1:00 pm


The two men emerged into the bright sunlight from beneath the fallen obelisk. The storm had passed, and the sky was clear.

No need for the masks any more.

They carefully set their burden down on the sand, removed their masks, and then resumed their task, dragging the woman between them. Though badly wounded, she would live long enough to be sacrificed properly.

Just long enough.

"My...name is...Rachel," I gasp as they drag me along, blood trickling from a knife wound to my stomach. My guts burn. There's no use struggling. I know I'm almost gone. But there's something. Something so important.

"Please," blood trickles out of my mouth as I look at one of the men, "Come close."

I hear the scream from over the dunes. Long and blood boiling, then it cuts off with a wet sound. My camels shift nervously, but they're steady beasts and don't strain their lines. I take my old British rifle, bought for a bundle of cotton and two pints of goats milk, and run low up the side of the nearest dune. With my beat up telescope in hand, lens scraped to fogginess by years of blowing sand, I lay at the top of the bowl where I had been watering my team in the oasis and peer across the land.

There it was...something moving just at the bottom of this high dune. I try in vain to rub the lens clean, likely only making it worse, and put it back to my eye. I can see someone rolling around weakly in the sand, and there are others, not moving. Some kind of dark stain in the sand around them. *All* around them.

It could be a bandits trap, but I was returning empty handed on this trip...if they'd been following me they would know that and wouldn't waste their time. My camels were reliable and steady, but too old to steal. I stand up and half run, half slide down the dune towards them.

Arriving at the bottom, I am taken aback. I say a quick prayer to Allah, trying to take in what I see and match it to reality. There is a girl lieing in the middle of blood soaked sand, dark red in the bright midday sun, surrounded by what used to be two men...perhaps three. It was hard to tell now. There were bits of them everywhere.

"Girl," I say in my best english (which is not very good), as she was clearly a foreigner, "Girl!"

That's when I notice the blood oozing from a large gash in her stomach. I look around, look up the dunes, look to the sky as if for an answer from my god. Nothing is forthcoming. I spit in my hands and rub them together for luck, putting my rifle across my back. I drag the girl out of the circle of blood and gore, and tear off a strip from my desert robes to wrap her stomach with. It's a bad wound, and needs stitching. As a barber I can do this, but not until I get her back to my camels.

"Girl, we have to stand now," I say, lifting her to her feet. She's lost a lot of blood, and her head rolls backwards on her neck as I stand her up, "walk...try to walk."

It's tough going, but I get her up over the dune and down the other side. I had intended to make more miles before sunset, and an oasis isn't the best place to be at night in this part of the desert, but I couldn't let this girl die here. I get out some alcohol, clean and bandage her wound temporarily, and then make a small camp while she rests. She groans now and then, but doesn't move too much. Good for that, as the wound won't stay shut until I can put thread to it.

Once I have the blankets up for shelter from the blowing sand, I boil water and clean my instruments and stitch her wound, then rewrap it, tighter this time. I let her sleep for perhaps two hours by the slant of the sun, and then I boil some root tea and heat flatbread on my cooking stone. I place a clay cup of the tea next to her head, and waft the steam towards her nose. It's strong smell wakes her, but slowly.

"Girl...move slow. You are hurt much bad," I say to her, "and your friends are dead."

As her eyes open I see something there...something alien and strange. It's not shock or blood loss...I'd seen those many times. It was a level of confusion that I hadn't witnessed except in animals about to be slaughtered in my youth.

"I am Fafik ibn Sumia, and I am a barber. I have sewn your wound. You must not sit up."

Still that look...like she was seeing straight through me.

"Girl...can you hear? Has your head also been damaged?"

"It has been," says your camel. "But not like you think."

You nod, then jump to your feet.


You look at the camel. He's standing there, half asleep. Certainly he did not speak.

These things do not happen, except in fables. Like the ones you used to enjoy as a child, until you first witnessed an animal slaughtered for food, heard its cry, almost resounding in your head, echoing, always with you thereafter... something you'd thought you had forgotten and buried...

But no, animals do not speak. That would be madness.

The sun must be getting to you. Better drink some extra water.

Eyeing Molia, the aged camel chewing her cud, I drink some water from my skin and mumble a quick prayer.

I see the foreign girl moving, about to sit up.

