Five days ago they’d stood in their bedchamber and argued, and Baleel had tried to convince Isfet to flee with him before the armies from the north broke down the city gates.
And she had asked him, “Where will we go? What else is there?”
“Other lands,” he’d said. “Other cities. A life together.”
“Other lands where they force people with skin like ours into slavery. Or prostitution. This is my home, Baleel.”
And then he’d wiped a tear from her eye, and drew his sword.
They marched together to the city gates, and there they spilled blood, gallons of it, enough to drown in. But it wasn’t enough.
And when Isfet fell, Baleel fell down beside her, and he never stopped falling.
Baleel spread his tools out onto the table next to Isfet’s body. A sandstorm raged outside, one that had lasted for days and showed no signs of stopping. Baleel made the space as clean as he could in the short time he had to prepare, but the storm sent the curtains into a frenzy and sharp blasts of sand tore at his skin. The torch fixed into the wall over his head flickered unsteadily, threatening total darkness. The sky was black, the sun just a pale shadow hidden behind a veil of storm clouds.
And though he couldn’t see the fires in the distance, Baleel could smell the scent of smoke on the wind, and with it the scent of death.
Baleel washed Isfet’s hair with sacred oils, and rubbed them into her skin. There’d been no time to let her body dry; nor would there be.
He reached for his ceremonial knife, a slender silver blade with a carved ivory handle, and he sliced into Isfet’s left side, letting her organs spill into a basin at the foot of the table. Some organs he retrieved, placed into jars and sealed. Others were cast into the fire. Once empty, he washed the body cavity and then rubbed a mixture of sand and natron inside, taking care to be as thorough as time would allow.
Baleel worked from memory, recalling similar tasks from his time as an apprentice in the temples, before war had called him to faraway lands. Though he’d never preserved a body himself, he’d been witness to the procedure countless times.
He would’ve gone to a priest now, were they all not lying eviscerated in the streets. He would’ve consulted the holy scriptures, if the libraries and churches had not been reduced smoldering ash.
Baleel sewed up the gash in Isfet’s side, and carefully parted her eyelids. And then, as he gazed into his beloved’s eyes, he paused for a moment. He leaned back into the wall and used it to brace himself against a wave of dizziness. He sat for several minutes in this way, running his fingers across his blistered scalp and shaking his head. He screamed prayers and curses at every god he had a name for.
The sand, indifferent to his plight, continued to beat against the outer walls, determined to wear the stone down to nothing. Even if it took forever.
Baleel looked away as he removed Isfet’s eyes, and he didn’t dare glance back at her corpse until the eyes were sealed away, covered with cloth so that he would never have to look upon them again. He used bits of the same linen cloth to stuff the empty sockets.
The sinuses were penetrated with a bamboo stick, and Baleel emptied the head cavity, tossing the bits of gray flesh that came loose into the fire. Then, finally, he rubbed Isfet’s skin with sand, and wrapped her body with linen strips.
Finished, he carried her outside to the hole he’d prepared, one deep enough to keep the dogs from digging her up, but not so deep he couldn’t get her back out.
There was only one thing left to find, and his work would be complete, a vessel for her soul.
The onset of night was signaled by the chill in the wind and the howling of wild dogs. Baleel wandered in the sands outside the city walls. He pretended that he couldn’t smell burning bodies, and he covered his ears to block out the screams of those still living.
He had already given everything he had to protect the city. It had not been enough. He prayed for a quick death for those still suffering, and continued on his way.
The armies from the north had raped and pillaged and simply moved on to the next city. Baleel’s home was an empty husk now, heart torn out and the cavity left hollow.
With all of the priests dead, the only ones left who knew the path to the lands of the spirits were the spirits themselves. Baleel wandered the desert in search of the Khu caravan, which was said to appear when the winds turned frigid and the scent of death lingered in the air.
He spied the battered wagons and black tents of the caravan in the distance. Dozens of shadows with pearls for eyes and red mouths sat huddled around the campfires. These were the Khu, the dead that would not rest.
Baleel had covered his skin with ash so that he might look like them, and he’d gone unwashed since disemboweling Isfet so that they might not smell a human in their midst until he’d retrieved the information he needed. But as he walked through their camp he felt their eyes at his back. The gaze of the Khu was like a whispered breath at the nape of his neck, or a fingernail up his spine.
Baleel refused to meet their eyes. He was concerned he’d show revulsion at the sight of their wretched faces, and he didn’t want to call any attention to himself. There was only one here that could help him, a spirit he’d heard mention of back in his days as an apprentice at the temples. The priests there had spoken of this Khu only reluctantly, on cold nights, by the dying light of sputtering candles. They’d called it Abel, and told Baleel that he was a priest whose body was lost on a pilgrimage. Abel never had the funerary rites performed on him, and he held his fellows in contempt for being forced to wander the sands as a monster.
