of his master. In the dim light, it looked dark red, almost black. Tiny horns sprouted from a small, angular head. Dark, spiny wings jutted menacingly from the back of the figure. Tiny black eyes, like polished onyx, glistened in the dim, amber light of the braziers. The eyes seemed to follow Faraji as he finished feeding the fires and straightening the pillows under his master. With a last worried glance at Al Hamadi, Faraji left the tent and resumed his post outside.
Dawn was still far off as Al Hamadi sat up on his pallet. The inside of his tent was very warm. 'That mongrel Faraji must have stoked the braziers too much,' he thought drowsily.
Yet, as he looked around, he saw that both braziers were so low they gave off hardly any light or heat. The sheikh was tired, despite having slept many hours. Vaguely, he began to remember the events of the previous day.
"It must've been a dream," he murmured to himself.
Just then, he felt a sharp pain in his chest. Without looking down, he reached with his left hand to rub the soreness and was shocked as his hand came away covered in blood. Looking down, he cried out as he saw the front of his jalabiyya also covered in blood. What was happening to him?
Abdullah staggered to his feet and tried to move towards the entrance to his tent. He tripped over something hard and fell heavily. Frightened, he looked down and saw his new strong box. Remembering the madness he felt when speaking to Hiraz, he became more frightened and started crawling towards the tent flap. Another sharp pain in his chest caused him to look down. When he saw what had become of his beautiful, angelic key, he screamed.
Outside, Faraji heard his master's scream and bolted upright. His master sounded as if he was under attack from the sword-wielding assassins of Alamut!
But as he rose and turned towards the tent, he froze. Standing at the entrance were two women. Faraji stared incredulously. How did they get here, so many miles from the caravanserai? Then, slowly, he remembered the woman he had seen on the dunes the day they departed. He recalled with a chill the screams he had heard earlier that night, screams of men dying horribly.
"Demons," he whispered. Then more loudly, "What is it you want from us?" The two women smiled, revealing glistening white teeth, all sharpened to knife points. Their canines extended down like fangs. Faraji looked more closely at them in the dim light of the campfire and saw dark stains, darker than the fabric of their black asabas. Or perhaps wetter, as he now noticed that the stains glistened in the firelight.
"What have you done with my master?" Faraji shouted at them fearfully.
The one on the left stepped forward, her tongue peeking sensuously from between white, glistening fangs. "We have done nothing with your sheikh, poor slave," she said in a low and sultry voice. "He is being attended by Hiraz."
Faraji trembled as she stopped in front of him. Her scent was sweet and sickly at the same time. As he looked at her, he began to notice other things. Her eyes were nearly luminous, angling upwards from the corners. At her breast, where her asaba had parted, the swell of her bosom was covered in a fine, black down.
As he bowed his head in fear, he noticed her feet were not feet at all but cloven hooves, leaving small goat-like tracks in the sand. Faraji raised his eyes again and was captured by the creature's gaze. His whole world had become her eyes. His felt as if his soul was being sucked from deep within, into her. She took a final step towards him and he lost consciousness.
Inside the tent, Sheikh Abdullah was gibbering. His jalabiyya was soaking wet with blood. He lay on the carpeted floor, panting for air. The key that had been around his neck lay by one of the braziers. It glistened darkly and began to shimmer. Slowly, it began to pulse and grow.
Before his eyes, Abdullah watched the key become a man. Well, not exactly a man. It looked like a man but crossed with some vile animal. He was not sure what, but it was horrible. His fear caused him to soil himself and tremble uncontrollably. With chattering teeth, he met the creature's dark eyed gaze and said, "Who...what are you?"
The voice that answered was awful. Images of loathing filled his mind. Wretched sinners, long dead, moaned through the sound of the creature's voice. Abdullah cried out in terror then fell to whimpering as he listened.
"Know me not?" it said smiling. Fanged teeth glistened warmly in the brazier's light. "I am Iblis, Lord of all darkness and stealer of souls"
Barely able to speak and unable to look at Iblis directly, Abdullah mumbled, "Why? Why do you do this to me? What have I done to deserve this horror?
Iblis glanced down at the broken figure of Al Hamadi, "Know you not the sins of your own miserable life?"
"I am but a humble business man," sobbed Abdullah pitifully. Through a force of will far greater than his own, Al Hamadi was made to look up into the glowing red eyes of Iblis.
"You are a cheater of men," he began. "You are a seller of flesh and an abuser of women. You, who thinks so highly of himself and so lowly of others, are but a blight on the face of the earth. It is given to me to rid the world of such as you and I will make you quake before me as I eat your heart and consume your everlasting soul!"
Abdullah soiled himself once again as the sound of Iblis thundered in the tent. His strident words rang fiercely inside Al Hamadi's head. Abdullah was forced to remember every unkindness, every underhanded deed and each treacherous thought throughout the length of his existence.
He begged for Allah to save him but Iblis filled the tent, excluding all else. His awesome might and terrible presence filled the air with evil darkness, driving all from Abdullah's mind but terror.
Finally, after reliving his every sin, Al Hamadi looked up once more into the dreadful gaze of Iblis. His last sight was of the Lord of Darkness descending upon him with glistening fangs dripping blood and he knew then, with awful despair, that his very soul was to be eaten, consumed each day in the fiery belly of Iblis for all eternity.
The Emir was a corpulent man. He did not stoop to go abroad in his emirate. All his wants and needs were fulfilled without him needing to move his great bulk. Slaves and hugely muscled guards filled his audience chamber as belly dancers moved seductively in the background. Today, a finely dressed merchant displayed wares of the finest metals, jewels of the highest quality and unsurpassed beauty.
"I would humbly offer you this rich chest of jewels, effendi," the sharp-nosed merchant began. "See how the lock is unusual?"
Pulling a chain from within the neck of his ornately embroidered jalabiyya, he showed the Emir a key. The key was shaped like a miniature angel. It had tiny silver wings spreading regally from its back amidst the luminous folds of its robes, delicately molded from mother-of-pearl. On its tiny feet were sandals of intricately woven gold.
Looking enraptured, the merchant showed the enchanted Emir how the golden sandals were removed and the ankles shifted on the smallest of hinges to position the feet and toes so as to be the teeth of the key. Once the puzzle of the key was revealed, it was inserted gently into the lock and the box was opened. Outside, thunder boomed loudly causing the Emir to look up with a start.
While enjoying a successful technical career, Mr. Dunne has often been called upon to write anything from business presentations to technical guides. Finally, with the urging of his wife Nance and armed with more than fifteen adventurous years in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, he has taken that final step and began pushing out fiction!
Amid precious family moments with Nance and their two sons, Conor and Shane, as well as their faithful German Shepherd 'Dale', Mr. Dunne looks forward to a future filled with creative works.
Published by permission of the author.