The sky was always pink in the Beautiful Place. Maybe because it was Ffion’s favourite colour. The clouds resembled candy floss, the grass was the softest green, and the trees swayed gracefully even when there was no breeze. Birds sang the sweetest songs and bees hummed along. There were no wasps.
Ffion collected the souls of people who’d lived the hardest lives. The ones tortured by loss or pain or circumstance. Every night before sleep, she drifted on the other plane, looking for those who were lost. She smiled, she held them if they wanted to be held, and she guided them onwards.
The Beautiful Place took them all – even she felt soothed when she visited, though she couldn’t stay for long. When it faded from her grasp, a cold feeling of dread washed over her before she could push it aside and sink into sleep.
Ffion worked in the village bakery. She made cupcakes which were very popular with the locals celebrating occasions such as birthdays and Christenings. She made cupcakes for the village fayre to support the church even though she wasn’t religious. Once, she gave cupcakes to a teenager for free when he claimed they were for his poorly little brother. When she later found this to be untrue, she didn’t demand any money – she simply sighed and gave a sad smile.
The eye never has enough of seeing.
Megan’s mind wasn’t focusing. What was wrong with her?
She was crossing a busy intersection. The WALK light flashed like a beacon of warning. She had only so much time before the light would change. Keep moving. Focus.
Work was getting to her. Too much stress. She needed a change; maybe a new job.
Stop thinking about these things. Concentrate.
Her vision was acting up again. A well-dressed woman, a young man in casual attire, and two men in suits and ties had been walking toward her. A few other people also crossed her line of vision. But now the number of people multiplied several times over until there were dozens.
The images were dizzying.
Was that herself among all those people? She was walking toward herself, as though she were walking toward a mirror.
Harry Holden stumbles through Ballykey Cemetery, blood gushing from his throat, chest heaving with sobs. Faster, faster! Gotta get away! He staggers into a clearing dominated by a hawthorn tree, its every detail rendered sinister by pale moonlight. Despite everything, he shivers at the sight of it, remembering his nana’s oft-repeated warning: Never trust the wee folk, Harry.
The world spins.
As he falls, Harry glimpses thorny branches, blood-red berries and claw-like fissures on brown bark. He hears but doesn’t feel the crack when he lands, the cold already overtaking his body.
His eyes close and he knows they won’t open again. Not in this life, anyway. All his hopes and dreams cut short by the swish of a knife.
“Not… fair…” breathes Harry. His last words and there’s no one around to hear them.
Or so he thinks.
“So it was, sweet friend, that––”
“Ah, dear friend, greatest and dearest of friends, I have distressed thee. Folly it was, folly and worse, for me to tell a story of such darkness. Thy physician’s stern looks rightly rebuke me, and thy grandchildren’s whisperings show clearly how heedless I have been. Let us call in the young ones again and I shall tell tales of happier times for Shir Shaheen and Roshan, such as the day the vintner came and how the sampling of his wares caused such commotion in Paridiz.”
But the old man in the bed, the dying man, will not be turned from his question. He leans forward from the many pillows that support him, determination in his voice, thin and frail as it is. “It was Safar, thy brother, and thou didst kill him?”
His friend, who has been his friend for more than the lifetime of an ordinary mortal, gives way. “Safar was his name,” says Shaheen. “And once he was my brother. But it was evil I destroyed that night, and glad I am I did so.”
The old man, grandfather and great-grandfather, but still in his heart the boy Roshan, falls back against the pillows. “So many hidden things hast thou revealed in thy tales today, all kept so many long years, weighing upon thy soul. Yet they are but trifles compared to this most bitter secret. How it must have pained thee.” He puts his hand, his aged, wizened hand, upon his friend’s. “Thou shouldst have told me this ere now, so I could have shared thy burden.”
Christmas Eve morning and it is good to be alive. Rudolph, the twenty-seventh reindeer of that name and the twenty-sixth generation since the great legend, prances out of the barn to his personal manger for his annual treat.
His favourite lichen, the one that makes his nose glow red, is missing. He will not be lighting the way for the sleigh tonight. Is he being retired?
“Ho, ho, ho!” Santa says from behind.
“Is this a joke?” Rudolph grunts and turns to face him nose-to-nose, his breath freezing on Santa’s beard. “If so, it’s not funny. Where’s my lichen?”
“There’s a problem.”
“You bet there is.” He nudges Santa to force him to bend a little backwards.
“There was none to harvest this year.”
“Now must the young ones leave, as I would not have them hear my next tale. For though great happiness did Setareh bring to Roshan, darkness yet threatened them and all Paridiz.”
Dusk was falling, and throughout the city lights appeared, save at its very centre. For where Safar’s shining tower once had stood, darkness now reigned. Atop his own tower Shir Shaheen held a shard of desert glass, part of the crystal in which the vizier’s sorcerer had long ago trapped him, and as he turned it over and over in his hand, he watched the darkness.
His day had been spent labouring among the qanats beneath Paridiz, as each day had been spent for the past several months, ensuring fresh water flowed everywhere, bringing with it the ancient earth-magic; ensuring also that he could, at need, quickly redirect the waters and seal outflows to create the pressure for one more fountain.
