Excerpt from Fire & Clay

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Chapter One

THE IRON DOME

The man and the woman trembled uncontrollably. Their armpits were moist with sweat. Their hearts, which they hadn’t thought about until now, beat wildly in their chests. Hiding in the tall grass, not far from their feet was the thing that had tricked them.

The hatred in the thing’s heart had begun to grow a very long time ago, when he first heard the chatter about the new creature and all that had gone into making it. He had gone to the great gates where the figure was propped outside. He had wanted to ignore it—to pretend that it was only a passing fancy soon to be discarded.

But he was curious. At first glance he could see that it was too ornate to be easily abandoned. Even sitting lifeless it was unlike anything he had seen before. He lifted stones high in the air and propelled them at the figure. They made a hollow clanking sound, still the figure did not move. The clanking sound perplexed him. What was this thing made of? He flew inside its gaping mouth and out through its anus. It was dark and seemed empty. “Whatever this thing is, surely it is not nobler than me!” he thought.

He flew in and out of it several times more to be sure. He raised the form in the air and threw it. When it fell, he struck it. Still it did not move. As he hovered over the empty shell of man, the thing swore that if he was to rule over it he would kill it and if it were to rule over him he would rebel. Thus began the longest war known to man.

September 17, 2010 Touba, Senegal

Eighth Day of Shawwal, 1431 AH

Not far from the holy city of Touba stood a boxy, clay-colored prison. Desert sand, that relentless intruder, began to blanket the stone floors the day the prison was abandoned by humans hundreds of years before. It was now completely overrun. The contours of its walls and floors were almost hidden from the eyes of men. Its unkempt terrace was now a home only to palmettos, mice, and lizards. When men walked far away enough from their beaten paths to happen upon this structure—and few ever did— only its broken roof would distinguish it from the other mounds of earth and sand. Few men had stayed long enough to explore its crumbling ancient cells and dungeons, or to finger the rusted hinges that had once held heavy iron gates in place. It was not now, nor had it ever been, the kind of place where a man felt comfortable spending time.

Not every place that looks empty really is. For many, many years, Zamar had waited for her shift at the prison to begin by flying to the rooftop terrace to be alone with her thoughts. She was a guard and interrogator. She was terrible at both jobs. But she stayed employed thanks to her marriage to the warden, Jaag. The job suited her ill, but Jaag did what he could to make it easier for her nature to accept. He protected her from the most ferocious prisoners. He made sure she never saw how the other guards pummeled the violent ones into submission. When they were prayerful prisoners, he allowed her to pray with those whom she guarded. Her fellow guards followed Jaag’s edict to the letter and kept some things hidden from her. Some things she was aware of, but did not really care to know. Of other things she was truly ignorant. For a long time, the iron-walled dome hidden underground on the prison’s west side had been one of those things. Only an unmarked and unremarkable three-foot crevice in the earth opened the way to it. And ever since its purpose had been revealed to her she had spent a great deal of time there. Today, the iron dome would receive a visitor that would change the course of Zamar’s life forever.

It all started just after dawn with commotion at the outskirts of Touba, miles away. Zamar had been watching the edge of town from her rooftop perch since well before dawn, when the loudspeakers jolted men from their slumber with the call to prayer. All of the faithful were called, but it was mostly mothers and maids who answered. They rose to pray and prepare breakfast while their men slept and their houses were still.

What caught and kept Zamar’s eye was the sight of two little boys who had been begging for alms since she finished her morning prayer just after first light. They went from door to door, assembling a breakfast from the neighborhood’s dinner leftovers. They laughed and they argued; they pushed and they shoved. A very homely three-legged dog followed them everywhere. The boys shouted stern warnings at the mutt and subjected it to occasional half-hearted stonings. Still, they gave it occasional scraps from their coffee cans, so they must have known that it would not abandon them.

Zamar marveled greatly at humans. She could admit to herself that she liked their smiles, especially those of children, and her traveling breakfast party was now rejoicing. Moments after sunrise, a light-brown skinned woman had wiped the sleep from her eyes and smiled at the boys at her door, before bringing them a plastic bag full of frozen bissap juice. Instinctively, they retreated to a safe place with this precious haul, moving just beyond the town’s limits and sitting at the foot of a baobab tree that shielded them from the sun rising over the town. They laughed and drank the juice. It was red, and cold, and sweet. The dog, however, had not followed them into the shade of the tree, he stood at the edge of the street that marked the confines of the city, ears raised, and growled.

