(Previous episodes are here)
Mirabelle had faced darkness and all its nuances but this represented a new stage in her journey. She shuddered but kept on walking down into the bowels of the earth.
The djinn, a race of elemental beings who waged a guerilla war against the Caliphate and The Crow King, the Dwarven Realm. The elf kind, carnivorous and insane, remained in the mountains, lost to the madness of their biology.
It fell to a last alliance of men and dwarves to repel the invaders, a final assertion of order against the chaotic innocence of the djinn. Asra had lost her brother, twice in the final battle against the djinn and her mother lapsed into a terrible melancholia which caused her heart to fail. Bawwabat Jinn, where the last rift was, and the djinn sent back into their own dimension.
Mirabelle wondered if she had fled from one horror towards another, but Asra walked ahead, hands on the hilt of her twin scimitars.
‘How far down are we?’ Mirabelle said.
Her voice had a muted quality to it, which provided an answer. Asra raised her hand and stopped.
‘Far enough. If you wish to know The Dust, the djinn will know.’
Mirabelle swallowed and tasted the grit of the desert sand between her teeth. She missed Eilhu but could not allow herself to drink deep of her grief. Shallow sips to see her through the day, but part of her wanted to wail and wallow in the absence. Horror, poised to tear her world apart, and all she wanted was to see her golden-haired lover again.
She put it away. Her leadership demanded courage and she would wield it to light her way through the darkest hours.
A wave of slow warmth rushed down the tunnel and made them stop.
‘Can they get out?’ Mirabelle said.
Asra shook her head. She reached out and touched Mirabelle’s forearm.
They turned the corner to face the heart of Bawwabat Jinn.
It was a scar, forever frozen in the state of febrile infection, lit between its puckered folds by a flickering flame which gave off a persistent and powerful heat. The air prickled and Mirabelle stopped.
‘Our prayers keep the rift stable. I will call one of them to speak with us.’
Asra stepped forwards and drew her scimitars in a gesture as smooth as breath. The light caught the blades, and Mirabelle shielded her eyes from the glare. Asra swung the swords forward as she lunged from her hips and slid her right leg behind for support and balance. She lowered her chin and breathed in harsh, deep lungfuls of air.
The temperature rose a few degrees and Asra sheathed her swords.
‘WHO CALLS US?’
The voice came from Asra, but it was different. A thick, clotted rumbling with a hissing undertone, huge and inhuman. Mirabelle shuddered and stepped forwards.
‘I do. I seek knowledge.’
Asra remained frozen in place. Mirabelle drew closer.
‘YOU TAUNT US WITH YOUR EXISTENCE. WE SHALL NOT SPEAK.’
Mirabelle’s heart thumped against her ribs as she clenched her hands into fists.
‘I COMMAND YOU.’ she said.
Asra shuddered and the air thickened with the rising heat before the temperature dropped into a sharp chill.
A thick chuckle arose from Asra.
‘WHAT DO YOU WANT, YOUR HIGHNESS?’
Asra turned her head, eyes twitching beneath her eyelids and her hijab soaked with sweat.
‘Tell me about The Dust.’
Asra sheathed the scimitar in her right hand with blinding speed. Mirabelle had time to cry out before Asra’s fingers closed on her throat without pressure. The contact was electric, and the edges of Mirabelle’s vision blurred as a series of images rushed into her mind.
Bile-green clouds coat the sky as leprous, twisted things taste the air like maggots in dead flesh. A dying sun smears light on the earth and Mirabelle realises she is somewhere terrible. Every breath tastes of sickness and she spits onto the cracked, yellowing earth.
She sees a mountain in the distance, their outlines blurred by the thick, miasmal fog. There is a break in the cover, and she sees the mountain is moving, shifting with a relentless, orgiastic energy. A tentacle emerges from the mass, its tip blooming like a flower made of meat and a fat, pale tumour swells and bursts into the air. The mucus takes to the air in shuddering droplets which float towards her.
They move against the wind and Mirabelle reaches for the dagger on her hip.
She looks around her for shelter but there is nothing.
Something bellows behind her and she turns.
A giant, covered with dense brown fur looked at her with curiosity. She knew his name, had believed him capable of murdering her father.
The Wild Man.
‘You have no cause to be here yet, your highness.’
His voice boomed as he looked at the shimmering droplets moving towards them.
‘The Dust is the chaos of sickness, a disease with ambitions beyond the flesh. It is not a God but the sickness of Gods and it is patient beyond belief.’
Mirabelle appreciated the poetic but here it did not serve her needs.
‘Were you this obtuse with Eilhu?’ she said.
He chuckled and shook his head as he dropped to one knee, still towering over her.
‘We learn through stories and allegories, your highness. This story is the oldest of all stories.’
Mirabelle frowned and drew backwards.
‘I’ve no time for stories, people are dying.’
The Wild Man smiled with all his teeth at Mirabelle. He was the beauty of tree bark and rich, tilled earth. He smelled sweet and each breath she took in his proximity, enamoured her to him.
‘This is the story where order must confront chaos and if it wins, it will create a new world from its remains.’
Mirabelle glanced behind her.
‘Is it chaos or order?’ she said.
The Wild Man chuckled and rose to his full height.
‘I am of nature, which is outside of the games of Gods. But I will tell you what you seek.’
Mirabelle’s stomach fluttered as she glanced up at him.
‘Words, your highness. You must find the words.’
‘I have words. Entire libraries of them, I came to talk to the djinn because there’s so little in the archives. Words won’t do.’
He sighed and gave her a look of concern.
‘You must travel further. When you return, look towards The Eternal City. Asra will help you.’
Her heart sunk at the thought of further travel.
‘The dagger is good, Mirabelle, but you will need more than blades to reach The Eternal City. When you get there, sit beneath the World Tree at fifth sunset and listen.’
She babbled questions, but he reached down and put the tip of his index finger between her eyebrows.
‘He fights for you still, and he loves you.’
Everything went black.
Asra stood over her, wiped her forehead with a damp cloth as Mirabelle blinked and stared at the burnished stone overhead.
‘Mirabelle, I came to and found you like this. Are you sick?’
Mirabelle sat up and sighed.
‘Only of my burdens, Lady Asra. I need your help.’