Baleel drew close to the center of the caravan. In the distance it seemed the entire world was smoke and sand and flame; but within the caravan the air was still, and humid enough that Baleel began to sweat. Up ahead, next to a large fire, he caught sight of a spirit wearing the familiar robes of a priest. The spirit was impossibly tall, its shadow like a palm tree swaying across the dunes. Its face, like that of the other Khu, was a blur, indistinct features that seemed constantly in motion, like the sand in the heat of the midday sun. The priest stood before a wooden table stained red with blood and dripping with gleaming bits of white gristle, and with a large knife it hacked away at several large carcasses that Baleel preferred to think were animal, even if he knew better.
“Abel,” Baleel whispered, and in response the priest raised its head ever so slightly and bared its teeth in a rictus grin that stretched across its dark face.
As Baleel approached, Abel extended his hand and offered him a nugget of raw red meat. Baleel hesitated, and in that moment he felt the other Khu press in close and surround him. Glints of teeth in bright red maws reflected in the light of the flame, and threatening stares were fixed upon him from the shadows.
Baleel, realizing he had no other option, took the strip of flesh from Abel’s hand and swallowed it down in one quick gulp.
Abel seemed pleased at this, and set down his knife. “You seek something…” He hissed with a voice like the sound of someone’s dying breath.
“A cup,” Baleel answered.
“A container for a soul.” Abel lifted its knife with bony, sharp fingers and hacked away at the leg of one of the bodies on the table until it split the thigh of the corpse from the pelvis. “Find a priest,” he said.
“All the priests are dead,” Baleel replied, and as he spoke these words Abel laughed maniacally. The other Khu joined him in his revelry, until their terrible mirth became ear-piercing.
“Did you kill them?” Abel asked.
“I didn’t save them,” Baleel answered. Abel seemed pleased at his answer.
“Only a priest can set foot in the land of the spirits and expect to return alive,” Abel said. “And you are no priest.”
“I must go, all the same.”
Abel extended one claw-like finger up to the sky, and as Baleel followed it with his eyes a star appeared, barely visible in the midst of the storm clouds and lightning and swirling torrents of sand. “Follow that star,” Abel said.
Baleel nodded and turned to leave, but Abel’s icy hand clutched his shoulder, sending a chill throughout his entire body. “A favor has been granted,” he hissed in Baleel’s ear. Baleel heard Abel’s knife slice through the air, shearing through bone and sinew and striking the table with a loud thwack. “A debt will be paid.”
Baleel left the camp as fast as his feet would carry him.
The Khu star led Baleel far from the city. The sun rose, and then set, and rose again, and still the star seemed no closer.
Baleel’s legs grew weary, and the shifting earth beneath his feet started to feel like a quicksand threatening to pull him down and bury him forever. He saw images of his failure. In his mind’s eye he saw Isfet’s soul lost and left adrift, wandering the black of oblivion with no idea why she’d been abandoned by her love.
Baleel quickened his pace. Eventually the ground beneath his feet grew more firm, and though the fierce wind still scratched at his skin there was less sand to make his eyes and skin sting.
Baleel saw an oasis before him, down a series of small hills. A pool of sparkling blue water sat at its center, flanked by tall, leaning palms and a series of irregularly shaped rocks. The star Baleel had followed hovered just above the oasis.
As Baleel descended the hills, he saw that the rocks weren’t stone at all, but massive bones belonging to no beast he’d ever seen. There were rib cages, almost whale like in size, and skulls with teeth the size of a child and eye sockets a grown man could curl up inside of.
A man waited just ahead, at the edge of the water, draped in black robes. His eyes were yellow, and he was pale of skin like the men of the north that lived beyond the great desert.
The man’s features blurred like heat rising from the sand, and Baleel was sure he must be another of the Khu.
The Khu sat cross legged, palms resting on his shins, and he lifted his head slightly to meet Baleel’s gaze. Something in the Khu’s stare made Baleel halt, and as he looked on the spirit sniffed at the air. “I can smell your kinsman burning all the way out here,” the Khu said mockingly. “Have you fled the battle, and any chance of an honorable death? Is it cowardice that’s led you here to me?”
“I am no coward.” Baleel clenched his fists.
Moments passed with naught but the sound of the wind rolling across the sand dunes. Then the Khu rose to his feet and disrobed, revealing a chest covered with strange, black markings that made Baleel’s head ache when he stared too long at their patterns. “I know what you seek.” The Khu smiled. “I know why you’ve abandoned your brothers in the last moments of their lives. The choice is yours, of course, but would you like to know how many of your people have perished cursing your name?”
Baleel bit his tongue, and thought once again of Isfet. She was counting on him. Waiting for him to return.