The boys could not see it, but an awful procession marched just before their eyes. Zamar did not see as well as she once had, but even across the miles she could see clearly what was hidden to them. She could make out four airy forms—bounty hunters she was sure. Their long red and white robes signaled their purpose to those who could see them. They staggered alongside a chariot that transported an agitated beast. If the children had looked directly to their left in just the right light, they may have momentarily glimpsed the shimmering outline of the beast, like waves of heat rising from the desert floor. They would have seen a freakishly gaunt figure pulling frantically to free itself from some imperceptible bonds.

Zamar witnessed the scene in its fullness. As the beast freed its hand, two of the vigilant bounty hunters pounced on him and hammered him with fists that moved faster than a mere human could have seen in any light. The being shook off the punches and spat at its captors, trying to pierce their robes and skins. The four bounty hunters restrained and muzzled the prisoner with their subtle cords. They stabilized their wobbling chariot and the unearthly steed that drew it, and continued on.

The boys were just finishing their bissap. They threw the empty baggy almost directly at the feet of the bounty hunter that brought up the rear of the procession without ever seeing him. They made their way back across the city limits into Touba, and the traveling prison continued to trace its path just outside of the town’s hallowed ground, where they were forbidden ever to tread.

*

Zamar knew the captive. His form was familiar and unfamiliar at once, yet the scent that came to her over the wind was unmistakable. It was ancient and awful. The beast bound to the cart was Nemacus. To make sure her old eyes saw correctly she concealed herself and flew down to the cart. The prisoner was indeed missing his right hand. As she got closer she could smell faint traces of human waste and blood clinging to his ethereal form and mingling with his own peculiar stench. Where on Earth did they find him? What in God’s name was he doing when they did?

Nemacus was no longer the hulking leader of a vicious army. His robust build, square shoulders and regal airs were either gone or perfectly concealed. What Zamar saw now was a withered and broken jinn.

Still, seeing him emaciated and demoralized disturbed her. For hundreds of years, her mind had devised countless ways to take her revenge on him. She fervently hoped that God would give her vengeance in this life and not make her wait until the next. Seeing him in this condition both satisfied and disappointed her. He must have suffered much, but not nearly enough. Zamar glowered at Nemacus, thinking: what am I to do with this shell of a jinn? How can I make him pay for what he did to me and my family now?

She was determined to get something from him—an explanation at least—even if it meant nursing him back to health just to break him.

“I was just wearing those men! I didn’t kill them!” Nemacus yelled at Ben Hajji, the largest of the bounty hunters. He did not respond right away, he merely wrapped extra chains around his prisoner and pulled them until they squeezed him tightly. Then he spoke: “If I were you I wouldn’t say another word.”

The bounty hunters dragged Nemacus off the street and into the halls of the prison, where a lone guard greeted them with a languid expression. “What have you half-breeds brought us today?” he asked, smirking slightly. The door guard was far shorter than his visitors, a stubby jinn with thick wiry bristles covering his arms, legs, and chest. The airy robes that hid his form barely concealed the powerful frame beneath.

“Watch it!” Shouted Ben Hajji. A patient creature by nature, the leader of the band of bounty hunters was now on edge. The struggle to restrain Nemacus had withered his calm temperament.

“What? You don’t like me pointing out your human blood? Or is it your jinn blood you have issue with?” The stocky guard stared into the bounty hunter’s face with a menacing expression. He took one long step toward the bounty hunter to close the gap between them and to illustrate fearlessness.

“Neither!” replied Ben Hajji. He too bridged the gap between them by taking a step towards the door guard. “We are proud to have a foot in each world. We just don’t like the jealousy.”

The guard scoffed at the suggestion. Jealous of what? But why bother arguing with half-breeds about genealogy? he thought. So instead he asked about the chained jinn they were escorting. “And, this one here, is he an elemental too?”

“No!” Nemacus tried to exclaim, “I’m a pure breed like you!” As soon as he spoke the four hunters battered his body with frightening speed, their hands growing in size and changing shape to resemble large clubs. Nemacus appeared to lose consciousness. His eyes closed and his ethereal form went completely limp.

“Enough talk!” said one of the bounty hunters. “Yes,” continued Ben Hajji, “we have other business. Do we leave him here?”

“No, bring him inside,” the door guard said, opening the gate.

The bounty hunters dragged Nemacus further inside. “You’re going to want to put him in a cell right away,” said Ben Al-Hajji.

Looking carefully at Nemacus for the first time, the door guard asked, “And why’s that?”

