His House


Had he truly escaped, or was this just another trick? Rayan al-Qatil ran faster than a stallion through the dark Bourzey Woods, unaware if he was truly free or if he was still inside the dreaded walls of his house. It was far too dark to see, thick trees hiding away the sky. His sandals did not cover his feet, but the feeling of needles and weeds could just as easily have been chaff left on the floor from a dark ritual. The snapping of cedar branches against his face could simply be the arms of the dead reaching out as he tried to depart the endless catacombs.

The house had called out to him all throughout the morning, something forbidden yet attractive for that same reason. Strange marks scratched into tree trunks and stones announced a path through the forest, promising something empowering those meant to reach the end - and something menacing to those who should keep away. Foliage grew thicker, a creek transformed into a stream reeking with the scent of rotting leaves, and the wind’s volume bowed down to an empty silence in the name of a godless power. And at the end of it all was a rotting structure with falling thatch, dusty windows, and a creaking noise that got louder the more Rayan focused on the dilapidated home.

He knew that he was meant to be menaced by the path, but he could not hold back from the bleak building before him. The house was immersed in enchantment, and Rayan was convinced that he should exorcise it of the dark powers that promised to fly forth from the doors at any moment. Nocking an arrow in his bow, Rayan slowly made his way up the steps to the porch and gingerly put his foot underneath the space below the front door, relieved when now sound was made as the door opened.

The moment he crossed the threshold, he fearfully dropped his bow and covered his ears at the sound of the door hinges screeching into place. He leaped back toward the entrance only to find himself slammed against unmoving wood, the gap beneath the door disappearing. Turning around, he did his best to remain quiet as he picked up his fallen bow, cursing the lack of light barely allowed in by the grimy windows. Opposite from the door was a dusty hearth, ancient ash bleeding out onto a faded violet rug… No, it was a banner, the standard of the djinn Iblis. Even after hundreds of years alone, dark threads in the center still depicted a circle of five outwards-shaping triangles, symbols of the mountains that bound the djinn’s ghastly realm of Barkania. Aswad sahar, black magic, bound this impossible house together, so Rayan would need to use sahar of his own to exit.

To Rayan’s right was the entrance to another room, and to his left was a hall with stairs leading up and down, and Rayan decided to take the stairs, hoping that perhaps the upper rooms had an easier exit. The staircase was decorated with grim paintings, to his left a soldier transforming into a ghoulish nasnas and to his right a grand armored giant sitting atop a throne. Both figures seemed to be looking directly at the person regarding them, a cheap trick that artists had long ago learned to emulate. What unnerved Rayan more than the uncanny looks was a nondescript smell wafting through the air, filling his nostrils yet beguiling his brain.

At the top of the stairs, Rayan found a short hallway with rooms to his right and left perpendicular to a door at the end. In both of the side rooms, Rayan found dusty bunk beds, unkempt since time immemorial but not especially disturbing. Taking a closer look at the dusty windows inside, Rayan saw that the pane dividers had serrated edges, promising to shred anyone who punched out the glass and tried to escape.

The room at the end of the hallway greeted its visitor with another bizarre illusion, the floor and ceiling bending ever so slightly as a door not quite shaped like a perfectly rectangle leaned backward, the handle appearing out of reach even as Rayan moved closer. Rayan raised his bow and considered kicking in the door to defend himself from anyone who might be hiding until he noticed that somehow his shadow had crept underneath the door, revealing his presence to anyone lurking on the other side. He put his arrow back in its quiver and slung his bow over his shoulder but brandished a knife as he turned the creaky door handle.

Rayan was quickly nauseated by what he saw, clothing and armor with dark stains strewn about on the ground. Chairs lined the walls, interrupted only at the far end of the room by a stained altar topped by a knife caked in decayed blood paired with a black birch podium holding up a single book. The room had a dusty window on the roof, pane dividers also serrated, leaving Rayan without options for an easy exit. He wondered for a moment if he should leave the book on the podium, but he decided that the leaders of Shajarah’s magicians, the sahara, would want to at least know what was written within.