He had done all he could. Nothing now was left but to watch and wait.
Behind him, Roshan paused in his ceaseless walking to and fro and stared towards the centre of the city where wraith-like shadows were forming a demonic simulacrum of Safar’s tower. Unnatural, unholy darkness swathed its ghostly walls, and fear bled from it.
“An illusion, I doubt not,” said Roshan, “but it seems almost that the shadows have become thicker, more solid.”
“It is no illusion,” said Shaheen.
“Hark, dear friend. The daughters of thy grandchildren whisper amongst themselves, for they feel too long have I talked of battles and bloodshed and they wish to hear of gardens and nightingales and pretty things. So of gardens and nightingales and pretty things shall I speak. Yet must I talk of shadows, too, and a time when Roshan was ensnared and Shir Shaheen was called upon to free him.”
The chariot of time rolled ever on in Paridiz. More people came to live in the city – not only from the impoverished townships at the desert’s edge, but from Gorj itself. More buildings were rebuilt, more noise echoed from the houses, more stench rose from the streets; laws were made, taxes introduced, officials employed.
Roshan grew taller and broader, his chin boasting the beginnings of a dark beard. His grandmother grew a little frail, with more grey in her hair, more lines upon her face. Shir Shaheen alone seemed unchanged, yet in him was the greatest alteration – no longer did he hide away upon his tower or conceal his true self in an old man’s guise; no longer did resentment of the humans gnaw at his heart.
Yet ease was not his, for though he had cleansed the city, the blood-magic remained, and with more humans to prey upon, its resurgence was quickening. Already bloodshed and aggression, even murder, had shown its ugly face in Paridiz, and whether some humans were brought to violence by the whispered promises of power which they heard without awareness, or the brutality of some humans fed the blood-magic, the result was the same.
I hold the memory of him in my mind, gentle as a paper swan, so I don’t forget the details. The rosy red of his cheeks; the way looking at him was like looking in a living mirror. The way we’d play hide and seek, and the shrillness of my voice as I called after him. How he could never stay hidden for long. Will, Will, Will, I call into the darkness, as if it could bring him back. As if he is only hiding, as if this is only pretend.
You’re twins, aren’t you? the kindly man in the market had said, crouching down to get a better look at us, his glasses glinting in the sun. Yes, I replied, puffing out my chest, but I’m older. The man smiled, escorting us to a bus filled with other children, identical twins just like us, and the bus took us away, far enough that the air was thick with fog and the mountains hunched over everything. Will was afraid, but I was confident life would be better here, amongst the jagged rocks and the crashing waves. No more begging for scraps and stealing and sleeping under newspaper. I promise, I said, offering my hand to him so we could do our special secret handshake. I won’t let anything happen to you.
Now I am a monster, and Will is not here.
“Let me wrap this blanket about thy shoulders, dear friend of my heart, for gentle as the zephyr is which brings the perfume of blossom to us, I fear it may chill thee. So is it always, even in the least of things, good and evil ever intermingled. And so Shir Shaheen and Roshan found when once again the vizier of Gorj moved against them.”
Shir Shaheen breathed deep as the breeze played around his tower. He no longer controlled the desert winds, yet still they sought him out, bringing news and the clean smell of the open sands for which he yearned. And if, as now, they brought tidings of evil, he had come to expect no less.
He sat in the shadows of the open-arched chamber atop his tower, not on the parapet where he was wont to sit. Too many eyes now could see him there, for too many people now lived in Paridiz – agreement had easily been reached with the men of the desert towns, and their folk had swarmed to the city.
Rarely now did Shaheen leave his tower, and then only to tend his gardens or to sit with the still-grieving Lady Farzaneh and let her talk of Sima. Many were his reasons. The new humans, for one, for though allowing them to settle in the city was his own idea, yet still did their presence disturb him. Shame was another, for close had he come to murder and betrayal, and guilt stung him when he talked with Roshan.
“Ah, beloved friend, how sweet is the scent of hyacinths this gentle breeze brings to us, and the pomegranate and almond trees also have blossomed early, sending forth their perfume for thy delight. How different their fragrance from the stench which once assailed Shir Shaheen and Roshan as they stood in Paridiz and waited for battle to come to them.”
Midnight was long past when Shir Shaheen shed his eagle’s form, became incorporeal and slipped into the stone to begin the descent of his tower. Warm was the stonework, yet not from any lingering of the day’s heat. It seemed to him akin to something like a fever, one he had sensed elsewhere in the bones of Safar’s city in recent weeks. Was Paridiz itself now ailing as so many humans intruded on its peace?
Awaiting him at the tower’s base was Roshan, a scarf wound about his nose and mouth. “Friend Shaheen, with all thy great magic, canst thou not contrive that our enemies alone, and not ourselves, are beset with the reek of the foul concoction thou and Sima have created?”
“Give thanks the stinkpots are far distant and the wind blows away from us, so it is no worse. Riven with sickness are the men approaching from the north. Many will proceed no further.”
“And the men from the south?”
“Will be here within the hour.”
“Then, my friend, let us ensure all is ready for them.”