With no warning the Khu dove into the waters of the oasis. Baleel hastily removed his robes and followed.
The waters of the oasis were dark, and impossibly deep. There were no landmarks to gage how far down he was plunging, but Baleel felt the pressure of the water grow heavier, the weight of it forcing him down faster than his own limbs could propel him, as if he were being drawn down into the maw of a whale.
Baleel’s lungs screamed for air. He knew that even if he turned back he wouldn’t have enough breath left to reach the surface. The Khu descended faster by the second, now barely a speck of light in the abyss.
Already damned, Baleel decided to see how far down he could go. He felt his pulse throbbing behind his temples, his heart furiously pounding at his ribcage. Down he went, further and further, until there was no light left.
His body betrayed his will in the end, reflexively forcing his mouth open to draw in air that wasn’t there. The water forced its way down his throat, and it felt as though he’d been frozen over, filled with ice. He felt himself falling.
Baleel awoke to the sound of his own retching as he heaved up water onto a stone floor. After several minutes he stopped retching and rolled over onto his back, desperately gasping for air.
The room he found himself in was like a tomb. Bones and skulls lined its walls, some obviously human, some belonging to creatures he had not even heard tales of. The remains were like that of a man, but with small differences. Some had teeth too long, or claws for hands, or wings fixed to the shoulder blades. It might have been a trick of the light, but the room seemed to shrink, and those hideous remains seemed to press in closer and loom over him.
The Khu sat in the corner, its form blended into the stone with only the yellow fire of its eyes to give away its presence. “I wanted to see if you’d turn back,” it said. Baleel didn’t have the strength to be angry at it, or even respond. It was all he could do to draw air through his raw throat and into his starved lungs.
The Khu tossed a red satin robe at Baleel’s feet, and left the room through an unlit opening that revealed nothing of what lay beyond. Baleel forced himself to his feet and followed.
The next chamber was carved from obsidian, with uneven walls and floors that could only have been hollowed out by water, and time, and the trembling of the earth. Pools of water sat at even intervals in the floor, casting a flickering blue glow across the ebon walls. Baleel couldn’t tell how far down the pools went, nor could he see the source of the light that arose from them.
Above him, suspended from the ceiling, were the bones of some massive, alien thing. So fearsome was its countenance that it could have been the Leviathan of legend.
Baleel and the Khu walked for several minutes, all the while in the shadow of that terrible beast. It almost seemed to move in the dancing blue light, like a predator creeping through the grass, murder in its eyes, waiting for Baleel to let his guard down so it could swallow him whole.
“There are dozens of rooms like this,” the Khu explained, his voice echoing and sending ripples across the surface of the still pools. The skeleton suspended above them creaked and swayed, shedding dust that drifted down slowly through the stale air. “Perhaps even hundreds. And each room contains the remains of other creatures just like this. Can you imagine a time when the land was swallowed by the sea, and things as terrible as this, or even more so, swarmed the earth like insects?”
All Baleel could imagine was Isfet suffering, calling out to him. His memory of her face was already becoming a blur.
“We came from these same oceans, wriggled and crawled our way up onto land. And everything in the oceans came from the earth itself, and the earth from dead stars, and the stars from the black, before the beginning of time. And the black is infinite. Great enough to swallow even these ancient dragons whole.” The Khu laughed. “How small must this make one such as you feel? How tiny, in the face of eternity?”
Their footfalls were comparable to the sound of leaves falling on wet ground in the silent void of those immense chambers. The Khu hadn’t lied; Baleel followed him into room after room, and in each he saw suspended above him things that made him shudder when he tried to imagine what they must have looked like when they had lived.
At last they came to a small room, a mere closet compared to the others. It’s floor was covered with discarded cups, thousands of them, strewn about like refuse. The Khu reached down and retrieved a small clay cup, and handed it to Baleel. “Here you are. That should get your soul wherever it is that it needs to go,” the Khu said. “Do you ever wonder where that is? The afterlife, I mean. Here in these chambers lie the discarded carcasses of the beasts that lived before. But where are the eternal oceans in which their souls still swim, I wonder? What do their monstrous maws still feed upon?”
“I have no answer for these questions,” Baleel said, turning the small cup over in his hands. The Khu’s words had drawn doubt up within him, a doubt that had been there all along, but that he’d been trying to force out of his mind. Would this cup, this tiny thing fashioned by human hands, actually transport a soul to another land?
Or was it just clay and empty air?
“Not many priests make the journey anymore. You’re the first in centuries.” Baleel didn’t meet the Khu’s gaze, in part to avoid the question, and in part to avoid the wave of dizziness that washed over him at the sight of its constantly shifting face.
“Are you surprised to learn that your fellow priests have been so lax in their duty as caretakers of the souls of their flock?”
Baleel decided to confirm what the Khu already knew. “I’m no priest.”
