THE MOUNTAIN path gradually became a staircase, and at its top, Isra stepped out between two buildings into an alleyway in a city or town. The houses and shops were low and square, constructed of tan stone. Panels of printed cloth fluttered over the windows, though Isra sensed no movement in the air. The trail wound between the similar, empty structures. No stray dogs nipped at his legs, no cats darted across the railings or rooftops, and no refuse collected in the alleys. There were no city smells of men smoking, food cooking, or people cramped too close together. Isra looked down and saw a set of tracks made by a man in his bare feet, the shape of the heel and toes distinct where they’d pressed into the fine sand covering the old cobblestones. As he had done since the height of summer when his dreams had brought him to this place, he followed those tracks, and soon, a familiar figure appeared in the distance.
The man stood on a long, straight road, his worn jubbah bright white against the subdued cityscape. Though the man only recently joined Isra’s nocturnal reflection of the world, Isra already recognized him easily. From this distance, Isra couldn’t make out any facial features beyond a short beard and matted dark hair. After the two of them stood facing each other for a moment, the man turned and walked toward an open space at the end of the street. Isra hurried after him, and the urgency, his consuming need to catch up to the man, to look into his face and speak with him, still stunned Isra. Reaching that man seemed more important than anything in his life—the only thing that mattered. It was the feeling that compelled him to drive hard for a water source when his skin ran dry and the sun beat down with unrelenting heat. He ran. Though he’d tried to banish this obsession, the compulsion remained, leaving him no choice but to obey.
Even knowing the inevitable outcome, he pushed himself. Maybe if he caught up to this man, the torment that lasted long after daybreak would finally subside.
But he never caught the man, not in months of trying.
Still, he sprinted along the rectangular stones on the endless walkway, hopping over the palm leaves that had fallen from the trees lining the path. They’d left the familiar village, and Isra did not know this new place. A few hundred yards ahead, the man sauntered along, his feet barely lifting from the aisle.
Either Isra’s mind deceived him—and he knew he could not trust this realm of illusion and shadow—or he was gaining on his quarry, finally getting a few inches closer…
And then a few more.
The holes worn in the man’s kaftan, the beige smears on the backside, grew almost close enough to touch. Excitement welled up like a hidden spring, and Isra reached out.
Could this be happening?
The white cloth, though poor quality, had softened with age and wear, and it met Isra’s fingers like a favorite blanket. Beneath it, rangy muscle stretched over long bones, the shape of the man’s body plain through his thin garment. It summoned a completely different desire in Isra, perhaps his second-greatest secret, and out of habit, he looked around to make sure no one had noticed any hint of appreciation that might’ve crossed his face.
But of course, they were still alone… or at least they were the only men, those God had formed from the body of the Earth.
Isra knew the one he pursued was a man, and not because of the fine dark hair on his wrists, the blisters on his heels, or the little spiral curls on the back of his neck. Demons could replicate those features. He had a man’s heart, a man’s soul—one Isra could feel. He let his fingers curve around the man’s shoulder, his skin warm against Isra’s palm.
He turned, and when their eyes met, Isra felt like he was watching dawn break over the desert. The man had an elegant beauty to his dark lashes, full lips, longish, straight nose, and smoky quartz eyes, but it was the fear and confusion in his expression that struck Isra hardest. He remembered that look from a fennec fox he’d found with its tail caught in a thornbush. Like this man, the poor creature had no idea what was happening. It hadn’t known that Isra only wanted to help when he’d pulled his knife from his belt.
This man’s eyes held the same panic, like he wanted to flee but couldn’t.
Maybe he had nowhere to go. It would explain why he haunted this desolate place.
Isra wanted to say something to reassure the man, but his words wouldn’t come. It had never occurred to him that the two of them would ever have the chance to speak.
He wanted to skim his hand across the man’s broad shoulders and up his neck, to feel the short whiskers on his face. Would his touch soothe this tortured man, or would he snap at Isra like the fox had?
Isra never got the chance to find out. Before he could utter a word or move his fingers an inch, the man shimmered out of existence like a mirage.
Perhaps that’s what he was: something Isra wanted so fiercely, his mind supplied its image.
His people knew better than to trust in mirages, but then Isra had dismissed their good wisdom before.
The new but familiar path took the place of the long, wide road. Steep and serpentine, it wound between sharp rocks that stuck up like giant teeth. At several places, Isra could scarcely squeeze through. Yet he did, making the climb to the ruins at the crest of the hillock. The sparkling tan columns hadn’t been made by the great ancient civilization who’d once ruled these lands, nor by the Romans who’d followed them. In his thirty years of walking the Eastern Desert, Isra had never seen anything like the structures that lined the trail leading to the mouth of an old mine or cave. From inside, something glimmered in the firelight—crystals perhaps, or maybe even gold or precious gems—but he’d never mustered the courage to step foot over the threshold.
