DEATH’S LAST DAUGHTER, by Jeff Crook:
After many adventures, the mameluke warrior Jafar al-Tinnin is no closer to finding his lover, Leiley, or avenging himself against Imam Nuri — the Sufi sorcerer who kidnapped her.
At a cursed well in the Libyan desert, Jafar and his friend Ketei seek the advice of a mad djinn, who tells them to search for Leiley in Akhetaten, the lost city of the dead, somewhere in Egypt . . .
One of the Mazikes at the top of the ridge gave a short cry, clutched the arrow lodged in his gullet, and toppled backward off his camel. Six more tribesmen swept down the wadi to the south, mercilessly lashing their mangy camels and screaming like a horde of eunuchs. Ketei loosed his last arrow and dug his heels into his horse’s ribs, catching up to Jafar at the flat summit of a flinty, sun-scorched hill.
“Don’t these jackal-bred bastards ever give up?” he asked as he swept by his friend. They’d been dodging vengeful tribesmen since before the sun rose. Ketei had feathered their chieftain’s left nipple as the old brigand and a dozen of his whelps tried to ambush them on the caravan trail to Alexandria.
After several hairy moments half-riding, half-sliding their horses down a steep slope of crumbling gray shale, they galloped out onto a pan of gravel and dried mud lying in the bottom of a bowl-shaped depression with steep, rocky slopes. Here they encountered the first green they’d seen in two days — clumps of tough grass growing in the alluvial deposits behind giant red granite boulders, big as houses. The only way out was a wadi that cut through the plateau to the north.
Suddenly, their horses snorted and reared, boxing the air as a pair of Mazikes leaped from the boulders above them. One landed in the saddle behind Ketei, a koummya dagger gleaming in his fist. Ketei caught his arm before the wickedly curved blade could find his throat. The nomad’s arms were thin as sticks but strong, like the desert that birthed him. For his part, Ketei was as tough as the short bow of horn and sinew that hung from his saddle. Muscles cracking, joints wrenching in their sockets, they grappled fiercely, each man swearing ferocious oaths in his own tongue. Ketei’s horse bolted, nearly dumping them to the stony ground.
The second desert nomad parted like a veil before Jafar’s sword, his hot desert blood misting the parched glaze of the boulder from whence he had launched his doomed assault. Before the man’s body had struck the ground, Jafar wrenched his horse around and gave chase. As he galloped up alongside the struggling pair, he reached out and brained Ketei’s attacker with the pommel of his sword. The stunned Mazike fell beneath their horse’s hooves and was trampled to a bloody pulp.
“I thought the Dhul Fiqar was useless against true believers,” Ketei panted as he recovered his seat in the saddle. They reined their mounts to a stop between the steep walls of the wadi.
“They should have called upon Allah as they leaped,” Jafar said. He wiped the blade clean on the leg of his trousers and slammed it home in its bejeweled sheath. Their adventure to recover the Dhul Fiqar, the Sword of the Prophet Mohammed, from a demon-guarded temple in the mythical realm of Ard Majoolah was an epic tale of its own. But since finding it, they had been fighting for their lives across half the known world.
“No doubt their parents were Christians,” Ketei laughed. After only a moment’s rest, they once more urged their weary horses into a stumbling gallop. They had not gone a bowshot when they heard the howls of those behind them as they discovered of their fallen companions.
“Since I met you, I haven’t once stopped running for my life,” Ketei shouted over the drumming of their horses’ hooves.
“Would you rather turn and fight?” Jafar shouted back.
“I wasn’t complaining!” Ketei answered as he leaned over his horse’s neck.
The walls of the wadi dropped away to either hand as it entered lush and verdant valley, a veritable Garden of Eden hidden like a dream at the edge of the barren Egyptian Desert. They saw no signs of recent human habitation, though there were ruins piled upon ruins from the waterless hills to the iron-gray sea. There the white walls of a city rose on the shore. A monstrous storm spread across the horizon beyond, flickering thunderheads towering like mountains into the sky.
They rode through overgrown olive and date palm orchards and over meadows still undulating with the furrows of some long-forgotten plow. Jafar glanced back, expecting to see dozens of tribesman galloping their camels down the wadi behind them. Instead, their pursuers were ranged along the rocky escarpment, sitting their camels still as monuments and black as coal against the washed out sky. He reined his horse to a sudden, bone-jarring stop and wheeled around, the Sword of the Prophet flickering in his fist once more.
Ketei pulled up and swung around to stare at the strange spectacle. “What’s the matter with them? What are they afraid of?”
“Go and ask,” Jafar said.
“Perhaps these desert scorpions have never seen green before,” Ketei suggested, “and so they doubt their own eyes.”
“Or maybe they’re only waiting for nightfall to cut our throats as we sleep.”