Slowly moving to the front of the room, Rayan espied letters on the cover but could not discern exactly what was written. Even when he stood directly in front of the podium, the words seemed out of focus, and Rayan wondered if his eyes had become damaged. He stopped himself from chuckling at the thought that perhaps it was a tome of benign secrets, simply containing a list of recipes - and then the letters solidified themselves before his eyes: wasifat, recipes. His blood ran cold as the nondescript scent of the house took on a new aura, vaguely smelling of food yet not any definitive dish.

He frantically opened the book, flipping through pages filled with jumbled letters that remained unfocused, secrets keeping themselves safe as Rayan searched for ingredients that would not be revealed. The house’s scent vacillated between different hints of aromas, but nothing stuck in the mind of a man with a zealous love of food. Suddenly, a note of sour citrus hit Rayan’s nose and he stood still as goosebumps dared to pop loudly from his skin. Staring down at the page, he saw a recipe for kibbet rabeh, and he knew true fear as though for the first time in his life. Rayan immediately ran out of the room and flew down the stairs, unable to even stop and look at the paintings he wouldn’t be surprised to see had moved.

He forced himself to go around to the opposite side of the house even as his nostrils were flooded with the aroma of stewed lentils and lemon juice. Once a favorite, now merely a harbinger of vomit, kibbet rabeh was what Rayan’s godfather Faisal had made that day. Oh, that fateful day that Rayan had unexpectedly sauntered into the quarters of the man who had raised him, Faisal taking a break from the rigors of leading troops at the fortress of Altawam to sup on a dish they had come to love. Perhaps that was why Rayan had so carelessly flaunted a decision that he knew his godfather would oppose, thinking that Faisal’s love was unconditional.

“You’re home early, Rayan.” The words were spoken softly but they seemed to deafen Rayan as he turned a corner and found himself in his godfather’s quarters once again. Rayan shook his head in surprise and glanced at his surroundings, growing further shocked as he locked down and found himself dressed in the gaudy frock he had worn as an apprentice sahir.

“Is this home?” Rayan felt clouded as the memories of his adult life grew strangely dim, more the memories of plays and the imagination of legends than the truth of his past.

“Are the quarters of the sahara so rich that you don’t even recognize the rooms where you grew up?” Faisal laughed alongside unfamiliar words as the sound of his slurping seemed to echo into eternity.

“Sorry, I… I… Would you call for a quartermaster? I’d love a bowl of that!” Rayan felt his appetite and mood perk up as he remembered with confidence the news he had for his godfather. He would not be a sahir, spending his days practicing miracles without purpose as people starved around him. No, Rayan had decided to become a patroller, scouting the wilderness of Shajarah for criminals and keeping the people safe.

“But of course! Join me, son, you must be worried if you came all this way unannounced.” Faisal rang a bell next to his table and waved Rayan to take a seat on a floor cushion next to him. “What troubles you?”

“Well, Faisal, I… I don’t trust the sahara. They possess great wealth, and they say they care for the poor, but the only blessings they bestow are prayer.” Rayan shook his head as he recalled the many begging children he had seen in the street turned away by fat magicians who would gain more weight at their next meal. “I can’t bear to study sahara any longer, I want to do something that actually helps people.”

Faisal shook his head with a smile that conveyed understanding. “You see nothing new in this world, Rayan. Injustice is common. You father’s vision that you would be a great sahir one day was perhaps driven by the disappointment you see today. Maybe you are the one who will turn the hearts of the sahara back to the welfare of the people, as commanded by the Sacred Book.”

“No.” Rayan shook his head, worried at the early touches of a frown that appeared in Faisal’s eyes. “I’ve read a thousand treatises by a thousand sahara, all making the same observations and prayers, but none of them turned the hearts of their peers. I am surely destined for the same irrelevance. So, I wanted-”

“What, don’t tell me you’ve decided to join the military!” Faisal laughed into a napkin, taking care not to stain Rayan’s clothes. “You weren’t raised for war, son. I saw to that, as your father wished. Remember, he wished for you to be a sahir, after the vision he had.”

“Yes, the vision.” Rayan hung his head and prepared to defy his godfather for the first time in his life. He had let Faisal say no to hundreds of simple and beneficent requests, but Rayan was tired of being forced onto a path that he could not walk in good conscience. “Faisal, you’re my true father. I have no memory of the man who sired me, so his visions are his. I’m going to be a patroller.”

