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.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Opinionated Gallery. I am Director Brandt, the site administrator.” I kept up my smile despite the obvious lack of interest from those few members of the press who’d bothered to attend. “Here at the Cybernetics Division of Anderson Industries, we craft personality constructs based on deceased corporate executives so that they may provide continued boardroom insight and guidance.”
Their indifference was like a sponge, sucking any last shreds of enthusiasm from an already mundane media event, but I persevered.
“Unfortunately, some of our creations have been considered too critical, too irascible, or just too lifelike by the new executives in charge.” I gestured to the horseshoe of twelve anthropomorphic busts. “So rather than see our work go to waste, this free gallery was established, where the public may seek advice from some of the leading captains of industry from the last half-century. And today we play host to a most distinguished guest, Howard Bell, the deputy director of Homeland Security.”
“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.
Your world is ours now. Your water, your air, your land – you should have defended them better. When there is so much to take, then we take. When a foe is so weak, we conquer. After a few more battles I will paralyse your military from within. I will use your own warriors to crush you.
I am Tom. Of the Gathering. Your world is ours.
And so are your pronouns.
Let me rephrase. I was of the Gathering and now I am Tom. Not actually Tom, but within Tom, who is now part of us. The Gathering. Except Tom does not know of us and…
This is confusing. Let me rephrase.
I now control Tom. Lieutenant Colonel Tom of the Elite Fighting Furies. Tom is the middle of us. The safe place. What you individuals call mediocre. Under my guidance, he has risen from lowly foot soldier to a position of rank and respect. Tom is a leader. And he is mine. So I am Tom. Of the Gathering. But mostly of Tom and I. Is I. Am I.
Victory is all that matters. My – our – victory is close. You are mine. All mine.
“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.”
I can hear it. About twenty metres up ahead, somewhere high in the trees. That caw. I renew my glamour hex to blend in with the thicket of the woods and slowly walk in its direction. I can feel that it’s close.
A sound. Not its cry, but the groan of a passing truck not far from here. The road that splits the forest is about half a kilometre to the west. The vehicle passes and the silence returns. Now I wait for it to cry out again, hoping it’ll betray its location.
The leaves have turned to their autumn brown. It’ll stand out more in this ocean of earthy colours. If I don’t shoot it now, it will vanish in the snow that will fall soon. This might be my only chance.
A glimmer from between the leaves. I pick it up. A gold nugget. Two more up ahead. It’s collecting nesting material. There! A flash of white. I peer through my scope and aim. Was it my imagination? No, that must have been it. I listen for the sounds of wings or creaking branches should it perch. I can feel my hex losing its strength. Damn it all, where is it?
“Ha! Such commotion, dear friend! I should be annoyed at this interruption to my story, but thy laughter at the turmoil caused by the escape of thy great-grandson’s pet cheers my heart, so I set all rebukes aside and forgive them both. And though the boy’s lizard is no great adornment to thy room nor like to take much profit from my tale, it displays none of the malice and corruption of the human lizard who once visited Paridiz. But let me tell the tale of that malign creature, and of Shir Shaheen, the lion who stood against him.”
The last departing caravan was now far beyond the city’s gates and the nearest group of men still some leagues away. So when Shir Shaheen left his tower – where long had he studied the approaching men with the keen vision of an eagle’s form – he took a lion’s shape and raced and roared through the streets of Paridiz, scattering the snakes and lizards that lay basking in the sun.
Rare now were these hours when the city belonged to him and his friends alone, for the success of their caravanserai was beyond all expectation, beyond even the ever-buoyant hopes of Roshan. Adil, the caravan master, had told his fellows of the venture and nothing loath were they to see it for themselves, especially if it might disoblige the vizier of Gorj. Curiosity there was, for who could fail to wonder at the tales of the lost city and what had now been wrought there; interest, too, in seeing the widow and grandson of the great Lord Roshan. Yet when curiosity and interest were satisfied, still the merchants came for the sake of profit and the shorter journey through Paridiz.