"Do not, girl!" I say, holding my hand out and waving it back and forth, "You will pull out stitches and lose guts in sand! You need rest now...good rest."

I kneel beside her and feel her breath on the back of my hand. Weak...faltering. I have never lost someone that needed my help. I would not start today.

"Why are you out so far in desert? Where are your camels? Do you speak english?"

I look at him as he asks me, wondering why he's helping me. Maybe he didn't see?

"I can speak Arabic," I say to him in Arabic, assuming it to be his native language.

"We have to keep moving. Only in motion can we stay ahead of the beast. It hunts. We have seen the work of the beast -- here and elsewhere."

I glance at the camel with a nervous sneer, then back to the girl.

"Good good, my English is poor" I say to her, "something tells me we have to keep moving...I don't know what. Bite this."

I hand her a small leather wrapped stick, many teeth marks already scar it's surface. She puts it between her teeth and I gently push her back on to her back on my blankets. I pull her wounds bindings tighter than I'd like to, but I can't let the stitches pull loose. She intakes breath sharply, but does not let out the scream I expected. She is tougher than most men.

"Your friends are dead," I tell her matter-of-factly, "I am sorry."

I start striking the camp as the wind starts to pick up. I shake my head and mumble another prayer, this one for guidance in the coming sandstorm. I have travelled these deserts for years, and I can smell them before they hit. I can feel it on my skin, the hairs on my arms rising.

"Are you sure about this? We haven't weathered even a small sandstorm together for many seasons, and we are both older now," I say to Molia, the camel. It's only after that I realize I said it out loud. I look to the girl to see if she thinks me perhaps a madmen, but then see that look in her eyes again and decide it is me that should be worried about her.

Between the pain and the coming storm, which sends shivers down my back in warnings and causes a dull ache between my shoulder blades, I'm barely keeping control.

"Let me out," it says, "I can help you."

And it can, too. It always has. It's so tempting. But not now. I have to keep it in control, until I find out a way out of here. If this man dies, I die with him. And all it knows how to do is kill. So I wait, for now.

I watch him talk to his camel. It's a little strange but I'm a walking case of uniqueness and I figure people talk to things that don't talk back all the time. It could be indicative of other things, but that's not important right now. Set is advancing fast, and he wants me sacrificed.

Molia has no answers.

You get the tent set up, stake it down hard beside a dune, and hunker down the best you can. Molia turns her head away from the wind, shuts her eyes and lays down. You get the feeling she'll make it through, but you're not so sure about anyone who is not-camel.

Fafik takes a moment to check the girl's wounds, and finds that the wound is bleeding much less than it was before, much less than he thinks it should be. Perhaps his stitching has improved over the years? Perhaps her wounds were not as bad as they had seemed?

It's easy to lie to himself, but he knows that's just to avoid a truth he has no answer for.

I see the look on his face when he looks at my stitching. By the look on his face, his confusion, and his absolute ordinariness, I quickly toss the idea that he's valuable in any real fashion. I'll probably let him live, mostly out of gratitude. So that's where I'll stay, for now. But I'm not going to let him know more than is necessary.

"Is something wrong?" I ask, faking concern and trust.

"Hm? No...nothing is wrong. Not with me anyways, girl. But you are the strangest find I may have ever come across in these deserts."

That blank stare...the look of a killer. The same eyes as the men from the slaughter tents. Or those that comb the scorched wastes of the dead in India, eating their burnt flesh. Perhaps those men were not her friends, but her captors.

"*Now you're thinkin*," Molia says around her cud.

I glance to Molia, then back to the girl.

"As soon as the sand blows over we will leave. I can get you as far as Sana, a town perhaps half day from here. Your wound is doing well, so we can make good time girl. You didn't tell me...what are you doing so far out in the desert? You are not from Sana...I would recognize a foreigner from there."

"*She will be like a jackal if cornered*," Molia warns me.

I nod thoughtfully and load some herb into my thin clay pipe, feeling the handle of my jambiya under my robes with my left elbow as I do so.

"He suspects something. Let me out." No, I say in my head. Not yet. He could be useful.

"I was traveling. I am from Europe. My husband and I were traveling with some people we knew when we were attacked by raiders or something. They killed the people I traveled with..." I force myself to begin sobbing. That's good, put some pathos in there. "That's all I remember. They hurt me, and I blacked out. Did...did you save me?" Good, good, put him on the defensive. See if we can trust him. Not the best lie, but it'll do for now.

