Once upon a time, Ahmed came back to the fire with a brace of birds, their plucked corpses swinging from his clenched fist as he grinned through a mouthful of broken, yellowing teeth and uneven beard. He tossed them to the dirt and turned his head to spit. The scimitar hung from his left hip was scarred from years of use, spilling the blood of the Caliphate’s enemies.
‘Allah has blessed my aim.’
Rashid stuck his dagger into the breast of a bird and lifted it from the sand, swiped the sand with a lazy swipe of his fingers.
‘It makes up for having to come to this place but only just.’
He glanced over the flames at where the Lady Asra sat with the queen from across the water. She wore the traditional hijab but her pale hands and red hair were visible. The sight of her aroused his flesh, but he held his faith in good standing. He imagined the curves
Asra could also kill him without breaking a sweat, which made his adherence to chastity easier to bear.
They had ridden out before dawn, accompanying the women on a ride out to Bawwabat Jinn. Asra wore a scarlet silk hijab and long skirts. She mounted a brown stallion. Mirabelle wore a hijab in white and had a small dagger sheathed on her hip. Rashid enjoyed how she mounted the horse, lowering her eyes to avoid tempting the men but with a sympathetic light in her eyes which inflamed him all the more.
Asra led them at a charge beyond the high white walls, out into the desert where the blank majestic scale made Mirabelle gasp with wonder. A clear, blue sky hung above them, bright and sharp as a blade and it hurt Mirabelle’s mind to see it.
‘It’s difficult to imagine anything lives out here.’ Mirabelle said.
Her voice was soft, assuaging the headache from too much time squinting beneath the harsh sunshine. Asra grinned as she sat upright in her saddle.
‘The desert is a test for the faithful. His designs are everywhere.’ She said.
Asra pointed out a crepuscular fox, its wide eyes staring at the group with temerity as its tall, wide ears twitched against the desert wind. Mirabelle cooed with delight but the fox wrinkled it’s muzzle and dashed away from them.
‘Have you been tested by the desert, Lady Asra?’ Mirabelle said.
Asra raised her fingers to her forehead and gave a deep nod in the saddle.
‘Many times, which is part of why I’m taking you out here.’
Mirabelle frowned and fought the bubbling unease in her stomach.
‘You said there’s knowledge out here.’ Mirabelle said. ‘Didn’t we leave behind an entire library?’
Asra adjusted her hijab and pointed across the desert.
‘There will be answers at Bawwabat Jinn.’
Mirabelle’s hand went to the hilt of her dagger. Asra had presented it, telling her it was part of her personal armoury. The blade was volcanic glass, its edges honed to a gleam and the blade etched with symbols. The hilt was a single piece of black bone, hard and pitted like iron with leather wrapped around it. Mirabelle curtsied and blushed as she took the gift and placed it in the sheath. Asra did not point out the cultural prohibition within the Caliphate at arming a woman to her, having won the argument through force of arms a long time ago.
They rode through the morning. Mirabelle saw the shimmering sheets of black glass which scarred the sand in jagged patterns and Asra slowed her horse to a trot alongside her.
‘There were battles fought here against the djinn.’
Mirabelle frowned and Asra flung out her hands as though flicking something unpleasant from her fingers.
‘They wielded elemental forces the way we wield swords. We suffered for it.’
Mirabelle wanted to ask more, but Asra’s expression, melancholic and aggrieved, stopped her.
Bawwabat Jinn was over the next bank of dunes. It was the remains of a rift torn between the dimension of the djinn and the human world, held open by powerful, ancient magic and kept as a fortress from which the djinn waged their war.
‘What will we find there?’ Mirabelle said.
Asra smiled, but it did not reach her eyes.
Bawwabat Jinn was a structure made of black glass, a permanent wound in the world and left abandoned.
It resembled the intestines of some massive creature, spilling out onto the sand from a wound in the earth, a slick tunnel which went deep into the earth. Ahmed and Rashid guarded the entrance, which pleased both men. Ahmed stood the bow at his feet whilst Rashid wielded a dual-bladed pole arm. The black glass twisted and looped, frozen tongues of fire arranged around the entrance. Mirabelle noted how the soldiers hid their relief at being made to stand outside. Asra adjusted her scimitars on her hips and walked down the tunnel. Mirabelle walked after her.
‘In answer to your question, the Djinn feared The Dust and fought against them.’ Asra said. ‘It means they had weapons, strategies and the will to defeat them.’
Mirabelle frowned and touched the hilt of her dagger for reassurance.
‘We have none of those expect perhaps the latter.’ She said.
Asra glanced over her shoulder and smirked.
‘Then we should get going.’ She said.
Mirabelle gazed into the darkness, her heart racing in her chest before she followed Asra into the Bawwabat Jinn.
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.