“Possibly,” Ketei shrugged. He looked at his companion, reading the strangely eager expression on his dark face. He knew Jafar was wondering the same thing as he — was this the lost city the djinn had spoken of? “More likely they fear this land, if yonder ruin is the city of Akhetaten,” Ketei said.
“Perhaps,” Jafar grunted noncommittally. He had never heard of this place in all his years of service under various Egyptian generals. He sheathed his sword and slid from his horse’s back. The poor animal’s ribs were heaving, its neck white with foam. Ketei joined him on the ground. It was strange to feel soft grass beneath their feet. Jafar’s mount was already snuffling a succulent tuft, though it could barely stand.
“We’d better find water for the horses,” Jafar said.
Ketei sniffed the cold wet breeze blowing in from the sea. “There’ll soon be water a-plenty, once that storm arrives,” he said. “We ought to find high ground before a river comes roaring down the hills and washes this dream of green away.”
Looking around, Jafar spotted what appeared to be a minaret towering over a clump of palms. They made for it, pulling their reluctant horses away from their grazing. Though it still stood, the minaret was so old its bricks fell away at the slightest touch, and its stairs had long since rotted and turned to dust. Even its door was gone, leaving only a pair of ornate, golden hinges lying half hidden in the riot of weeds growing around its base.
“Do you ever wonder if this world is real?” Ketei asked as he picked up one of the golden ornaments.
“It seems real enough,” Jafar said.
Ketei fingered the gold and weighed it in his palm. “I mean in general. Might this not all be illusion? I once heard a mystic in Khandahar suggest as much. I have often wondered if the world were not merely the dream of a sleeping god.”
“And us no more than some undigested bit of ambrosia? I think not,” Jafar said. Ketei shrugged and checked his horse’s halter.
Jafar plucked a spray of tiny white flowers growing at the base of the minaret’s wall. “My heart is real. My pain is real. Allah is real.” He sniffed the flowers and wrinkled his nose, for they smelled like rotting meat. “These are real,” he said, dropping them.
The minaret was attached to a mosque. An old fire had consumed the roof and left the mud brick walls gray with ash and ready to topple at a nudge. They passed through a village of huts so badly eroded they were barely recognizable as houses. The village lay in the shadow of a Roman-era aqueduct whose broken arches were strangled by vines and creepers. Through the fields and orchards ran an elaborate network of irrigation channels, now largely silted over and riotous with weeds.
They followed the aqueduct across the valley from the southeast to the northwest, heading toward the city which spread from the sea right up to the edge of the rocky plateau which encircled the valley. Cut into the hill on one side of the city was a ruined amphitheatre, white as a bleached skull in the dying sunlight. A hippodrome at the other end of town had nearly been swallowed by the encroaching sea. Along the way, they passed crumbled marble edifices of even greater antiquity, Greek temples with their columns like the scattered ribs of some long-dead giant spread across the land, half-buried or overrun with vines, trees splitting their pedestals. They also saw mud-brick mastabas like those built in the shadows of the Giza pyramids, but with flat tops green as pastures with knee-high grass.
Something about the valley, with its rampant herbage engulfing the detritus of who knew how many extinct human civilizations, filled them with an unreasonable loathing, no matter how inviting the shaded pools and fruit-laden trees they passed. It was, above all, the oppressive silence of this place that weighed on their spirits, with nothing to break the eternal hissing of the wind, not even the thunder of the distant storms. Their dusty robes were soon clinging damply to their bodies. Their horses began to shiver.
“There have been times when I thought I would die for a sniff of green,” Ketei said as he pulled his weary and ever-more reluctant horse along. “But this place stinks of it. It reeks of herbs grown fat on the blood of men. Like a battlefield.”
By nightfall they were treading the silent streets of the ruined city, their horses’ hooves clopping on cobblestones as clean as if they recently had been washed. They walked with drawn swords and peered around corners, expecting at any moment to be ambushed by the desert raiders who had long since vanished from the overlooking escarpment. They would have welcomed human foes of flesh and blood, no matter how many, rather than continue to confront the ineffable dread of this place. They almost wished they were still back in the hills, scrabbling among bone dry hills with a dozen murderers on their trail.
But they had come this far without meeting any ghosts, while the storm drew nearer every minute. The silence had given way to heavenly rumbling punctuated by frequent blinding flashes and rending crashes of thunder. All other sounds were dampened and seemed unable to travel more than a few feet before being swallowed up in the fury of the storm. An army might come marching around the next corner and they’d not hear it until it was on top of them. Patches of rain swirled down the streets, peppering them with drops big as eggs and cold as the bottom of the sea.