The sand swirls around, thicker, faster, harder, making it difficult to speak. Several minutes into the storm the wind seems to pick up to a strange howl, a sort of buzzing, and the sky grows suddenly darker...

...as a plane flies overhead, maybe 10 feet up, and plummets into the ground, engine whining and sputtering.

There is a horrifying crunch, and then nothing but the wind again.

"I believe you saved yourself girl, I came upon you and your captors were already dead. Where were you travelling, and why? This part of the desert does not forgive careless trav..."

The roar of the wind takes my words from me, and I cover my pipe with my hand. I grit my teeth against the stinging sands, swuinting my eyes in a practiced manner. I cut my teeth on grit from the dune sea, but that was many years ago. Retirement is a steadily more appealing option.

The crunch breaks me out of my reverie.

Pipe clamped between teeth, I peer out from under a tent flap and see the dull orange glow of something burning on the nearest dune, on the other side of the oasis. I put my left hand on Molia's head, where she always sticks it into the tent. I put my pipe away. I slowly crawl out of the tent, pulling my scarf about my face and taking my old British rifle with me.

"Stay here...you don't want sand in your wound," I mumble to the girl, knowing that she either won't hear me or won't obey.

I see him crawl out of the tent, rifle gripped in one hand. Something dangerous out there. Should I follow? I don't want to lose control, to reveal myself to him. I follow, but stay far behind. Best to know what's going on out there so I can prepare for it. I sneak out of the tent, letting my companion get far ahead. A plane...? What could that mean? I move forward cautiously, keeping my wound covered and sticking to the ground, just in case.

I can barely see through the sand as I approach the wreck. I've rarely seen these flying machines, and can't tell which end is which. I yell out to any survivors in vain, the wind ripping the words right from my mouth and hurling them across the desert.

Then I spot the movement...small at first, it wouldn't be notied by someone not used to the 'way things should be' in the desert. Something was struggling to free itself from the debris. Running closer as best I can in the wind, I grab the outstretched arm and pull.

No good. They're trapped.

I strap my rifle around my back, knowing that if I need it now it will be no good with it's barrel fouled with sand. I heave some of the wreckage to the side, and pull again on the arm. It's easier now, and whoever it is is dragged free from the wreckage. I half pull, half carry whoever it is back towards the shelter of the tent. It's only once we are back inside that I notice the girl is gone, but my surprise at the appearance of who I have rescued distracts me from this....

You look down and see a small boy, head shaved and tattoed with scars, some more recent than others. Surgical - you recognize that much. The boy is dressed in loose clothing, and his ankles are shackled together. He is unconscious.

It is clear that he was not piloting the plane. There is someone else about.

Hiding, I watch as the man pulls a small boy from the wreckage, dressed in shackles. Then I see what the man can't - another being, looks like a man, extricating itself from the wreckage on the other side. He crawls over the dune, desperate to get out of the sand storm, moving for shelter.

"It's them," the Beast says. "They always find you."

"Always," I grunt. "Well, we'll put an end to it this time."

I need the Arab's help. I can't let the Beast out in my condition. It could kill me. I need his gun.

Crawling, I make it back to the tent. The sandstorm continues to rage all about, with no end in sight. I get on my knees and push the flap back, pulling myself in.

Then I see my son, long lost, laying in the Arab's arms, shackled and covered in scars.

I look up as the girl enters the tent...

"Water! But clean from the skin, not the basin!" I snap.

I go for my picks at my belt... I haven't always been a barber...and make short work of the shackles on his ankles.

"Girl! The water!" I repeat.

"*There are more outside*," Molia drawls nonchalantly, as is her way.

"More children?" I ask outloud.

"*No...more like the girls captors*," she tells me.

That's when the tent flap is flipped to the side. I don't think about it much, or else I probably won't do it. I raise the rifle from where I laid it on the floor of the tent and fire from the hip, once into his chest. A huge cloud of sand accompanies the shot, but the rifle fires true. I use the lever to put another round in the chamber, and raise the rifle to my shoulder. As the sand clears I see him stumbling. I can't tell if he's hurt or not.

Why wouldn't he be? I just shot him...

For good measure I shoot him again as he goes down. I drop the rifle and look at my hands, half expecting to see his blood on them.

