Forthcoming in Dreamweavers (an anthology of Australian fantasy for teenagers).
We were eight days out into Quar al Eyre, the Empty Quarter. The countryside was like a dead thing. There were not even the small thorn bushes that you find in the lesser desert; just baking red sand under the relentless sun and at night the cold gritty wind moaning across flat lands.
We camped by the only landmark for miles around; a great tumbled pile of boulders broken by the sun.
''This will be our last hot meal, Ali,'' my older brother Sadjid told me, as we sat round our campfire that night shivering in the wind. ''There's no more fire wood. And if we do not find water for the camels in the next two days we must turn back.''
His voice was full of regret. The Sultan had offered the expedition 20 bars of gold if we managed to cross the Empty Quarter.
''Ha!'' said Memet the camel driver. ''No loss! The Sultan might well save his money. He'll get no joy from this accursed land. There's nothing out here to find.''
''You may be right,'' said a voice from out of the darkness.
The three of us gasped and Memet's hand went to his knife.
A figure stepped into the fire light.
''And then again, you may be wrong.''
''By the temple of Jaal,'' cried Sadjid. ''Where did you come from?''
The man, for it seemed to be a man, small and neat, regarded us with twinkling eyes.
''For a bowl of that fine smelling goat stew, I'll tell you all about it,'' he said.
Which proved he must have been in the desert a long time, for the stew was a rancid concoction of stringy goat jerky and water and tonight's batch smelt particularly bad.
Sadjid got up and filled a bowl with stew.
Memet grabbed his arm. ''What if it's a ... demon?''
''Then we'd do well to be polite to it,'' said Sadjid calmly.
The man chuckled as he took the bowl, a strangely rich sound in that desolate place.
''I'm a mortal man just like you. The most ordinary of men. In fact I was once a thief in Urruk. My name is Yasid Pathe.'' He put a spoonful of stew in his mouth and a look of ecstasy crossed his face as he rolled it round in his mouth.
''Ah! To eat meat again,'' he sighed.
''What are you doing out here? How do you live, by Jaal?'' asked Sadjid as well he might, for the man, without being fat, was well fleshed, his brown curls were shiny and his face and clothes were far cleaner than our own.
''Not by Jaal at all. I have the fortune to serve a great sorceress.''
''Sorceress!'' Memet spat in disgust ''Don't tell us such lies. Women cannot practise magic.''
He was right. Women, being unreasoning beings, have no gift for true magic, just for sleight of hand and superstitious nonsense.
''Memet!'' hissed Sadjid.
The man held up his hand.
''No! No! The man has his reasons. I thought as you did once. It was only experience that taught me otherwise. When I first met the woman whom I now serve, I thought her only a silly little girl. I was young then, about this one's age I would say.''
He pointed at me.
''Indeed,'' said Sadjid politely, though I could tell he didn't believe the man. ''Please tell us your story.''
The little man swallowed another mouthful of stew and began.
''There was a time when I offended a powerful group of necromancers called the Severed Brotherhood.''
Memet snorted. ''Camel dung!'' he muttered under his breath. ''No one offends the Severed Brotherhood and lives.''
The little man had disconcertingly good hearing.
''Quite so my friend, quite so.''
He began to speak of himself as he was then, a 14 year old boy apprenticed to the Urruk Thieves' Guild. ''One of the lightest fingered young knaves you could have hoped to find. Ah I would have blossomed into a thief of pure magic, I know it.''
The man was a wonderful story teller, his tone mellow and his voice rolling like the sea by the Gulf of Pashan. I lay back against the rocks and closed my eyes and saw clearly in my mind's eye the things he described.
I heard how a master thief came once to the Guildhouse at Urruk and through charm and the bestowal of much gold hired four of their likeliest boys to do a mysterious robbery.
I could almost see Yasid Pathe, a small nimble boy with twinkling dark eyes, crouched with the others in a shadows of a great stone room. Terrifying statues towered like vultures all around the boys, statues with great snouts, fanged teeth and sharp clawed hands. The shadows in the temple were thick and dark.
The temple smelt horribly of blood and rot and Yasid and his companions trembled and wondered at the sanity of their master, who even now urged them up towards the altar and the shining treasures upon it.