“Then you’re aware of the rules you’ve violated?” The Khu’s voice became shrill, like a needle piercing Baleel’s eardrum. “The sacred pacts you’ve ignored by bringing your unclean body into a holy temple?”
“I understand.” Baleel nodded solemnly.
“Then you are more aware of the consequences of your actions than any priest I’ve met in millenia. Come.” The Khu walked to the threshold, back to the yawning entrance of the mausoleum beyond. “Even I am not permitted to dwell here for too long.”
They left by the same path they had come, but this time Baleel became aware of flashes of movement at the edges of his vision. He saw writhing shapes visible for but the briefest of moments, shadows that flitted beyond archways, dark blurs that skimmed the surfaces of those clear blue pools. From somewhere behind them there was a shuffling sound, like something dragging its feet across the stone. Even the Khu quickened its pace at the sound.
Something brushed against Baleel’s back, first with the weight of a gust of wind, then a second time more forcefully, as though someone had physically pushed him forward. He felt hands grasp at his heels, his shoulders, holding him in place sure as quicksand. Cold hands, that reeked of rotten meat, and of the smell of the ocean at low tide. The Khu was facing Baleel, walking backwards, smiling all the while. The walls of the chamber trembled, and there was a great roar, like that of the Leviathan shaking off the dust of ages, come to consume the world. Baleel’s vision turned red, and then black.
Baleel awakened in the oasis, robes soaked wet with water that smelled of kerosene. The clay cup that the Khu had given him was held tightly in his right hand, and the Khu itself sat cross legged in the sand, paying Baleel no heed. Baleel turned to depart, but the Khu addressed him, “Do you understand why we denizens of the other world are so eager to help you?” it asked.
“Because you aren’t helping me at all,” Baleel answered. “You’re damning me.”
“Then at least you understand.” The Khu smiled, and then it faded into the shadows of the bones.
“But you are helping Isfet.” Baleel whispered, marching back to the burning ruin that was his home. “I pray to God you’re helping Isfet.”
Isfet lay just where Baleel had left her. She looked nothing like she did just a few days ago. She looked… gone. Empty as the city burning in the distance, empty as the cup he so desperately clutched in his hand.
Baleel pulled the wrappings away from her mouth, held the clay cup up to her chin and parted her lips. He’d seen the priests do this countless times. Many people in attendance at the funerals he’d attended claimed they could see the soul, white hot and glowing, leave the deceased’s body.
Back then, Baleel never saw anything.
He waited over Isfet patiently, praying to see some glimmer of light, some sign of movement.
And after a too long period of silence, a tiny wisp of a breath left Isfet’s body, a small thing that you’d never hear unless all the world held its breath for a moment. You’d never see it either, not from even three feet away, so subtle was her movement. But Baleel heard it. He saw it. He wouldn’t be sure of that fact moments from now, nor would he be in the many sleepless nights to come when he’d toss and turn in doubt. But for right now, for as far as he’d traveled and for the friends he’d sacrificed, it was enough.
The breath went into the cup (or up into the air and away on the wind, who knew?) and then Baleel closed the mouth of his beloved, and kissed her forehead, and wiped his tears off of her cheeks, and covered her body and the cup with sand. Someday, tomorrow, or perhaps long after he was gone, the gods would return. They would take Isfet and use her last breath to return life to her body, and carry her away to paradise.
Up ahead Baleel spied the haunted lights of the Khu caravan inching closer. He imagined Abel would soon come calling, looking for repayment for his guidance.
Baleel pulled a knife from his robes and watched the blade shimmer in the firelight. He’d given this some thought. Perhaps he could catch up to the northern army, bloated and groggy as they must be from eating all of his people’s grain and drinking their spirits. If he approached them in the night, in their tents sleeping, then perhaps he could offer Abel twenty dead before he fell to their blades?
But for now, Baleel went to lie down next to the spot where Isfet was buried. Perhaps it would be the last time they would lie near each other.
He stared up and watched bits of fiery ash drift through the night air like snowflakes. The city still burned, and smoke still filled his lungs, but he thanked god that at least the screaming had stopped.
Baleel closed his weary eyes and dreamed of fields of green grass dotted with yellow flowers, of a clear lake at twilight with fireflies skimming its surface, and of Isfet dancing and smiling, free.
And he wished with all his heart that dreaming it were enough to make it true.
Nathan Wunner’s work has been featured in magazines and anthologies from Insomnia Press, Surreal Grotesque, Sub-Verse, 01 Publishing, The Colored Lens, XNOYBIS, Ink & Coda, three minute plastic, Infernal Ink, and Near To The Knuckle. If you’d like updates on future stories by Nathan, you’re welcome to look up any of his long neglected social media accounts and keep an eye out for the occasional update.