“Don’t let his weakened appearance fool you,” Ben Al-Hajj replied. “He’s frightfully strong.”

The door guard strained to look through Nemacus’ form and see his fundamental nature—his flame. It seemed to flicker feebly. Using this kind of sight—ordinary for jinn, and even for many hybrids, but beyond the capacity of all except the most gifted humans—the door guard took the measure of Nemacus: “Are you trying to convince me that this decrepit jinn can cause harm?”

The bounty hunters scoffed before sharing a sad furtive glance. Ben Hajji broke their silence. “I don’t know what you see when you look at him, but he is far from weak. He killed one of my men. That is not an easy task.”

The door guard walked in front of them, guiding the way. “What’s so surprising about that?” He said with an air of disdain. He stopped walking to face them before continuing. “That comes with your profession. It’s a natural risk of your job.”

Ben Hajji was now getting irritated. “You should have more respect for those who give their lives doing their jobs. Especially jobs you couldn’t do and wouldn’t have the courage to do even if God gave you the ability.”

He still held tightly onto his quarter of Nemacus, a task easier to manage now that Nemacus was exhausted. “We ‘half-breeds,’ as you affectionately call us, are specially suited to cross between the worlds to capture rogue jinn. Even a fool like you must know this! What you seem not to know is that some of them are so ferocious and deadly that sometimes one of us must knowingly sacrifice his own life to keep the team from being slaughtered. Half-breed lives may be cheap to you, but I served with Farah for ages. Of course, you wouldn’t know anything about that. You have a meaningless job that serves only you. You just stand by that door looking stupid every single day of your miserable…”

“That will be quite enough from the two of you,” said a voice that sounded like footsteps on gravel.

*

Everyone turned about to see the warden, Jaag, gliding in from outside. He was an intimidating jinn. His natural form was something like the shape of a man, but with shoulders that were impossibly wide. If a thing of flesh were to have shoulders so broad set upon such narrow hips and legs it would topple over. Jaag’s oblong head was also large and imposing with small, wide-set eyes. Course white hair covered part of his head. But not the brow, chin, and top, as it might have on a man. Instead it sprouted at the height of his eyes and sat in a stiff even mane covering the top half of his head. His hairline, as it were, started in the middle of his long face. The few times that humans had seen him as he was, they screamed in terror and ran. A long time ago, a man had seen him emerging from a river and the man’s heart stopped. Even for the jinn, he was a shock to the eyes.

He spoke again, slowly, like low raspy footfalls: “Take the prisoner directly to the iron dome.”

“But, warden, you said prisoners go to the interrogation room first,” the door guard said.

“Yes. And I also said that if a prisoner with a history of violence comes to us in an agitated state they are to be taken where?” Jaag asked.

“To the iron dome,” said the guard, bowing his head in shame for being reprimanded in front of the lowly bounty hunters.

“This,” Jaag began, “is Nemacus. Had you not slept through so many meetings, you would know of him.” He paused, raising a long sharp finger at the stubby guard. “You would know that even in our chains he could twirl into a powerful whirlwind at any moment. He could easily shatter the walls around him, destroying this prison, and killing all save the most resilient of jinn. These so-called half-breeds that you deride are the only reason you are still alive.”

The door guard, looked up briefly and saw that Jaag was still glaring at him, so he cast his eyes downward again.

“If not for the special abilities of our elemental friends here,” Jaag bowed with genuine respect toward Ben Hajji, “he would have extinguished your fire the moment he saw you.”

The lead bounty hunter lowered his head, returning the gesture.

At this Warden Jaag spoke again, “We are sorry for your loss.” Then he turned and began gliding down the corridor toward the dome, with the stocky guard sliding alongside him.

Ben Hajji and his men looked again at one another and began pulling Nemacus toward the iron dome.

Jaag looked around. “Where is Zamar?” he whispered to the guard, sure that the hunters would not hear. They had not. Even so, the limp figure of Nemacus seemed to twitch at the sound of her name.

“She is late again warden,” the guard sighed quietly in response.

“Ben Hajji, good fortune has found you!” Jaag said gliding quickly down the corridor to the bounty hunters. “You and your men are about to get a guided tour of our infamous iron dome.”

“Ha!” chuckled the bounty hunter. The truth is that you ‘pure-breeds’ cannot enter that dome without getting stuck in it yourselves! You need us and this will cost you.” The bounty hunters dragged the broken jinn down the corridor, following Jaag and the guard to the iron dome.

END OF EXCERPT

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