... Then suddenly there came the great clang of a gong. A procession wound toward us through the pillars of the temple. The others scattered to cover, but I found myself stranded in the middle of the temple in the path of the procession. My only escape was forward so I climbed up onto the altar and scrambled onto the stone canopy above it. Below me the procession stopped and formed into waiting rows; the horrible worshippers wearing plain black masks so that it seemed as if they had no faces, the hulking guards armed with huge curved swords, the weeping prisoners thin and shivering in their rags. I peered over the edge of the canopy as the gold-masked, red-robed high priest below addressed the crowd and the worshippers shouted their chanting replies.
Suddenly to my horror I felt the altar slide back. In the pit beneath it was a great seething brown and green mass of something. And the nauseous stench! Then the priest took one of those poor wretches and threw him into the pit and great slimy clawed arms and hands reached up and gripped him, tearing him limb from limb. I could no longer contain my revulsion. I'm just a thief with no taste for violence. My gorge rose and I vomited. Straight onto the head of the high priest.
Of the next few moments I have little clear memory. I remember the angry screams and curses of the worshippers. I remember jumping from the top of the altar to the next statue and the next. Then I was making off across the marble floor. The night was full of the great arms and flashing swords of the temple guards, whistling past my face and ears as I ran for my life. There was a flurry of movement behind me and shrill screams that made me dread to look back. I do not know the fate of my companions. I only know that I was the only one who made it back to the Guildhouse.
But even there it was not safe. I was brought before the Thieves' Guild leaders, three great fat men squatting on silken cushions. When they heard my tale their ruddy complexions turned pale as chalk. Oh, the wailing and dismay that filled the Guildhouse then. The lamentations over their foolishness in ever trusting the man who had hired us. It would have been funny had it not been so fatally serious. For it was only then that I learned that it was the temple of the Severed Brotherhood that we had been trying to rob and when I learned that, I knew with terrible certainty that I was doomed. The Temple could call upon a terrible Demon of Retribution to gruesomely kill those who offended it. Now I was a certain target.
Within minutes the Thieves' Guild had taken a unanimous vote to expel me from the Guild. I was taken, struggling and begging for mercy and flung out of the main door into the muddy street.
Why were the Thieves' Guild so cruel to me? It was because the Demon not only killed its prey, but destroyed all life nearby in its blood lust. It had been known to level whole towns when really roused. All the Thieves' Guild cared about was that I not be nearby when the Demon took me. Even though it had been all their fault, they cared only for their own miserable skins. They were so desperate to get rid of me that they gave me a vial of their priceless Fleetfoot ointment, usually only reserved for the greatest among them, and urged me to use it to get as far from the city as possible.
Only one of them proved to have any sense of justice. That was the Doorkeeper. As I lay face down in the muddy street clutching the vial and weeping with terror at my fate, he came to me and gave me a bottle of pills.
''Here is poison, he told me. When the Demon finally catches you, take it. It will make death quicker and less painful.''
''Is there nowhere that would be safe from this creature? I cried, grabbing at him.''
''Who can say? he replied pushing me firmly away, obviously already regretting his untheiflike kindness. Just take yourself as far away from here as possible lest the demon destroys the city along with you and all those deaths fall to your account when it comes to the time of judgement in the Afterworld.''
I did as I had been told. I left Urruk and wandered, dazed, in the surrounding fields for the rest of the night, unwilling to use up my precious Fleetfoot ointment until I had figured the best way to use it. Towards dawn, I found myself on the southern road and suddenly an idea come to me. If I continued South for two days, I would find myself at the edge of the dreaded Empty Quarter. Perhaps if I used my Fleetfoot ointment, I could cross to the unknown other land beyond or at the very least escape the Demon in its trackless wastes. It seemed a faint hope, but it was the only one I had. I set out at a jog.
I felt hopeful of at least reaching the Empty Quarter before the Demon caught me. As everybody knows, a Demon of Retribution does not follow its victim quickly. It merely follows you relentlessly, without pause for rest. It is part of its purely evil nature to enjoy the chase and the victim's fear as much as the actual killing and to prolong it for that purpose.
And it is a hellish chase. For the Demon lets you know it's coming by sending ahead its voice which yowls and screams and speaks in your head, always when you least expect it, gloating and telling you the details of the fearsome and bloody end awaiting you. It woke me sweating and screaming in the night and tormented me throughout the day. If I entered an inn to buy food it would yowl so loud I could not hear anyone speak. People shunned me as a mad man.
''I will kill you, Yasid! it would screech. I will rip, tear, rend and shred you and take your soul to hell.''