I must renounce my vow of nonviolence to Allah at temple when I get back to Sana. I have harmed another with only the urgeings of a camel to back me up. I look at the girl, expecting to find disapproval in her face, then remember the look she carries in her eyes.

"I am no longer fit to call myself a healing man," I mumble...not really sure to who.

I am stunned. Everything goes by in a blur. All I can focus on is my son. It's been so long, so many years. And...his face. What happened to him?

The gun shot takes me out of my reverie, almost letting the Beast out in my shock and causing me to start, turning and seeing a man take a bullet in the chest, then another in the back. I only see his face in glimpses, but I think I recognize him.

No time for that now. My son.

I have to be careful. Can't reveal this one weakness that dropped out of the sky to this man who could try to take advantage of it. If I let the Beast out in anger or self-defense, it'll rip both the man and my son apart. I can't risk that. I have to be careful.

"What happened to him?" I ask carefully, betraying only curiosity. Not love. Please God not love.

As I look at her, I see not the blank killing stare I expected, but something deeper. It's the most emotional I've seen her in the short tmie we've been together. What is it though? Is that shock? Confusion? Mere curiosity? My gut tells me it's more than that, but there's no time for that now.

"I don't know. His arm is broken and I can set that. What has been done to his head has ben done by a doctor of some kind. I am only a barber girl...not a surgeon," I answer her, "he will be fine if you stay with him. I will go see if there are any others at the plane."

I take up my rifle...there are 3 shots left in it. It feels heavy in my grasp, and as I step out of the tent the sight of the man lieing there in a heap makes me vomit in the sand.

What have I done?

The man's body twitches in the sand, and as it does a heavy force slams into your back, sending the rifle into the sand. You roll with the brunt of the attack, and your attacker passes over you and lands in a crouch, quickly turning to look at you. He's a man, like the other, but different somehow. Bestial, savage, possessed by something within that hasn't been seen in thousands of years. He pauses for a moment over his fallen comrade, but only long enough to determine his fate. Then he turns back towards you.

As soon as the barber's back is turned, I focus on my son, letting my emotions show, hoping they somehow make him better. It's been a long time.

I barely notice the sound of the barber throwing up into the sand. Things much more important than a man's problems with killing are at hand. Then, suddenly, the beast rises and almost takes control in a surge of fury. I barely stem the tide, gasping for air, but I know what this means. Another of my kind is close, close enough that I can smell him. This is about my son. The chances of finding my son and another of my kind close by him are just too much. How can I survive this? How can my son, so long denied me, survive this?

It all depends on the barber. There is little to no chance of me surviving this fight, let alone releasing the Beast another time. But if the barber can survive, and take care of my son, then I can go. I begin frantically putting a plan into motion. I have to hide my son. I roll him into blankets, clothes, whatever is at hand, pushing his limp body to the side of the tent. Then I gather some more clothes, enough to make it look like a child wrapped in a bundle.

I hear the barber go down. "Please, Osiris," I whisper, "Let him survive." It's now or never. I kick the center pole of the tent out and begin running, crying because of the pain and the desperation, clearing the burlap and making my way into the desert, making as much noise as possible, hoping to get him to come after me.

I've rolled over in the sand and see this other staring me down like a jackal. The rifle is too far, and he is too fast. I couldn't shoot another man now if I tried anyways. Their is a first time for everything, but that time can also be the last.

Will be the last.

"Stop this madness!" I yell to him in Arabic, "leave the girl and the lad alone!"

He looks at me and I see the glint. The glint of a dog about to pounce on meat in the streets of Sana. A rabid, feral look. Keen, interested, even hungry...but emotionless. The same look as the girl.

His attention is distracted by something. He looks past me into the desert. I can feel the stress of my camel and look to Molia, at first thinking he means to attack her like the dog he is. That's when I see the tent go down, my camel go up, and the girl run into the sands with something clutched to her chest. This jackal man springs after her, and I am alone in the night again.

Except Molia...who is nudgeing something under the fallen tent. It's the boy...of that I am sure.

I can't even begin to gather the tent or the things I used to tend the girls wounds. Haste it was is called for now. I get on the camel, the boy across Molia's back, and ride in the opposite direction. I leave the rifle, I leave the girl, and I leave hope as well.

No one rides off into the desert with only one satchel of supplies. I am no fool...

...so what am I doing this for then?