Besides, the one who resided here would come to him.
It was wrong to be here, and Isra knew he should turn his back on this place. Instead he took a seat on a fallen pillar.
His tribe knew many arafrit haunted the Galala Hills, and they steadfastly avoided the ruins and old Roman mines. They said that while some of the arafrit had heard the Quran and converted to Islam, most of them refused and clung to their wicked ways. Isra had never asked his if he had converted. He didn’t have to.
The creature Isra had named Flicker, out of the necessity to call him something, appeared as a youth at the cusp of manhood, when the childhood softness has fallen away but the muscles have yet to fill out. He was beautiful, so beautiful it stabbed at Isra’s insides like sweet, cold water on an empty stomach. But it wasn’t a beauty he desired. Flicker was too strange, with ebony hair that hung like a silk curtain to his waist and skin like polished bronze, too perfect. He wore little clothing—just a sheer loincloth made of some metallic fabric—but a lot of jewelry. Bracelets and bangles covered his graceful arms almost to his elbows, and necklaces and pendants swayed with his steps. A headdress of orange and red jewels stretched across his forehead, and a trio of delicate chains looped from the center, beneath Flicker’s right eye, and joined to a golden hoop in his right ear.
He moved like fire, and he burned. The flames danced behind his large eyes and the subtle, swirling marks on his skin. It was as if everything solid were merely a vessel to contain the fire within. Sometimes in the darkness, Isra could see nothing but glowing spirals and shining, unblinking eyes.
He should be terrified, and he had been once, but that was long ago.
Though the rest of his clan would recoil in horror at the thought, he and Flicker had become something like friends.
“I dreamt of the man again,” Isra said as the arafrit drifted over to perch on a stretch of ruined wall across the path from him. He smelled of amber oil and a campfire burning low.
“You are dreaming still.” Flicker smirked and leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees.
“Yes, but you are real.”
He canted his head. “Are thoughts and dreams not real? Do they not exist, if only in the mind? They can be seen and heard, and they stir the heart.”
“They cannot be touched,” Isra argued halfheartedly. He always lost arguments with Flicker. “They have no substance.”
Flicker’s laugh was a melodic as it was eerie. “Nor do sunlight or starlight. Or songs. The wind. What about the word of your god? It cannot be held or touched, yet you believe it has the power to shape and create without bounds. Is it not an idea but also real?”
“It… it’s….” Isra shook his head. “I’m not in the mood for riddles tonight.”
Flicker ran his pointed black nails over his necklaces, making them jingle. “Are you in the mood for gifts? Would you like to wear something of mine?”
“You are too kind, but I cannot accept.” Isra knew better than to take anything from him lest he unintentionally enter into some sort of bargain and find himself bound. He also resisted Flicker’s inscrutable urge to teach Isra tricks—sleight of hand and small conjurations. Even if Isra managed to learn, no good would come of it.
“Hmm. Suit yourself.” Flicker brushed a lock of hair off his bare shoulder and looked away, clearly trying to feign disinterest. He reminded Isra of a jilted cat. “Then what do you want?”
“Why do you think I want anything?”
“It’s your desire that tells me to come to you,” Flicker said. “I can scent it like smoke on the wind. So…?”
“Very well. I wish to… understand these dreams. This man I see. Why does he come to me, or me to him? It feels important, though I don’t know why. You are worldlier than I am.”
“Yet I struggle to understand the hearts and minds of men. You and I, we are made of very different stuff.”
“Can you tell me if it’s important?” Isra felt desperate. He didn’t know if he could continue to face the dreams night after night, not if they led nowhere.
“Because I can see you’re distressed, I won’t tell you that if they’re important to you, then they’re important. You want to know if this man has some significance beyond that of other men, some role to play in mortal affairs. I think—” He puckered his lips and tapped his fingertips against them. “—he does, yes.”
Isra exhaled loudly. Finally some progress. “What do I do now?”
“Why ask me?”
“Who else? I cannot go to any of the men in my clan or tribe with this. They’ll think I’m mad, at best. They’ll think—”
“That you wandered into the mountains and got yourself enthralled by a demon?” Flicker drew out the vowels in that last word as he grinned and winked. The fire behind his eyes made the chains draping his face glimmer.
“I am not enthralled.”
“Well then maybe you should just go. Maybe you should ask your god. You think so highly of him. Or does he not answer as nicely as I do?”
The arafrit was a vain and fickle thing, but Isra was used to it. He knew how to get back into Flicker’s good graces. “I do need you. You’ve always been generous with your aid and wise with your advice. I would be grateful if you could help me again.”
“Then I will see what I can find out about this man,” Flicker said. “I can at least discern for you if he walks in your realm, if you might meet him here.”
“If I should,” Isra mumbled.
“Now that,” the arafrit said with obvious glee, “will be completely up to you.”