By the time I reached the edge of the desert, I was a shivering, red-eyed, starving mess. I was such a mess that the wretched convicts, who work all day in chains in the salt pans at the edge of the desert, looked at me with pity, shared their meagre meal with me and let me lie down to sleep among them in the freezing desert night.
But there was no rest for me. In the middle of the night came that hateful voice, driving me to my feet again.
''Puny fool, it yowled. I am but a day behind you now. You will never escape me. Soon you will be a smear of blood on the face of the universe.''
Shivering with fear as much as cold, I limped to the edge of the Empty Quarter. I was too tired by now to be dismayed by its desolate flatness. I took off my sandals, tied them round my neck and rubbed the Fleetfoot ointment into my feet.
The moment my feet touched the ground I was away, running out into the Empty Quarter. Like the wind I ran, so fast that everything was a blur. I ran and ran so fast that a great cloud of dust came up behind me and the air whistled in my ears. Oh, it was a wonderful ointment and I could have been a Prince among Thieves had I had a jar of it to use in Urruk.
I ran all that burning hot day. The speed kept me cool. I ran till the sun was low in the sky and I could run no more. At last I fell down as one already dead in front of this very rock. How long did it take you to get here? Seven days? Eight? Now you see the virtue of Fleetfoot ointment!
Little did I know as I fell down to sleep that I had stumbled into the domain of a great sorceress. These rocks are its only landmark.
The next thing I remember was waking to find gentle rain falling on my face.
I sat up. I was in a wondrous place. Where the night before had been bare sand and stone, was now soft grass and luscious green trees. Where the sky had been a merciless blue bleached by the sun, now soft grey clouds gently sprinkled soft warm rain on the ground. Where there had only been death, now trees bent down branches laden with fruit.
I reached up and and plucked a tangerine, but as I brought it to my parched lips I stopped. Could this be a magical place? My experiences of the past few days were beginning to teach me caution. How could such a place, a paradise appear so uncannily out of the desert? Was it the desert's own magic? Or was it something else evil? The trap of a Demon or an evil sorcerer?
As I pondered, tangerine half way to my lips, a voice laughed and said, ''Are you going to eat that or not?''
I looked up. There sitting on that very rock, the one that your young Ali is leaning on, sat a little girl. She looked to be only about twelve and she had dark hair and dancing dark eyes. She was quite pretty really, but what really made me stare open mouthed, was what she was wearing. She was literally covered in gold and jewels. Seven jewelled earrings hung from each ear and seven gold necklaces hung from her neck. Each of her toes and fingers were laden down with rings and she wore a huge belt round her waist studded with rubies.
A little girl, all unguarded and laden with jewels. It was enough to make a thief's mouth water.
But as I said, I had learned caution.
I asked her who she was and she told me her name was Marigoth. This garden was a magical place belonging to the desert. Marigoth and her father had lived here as long as she could remember worshipping the desert's spirit. Only a special few where permitted to see the garden, for she had watched other travellers die in the midst of this splendour unable to see or touch it.
''I am so glad the garden chose you. I have had no one to play with since Papa died. Do you play catch?''
Without waiting for an answer, she threw me a ball. I tell you my fingers itched when I caught that ball, for it was made of pure gold with tracings of silver. I had to force myself to throw it back.
''So you're all alone here, I said.''
''Oh yes and it's so lonesome. Do you play knucklebones?''
''No but I could surely learn.''
Normally I would have been revolted by the idea of playing such a baby's game with some kid, but now I wanted only to keep those wonderful jewels close. I did not for a moment believe her story about being alone. I knew little girls. They were always fond of silly stories. I had to find some safe way of getting the jewels so that the being in charge of the garden would not punish me. In my greed I completely forgot the Demon, whose hateful voice and visions seemed to have ceased.
She came down from the rock and we began to play. To tell you the truth, I did not play well. I was too busy looking with big eyes at her jewellery and calculating how I could steal it.
At length she became annoyed at my poor playing.
''You're not paying attention, she said. Boring thing! And she got up in a huff to go.''
That's when a wonderful idea came to me.
''I know a really good game, I said. I gathered up three nutshells and a stone. Now watch this and try and guess which nutshell the stone is under.''
It' s an old game I learned from the street fakirs and it never fails to fascinate. Of course you always palm the stone just before the fool chooses the shell so that no matter which shell they choose it is not there. It was an easy trick for a boy of my talents.
It fascinated her. We played for hours and she was quite happy to wager her jewels on the outcome. I let her win just often enough to keep her interested, but in the end I had won all her jewellery and her little gold ball.