The storm dissipates in time, and Molia seems more lively as she trudges dutifully across the broad sands. The boy remains mercifully silent, and not once does he cry. Just looks up at you now and then, blinking.

You travel for days, feeding the boy what you think proper. Water, mostly. Food you chew yourself, then regurgigate into his mouth. He spits most of it up, but he remains alive.

On the seventh day, Molia snorts.

"Someone is coming after. Fast."

Someone you can't outrun... you stop the camel and turn, holding the boy close, watching as the figure comes closer... closer...

It is the woman. She has lost an arm.

"But what has she gained?" asks Molia.

Indeed, she seems different now. Somehow less, and somehow more, her gait somehow less bestial, but her eyes betraying a strange confidence.

Strange voices drift to me on the breeze coming over the dunes. Sana is not far off from here, but not nearly close enough that sound would carry to me. Who is this "Scott" that the sands whisper to me about?

I pat Molia on the side of her neck, more to calm myself than to calm the steady animal. I watch warily as the girl approaches...how could she run across the desert with one arm off? She should be dead.

"Girl!" I shout as she approaches, realizing that what I'm about to say is a foolish question given the cirumstances, "How do you fare?"

For the first time in a long time, I feel a smile crack my face. Then I laugh out loud. The clothes I have pressed to my arm are almost soaked through with blood. All things considered, I shouldn't be alive. But I am, and maybe I'll make it. I see my boy. He doesn't seem to recognize me. He wouldn't. But he's alive, he's alive and that's all I need to know. I stagger closer, looking at my son. I reach out to touch him, but my feet give way and I tumble into the sands. I faint.

Every time I meet this girl in the desert, she is unconscious. I slide down from Molia's back and roll the girl over, checking her wound first and foremost. The cloth covering the wound is soaked in blood, caked in sand...but underneath, like her other wounds when first I found her, it is almost closed. Still, she should be dead.

I mumble another prayer under my breath and gesture for the boy to come down from Molia as well. As he approaches me, cautiously at first, I show him to hold the wond with the cloth, keeping pressure on the small bit of blood that still flows. I move to Molia and she lays down, allowing me access to the single pack strung on her back. I take out a bit of clean gauze I have, and the last of the clean water. I clean the wound as best as can 9as best as it seems to need) and bandage bit. I show the boy step by step without saying a word...the same way I learned from the deaf mute on the streets of Sana. Odd that Voices should guide me now, when in my past it was the voicelss whose hand I followed.

Allah...what have I gotten myself into?

Finshed showing the boy the weave knot that finishes off a broad dressing such as this, I speak to him for the first time in days.

"This woman gave her arm for you boy," I begin, "you are bound to her now through this debt. Sharia Law demands it. Allah would see it be so. Do you understand your debt to this woman?"

He nods a small nod. It's the nod of someone that doesn't know what you said, but in his eyes I can see that the message has come across to him somehow. It's the same look that my teacher in my youth must have seen on my own face.

"Good, then we can continue on. By afternoon we approach the town of my birth, and I would have the three of us go to the Temple knowing our place. There can be no secrets before Allah and his Prophet," I finish.

"*Your sermon is over the boys head. God is too big for one religion,*" Molia says to me as the boy helps me get the girl onto her humped back.

"*You are a heathen, but Allah will forgive you at the Temple,*" I respond.

It almost looks like a grin on Molia's face as she stands up carrying me, the boy, and the woman. I return the smile, feeling for the first time in days as though I have regained my god's faovr somehow. It's been sometime since Molia carried such a load of people, and she likes it. It's been sometime since the load has been lifted from my own back, and I like it.

I walk with Allah and his Prophet as Molia carries the three of us into Sana. Today I do the work of god, and my feet walk in the path of Mohammed.

I come to, but only just barely, swimming in a sea of pain and exhaustion, watching the city pass by me as we enter it, people moving to and fro before me. They shout in Arabic, but I can't understand what they're saying. It takes concentration, and I don't have the will. So I just watch, letting them slide by, letting their bargaining, their bickering, their musing and their praying slide right by.

We come upon the temple. This I recognize. But I can't go in there. I must not.

The boy leaps down from Molia, hand tracing a path through her fur as he walks towards the temple.

And then the boy is lost in the crowd, and the temple swallows him up.

And the crowd swirls and grows, and suddenly they are everywhere, everywhere, and...