“You what?” Faisal’s mood changed swiftly, and he quickly stood up from his cushion on the floor. A servant knocked on the door with the other bowl of soup, but Faisal growled and the knocking stopped. “You listen, boy. Disappointing your father is a pain that never heals. My father did not wish for me to join the Jund, and after I departed for war, he died without a chance for us to be reconciled. I swore on my life that I would raise your father as he wished, so go straight back to the arms of the sahara or I will have you hauled there in chains!”

“No!” Rayan jumped up and stared defiantly at Faisal. “I’ve made my choice. This will be my life. I can always be a congregation elder some day, but I am called to the wilds where I can serve people. Not some stuffy library writing books about how magicians ignore the needs of our neighbors!”

“Bin khaliba!” Faisal shouted an insult he had used sparingly when raising Rayan, a jarring epithet that named him the offspring of something forbidden. “You have one chance to apologize and return to your training. Or you can find yourself without a father once more.”

“You don’t mean that.” Rayan gritted his teeth and continued staring straight at Faisal. “I’m your son. I don’t say it often enough, but you’re my true father. I will always see you that way. Right now, I need you to see me as your son, not the son of your friend, and accept the path I believe the Ruh is guiding me down.”

“You believe the spirit of Ilah is guiding you down this path?” Faisal’s eyebrow arose in skepticism. “Fine… Prove it to me with a miracle!” Faisal kicked his bowl of kibbet rabeh off the table, the warm liquid burning Rayan’s foot.

Anger. No child should be treated that way. Even as a teenager, Rayan was still young, and he needed his father’s affirmation and support. Instead he got pain.

“How dare you do that to your son! You were no father to me!” Rayan angrily drew his bow and fired an arrow into Faisal, who faded into oblivion as the patroller once again found himself in the house. The light was once again dim, and the house was quiet, but the stench of stewed lentils still filled the air.

“Your memories are his.” A gravelly voice suddenly filled the house, and Rayan nocked another arrow into his bow, turning his head from side to side to find the source.

“Your body is his. Your soul is his. Resist for just a moment, submit to his power, and resign yourself to his control.” Several voices were speaking.

Rayan hesitantly moved toward the front room and saw three figures headed toward the staircase, each covered in a hooded cloak over a different color, blue, green, and yellow. He blinked. No, blue, green, and red. He blinked again. No, Yellow, green, and…

“Face me, djinn!” Rayan leaped into the front room and pointed his bow at the figures, who stopped but did not turn. The colors of their clothing rotated every moment Rayan’s focus changed, and he moved to the back of the wall, afraid that one of them would sneak up from behind him.

“Did one enter when we did?”

“No, just before.”

“Close enough. Should we transform him, too?”

“No, if we let him leave, the rest of us can be transformed!”

“But he’ll sound the alarm!”

“It matters not. The master’s plan is predestined.”

Rayan gulped at the final word as he watched the arms of the three figures fall to their sides before their arms slowly wrapped around their backs. Hands were revealed, each beginning to shift a gaudy ring around their respective index fingers.

“Though many souls enter, only one may exit. The master’s plan is predestined.”

“Out of the house, right now!” Rayan growled. “You’re under arrest for suspicion of treason. I know what you are, Muqadaris!”

“You know nothing of his house!” The three figures cackled allowed and whipped around, throwing away their hoods and revealing skeletal faces consumed with violet light as hooks suddenly dropped from the ceiling and impaled them. They screamed for a moment and began to spasm as their bodies were transformed into nasnas. Rayan looked toward the door and saw it open just a crack. He raced toward it but felt hours pass in the moment before he finally reached the handle, swung wide, and jumped over the porch onto the ground. He ran as fast as he could, unaware of whether he was truly free or trapped within another illusion.

Eventually, he found himself by a secret pond where he often rested and looked up to see the moon and stars that had replaced the bright afternoon sun that had guided his steps into the house. Seeking one last sign that he was free, he stripped his clothes and jumped into the pond, shivering as the cold water awoke him and preoccupied his mind from the terror that had chased him. There was something forbidden in these woods, and it was no accident that Rayan had found it. Once he was dry, Rayan would run until he reached the great fortress of Maebar al-Bourzey to warn the greatest warriors and sahara in his country of a threat they needed to fight - perhaps earlier than expected.