She wanted to go on playing.
''But you have nothing left to wager, I said. My arms were tired and I would have been happy to stop.''
A strange look came into her eyes then, a kind of twinkling teasing look as if she was very amused at something.
''That's all right, she said I've plenty more in my cave.''
''Really! Where is that?''
''Follow me! she cried and ran off.''
I ran after her as fast as I could, but she was quickly out of sight among the trees.
''Marigoth! I cried. Where are you!''
''Here here! she called. Follow me! Follow me!''
I ran for almost an hour in the trackless forest of trees. Always ahead, or to the left, or to the right was the little girl's laughter and her voice crying, ''Here here!''
At last I collapsed breathless in a clearing. A few moments later, she appeared out of the bushes just a few feet away. She was wearing all her jewellery again and tossing her golden ball.
''Don't you want to play any more? she asked.''
''What are you wearing? Those are mine!''
''No they're not.''
''I won them from you. That makes them mine.''
''You cheated. I saw you hiding the stone in your sleeve.''
''I didn't. Secretly I was horrified that she'd noticed. Had I really been so clumsy?''
''You did too. Next time you can keep them. As long as you don' t cheat.''
I chased her in earnest this time, cursing and crying out my innocence. But it was no good. I could find neither her nor the jewels among the trees and eventually I had to give up. I was angry and frustrated at the silly little girl, who had teased me and tricked me so, but I had no doubts who would be the smartest in the end. I fell asleep plotting my revenge.
The voice of the Demon awoke me.
''Puny Mortal! it thundered. Did you think you could escape me behind such weak magic? I am almost on you. Wake and know despair.''
I screamed in terror and leapt to my feet, but it was pitch dark and I could see nothing. I was still in the garden. I could feel the trees and grass as I scrabbled around looking for a hiding place. A great storm came up. Lightning tore the sky apart and thunder made the very earth shake.
Suddenly the ground opened up before me and a figure sprang forth. It was Marigoth. She was still the same size, but there was no sign of the little girl in her expression now. Before I could speak, she struck me across the face.
''Wretched boy! What evil have you brought to this place?''
''We must run, I cried. It is a Demon of Retribution. It will kill us both and destroy the garden.'''
In a moment I babbled out the whole story.
''And now your evil has soiled my garden. Her eyes blazed with fury. She grabbed my arm in an iron grip.''
''Come! she bade me.''
She waved her hand and suddenly we stood before this rock again. We could see the edge of the garden and coming from out of the desert was the Demon.
Glowing red it was, sullen red like furnace fire. The storm I had seen came from it, lightning and thunder crackling off it as it moved through the night. It was shaped like a man, but it had no eyes, only a flatness where eyes should have been. It had a snout and it moved its head from side to side, loudly snuffing the air. Worst of all was its mouth, a maw crammed full of teeth that gaped wide and wet, and red as sin.
The earth shook under each of its rock-like feet as it entered the garden. The plants burned where it had trodden. Its fists were like great stones, but each thumb stuck out and had a nail like a scimitar.
When it smelt us, it let out a scream of joy.
''I will rip you, it cried. Rip you and gouge you and eat your soul.''
Then Marigoth stepped forward.
''Begone you! she cried. Leave this place or I will destroy you.''
I wanted to pull her away, crying run! run for your life! but I was rooted to the spot and I could not even move my mouth.
The Demon threw back its head and laughed. It was horrible to see for its whole face split open and the top of its head swing back as if on a hinge.
It lifted one iron fist and a great stream of fire came from it. The rocks behind us burst into flames, splitting thunderously with the heat.
Still I could not run.
Marigoth drew herself up. She was angry, but she seemed like a kitten compared to the great evil force before us.
She thrust out her hand and a great thunderbolt flew out and struck the Demon so hard that the entire desert seemed to shake. It was like a hammer hitting hot iron. Sparks flew everywhere blinding us. Yet the Demon stood unhurt, laughing its horrible laugh.
When Marigoth saw it was not hurt, she knelt and folded her hands in prayer. I thought she had given up and if I could have moved then, I would have struck her, crying ''Stupid girl, why did you not listen to me? Now you have killed us both.''
But I could not move.
The Demon threw fire bolts until the trees all around us were blazing furiously. Yet nothing seemed to touch us. I did not even feel the heat of the fire.
Slowly the Demon's laughter became troubled.
Then I saw a strange thing. The grasses and flowers, that had shrivelled as the Demon passed, were growing back. In fact they were sprouting out of its feet.
The Demon stopped laughing and began to stamp its feet. Still the flowers grew. They sprouted from its legs, its arms, its body. The Demon began to pull at them, tearing its own flesh as it did. It was crying out in pain. The flowers were black and they were growing all over it and it was tearing desperately at them.
Suddenly a tendril of green appeared in its ear and began to grow bigger and bigger. Another poked out of its other ear. Its head began to bulge and bubble. The Demon screamed as if in pain but no sound came out of its mouth, only a thick leafy branch.
Smash! Its head split apart like a seed as a young tree, a healthy young sapling, forced its way out. The Demon fell to the ground writhing in silent agony. In a few moments it lay still.
The tree and the flowers grew and grew until at last there was no sign of the Demon underneath, not even a lump in the ground. Even the black of the flowers faded to white. Behind us the trees stopped burning. The blackness faded from the sky and the sun came up. The garden was as lovely and peaceful as it had first been. The only sign of the Demon was a new tree and a faint greyness among the flowers at its foot.
Marigoth's skin shone with sweat. When I saw that, I knew that it was she who had done this thing. She stood and walked amongst the grey flowers where the Demon had been and when she did so my paralysis left me.
I was filled with fear for I thought I must be in the presence of a goddess, perhaps even Shandraya herself and I remembered how I had planned to rob her. I fell on my face on the ground and begged her for mercy.
For a few terrible moments she stood silently above me.
When she spoke, her voice was like thunder.
''Nature abhors a creature of pure evil. It had to be absorbed and destroyed. But you have sinned against the garden, Yasid, by bringing such a creature upon it. What have you to say for yourself?''
I babbled my apologies.
''So you will never do such a thing again? And perhaps you are prepared to promise that you will never steal again, either?''
Anything she wished I would try to fulfil, I cried. I was entirely her servant.
She began to laugh.
''Indeed! I cannot say I believe you. You amuse me Yasid. Perhaps I shall let you live.''
I had no objection to being laughed at by such a powerful sorceress. It could only be a good thing. And she was obviously very rich.
Memet snorted. ''So what has been your fate then? Have you become the happy gardener in the garden? Somehow I do not see that.''
The little man drew himself up with dignity.
''I have become the happy servant of She who makes the desert bloom. Which means I have witnessed sights not granted to such ordinary mortals as yourself.''
''I'm sure such luck was entirely deserved by you!''
Yasid's eyes twinkled again.
''Marigoth is not interested in what I deserve. The very powerful care only for what pleases them. I am fortunate that she has a passion for games, especially games of chance. Though she always catches me out if I try to cheat, I have become wealthy playing games with her, though sadly there is nowhere out here to spend my winnings. And the world is fortunate that I caused her to discover the Severed Brotherhood. Perhaps you have noticed what bad luck they have been having lately.''
''Do you mean that there is no longer any need to fear them?'' asked Sadjid.
''It is so. Unless you choose not to believe any of my story.''
He grinned at Memet.
''And now good sirs I must leave you.'' He bowed with a flourish. ''Thank you for your kind hospitality. Though Marigoth takes good care of me, she does not eat flesh and sometimes I crave its taste.''
He got up to go, but at the edge of the fire light he stopped and looked out into the darkness as if he saw someone there.
''I was going to return it,'' he said with a voice of wounded innocence. He seemed to be speaking to the thin air. ''It just slipped my mind.''
He turned back and laughing threw something down on the sand.
''I must thank you for lending me this, Sir,'' he said. ''It's good to know I'm as good as I ever was.''
He turned and walked into the night.
It was Memet's knife. Memet let out a roar of anger and charged out after Yasid, but though he searched, cursing, for some time, it was as if the little man had disappeared into thin air.
''Do you believe what he said?'' I asked Sadjid as he helped me curl into my bed roll. ''The idea of a great sorceress is quite unbelievable, but his words seemed to have the ring of truth.''
''I'll tell you in the morning,'' he said getting up and wandering into the darkness. I fell asleep still wondering what he meant.
In the morning after we had breakfasted, he took my arm and lead me into the nearby rocks.
''I thought it wise to make an offering to this Marigoth. Just in case,'' he said. ''You never know ...''
But we did know. For where Sadjid had placed a plate of dried figs and rock salt the night before, a little spring now came out of the bare rock and beside it grew a small tree covered in juicy berries.
There was enough water for all the camels. We ate and drank our fill and continued on into the desert.