Jafar would have taken shelter in the first building they came across — a Roman villa with palm trees growing through its mosaic floors, but Ketei urged them on. Though the ancient temple district appeared nearer, the amphitheatre seemed the highest point in the city and he was certain the valley would transform into a churning river of mud and boulders as soon as this mother of all storms plowed ashore. From where they stood, they could see the amphitheatre rising up the side of the hill. Like the rest of the valley, it was in ruins, overgrown and crumbling. Jafar shouted over the growing howl of the wind, “If we climb up there, will be sitting in the very beard of this storm, without even a tent for shelter.”
The spatters of rain turned to nearly horizontal sheets. They mounted their weary horses and hurried along the rain-slick cobblestones, heedless of whatever might be lying in ambush ahead. Now they searched for any place with a roof, but with the night and the storm and the rain, it was soon impossible to see farther than a stone’s throw in any direction. Except when the lightning flashed, then the city stood out stark and queerly dimensionless, like freshly-carved reliefs on a tomb. It was all their horses could do to keep from being blown off their feet.
Finally, they rode up a pile of broken steps and entered the vast, echoing nave of a Roman temple. Here, to their surprise, they found dry floors and a fire burning at the far end, between rows of marble columns. The dancing flames threw the enormous shadow of a three-headed feminine idol against the wall; her heads — those of a dog, a snake and a horse — almost seemed to move, looking everywhere at once.
They sat their shivering horses just inside the entrance, staring suspiciously into the shadows with swords drawn.
“Hello! Is anyone here?” Jafar challenged.
“May we share your fire?” Ketei added diplomatically.
Echoes answered them. They waited, listening, while the storm blew gusts of rain around their legs. A burning stick shifted in the fire, swirling sparks up around the bestial faces of the tripartite goddess. Ketei slid out of the saddle and dropped to the floor. “Maybe they fled at our approach,” he said as he led his horse toward the fire.
“Maybe it’s a trap,” Jafar said without moving.
“Wait here. I’ll scout ahead, dry my boots and warm my hands, maybe take a little nap by the fire. If anything happens, you can ride to my rescue,” Ketei said. The echo of his horse’s hooves on the bare stone floor sounded like hands clapping. “See? The ghosts agree.”
Jafar scowled and sheathed his sword.
* * *
Jafar tossed another stick on the fire and watched the sparks billow up. His gaze fell on the snarling dog face of the idol towering over them. The statue was quite ancient but obviously cared for by loving hands, for her naked white marble breasts shone redly in the glow of the fire, as though flushed with life. One of the figure’s arms had broken off and the snake was missing its fangs, but it was otherwise undamaged, as was most of the temple. The roof was sound enough to withstand the storm.
“Is she a god or demon?” Jafar wondered aloud.
Ketei had already fallen asleep. He stirred and grunted something into his blanket.
“What?” Jafar asked.
“A goddess, I think,” Ketei said with a yawn. “The Romans didn’t worship demons.”
“I thought the old Egyptians were the only ones who worshipped animal-headed gods,” Jafar said.
“Umm,” Ketei grunted and pulled his cloak tighter about his shoulders. Jafar poked at the fire and shuddered. The storm, still raging outside, had brought with it a frigid north wind. “God or demon, I don’t know how you can sleep at the foot of a pagan idol,” he said. It was as though he could feel her stony eyes looking down upon them. “It’s bad luck.”
“Watch me,” Ketei said.
Jafar leaned with one elbow on his saddle. Their horses, hobbled nearby, stood head to tail, leaning against each other and sleeping the sleep of exhaustion. Jafar shared their weariness, but he remained uneasy and sleep fled from him like a frightened bird. Ketei began to snore.
“I wonder what her name is,” Jafar said.
Ketei snorted and stirred. “What?” he muttered.
“Her name. This goddess. I wonder who she is,” Jafar said.
“You can read Latin,” Ketei snapped. “Look around. It’s bound to be written somewhere.”
Jafar stared into the fire a while longer, wondering other things. Would he find Leiley in this city? That was the real reason he couldn’t sleep. He ached to begin his search.
“I wonder who built this fire,” he said. When Ketei didn’t answer, he added, “And left us this wood.” Ketei resumed snoring.
Jafar sighed and rose to his feet. He stood restlessly by the fire for a few moments, then stretched the aches out of his weary muscles. He moved off several yards to practice a fighting exercise he’d learned as a young mameluke, feet stamping the cold hard floor, fists punching at shadows, cloak whipping like a flag as he turned. After a few moments, he paused, listening, eyes closed, his chest calmly rising and falling, feeling warmth return to his limbs.
He couldn’t shake the sensation of being watched by the three-headed idol. As he walked to the rain-soaked entrance, he scanned the shadows between the columns. His eyes told him they were alone in this ancient pagan temple, but his warrior instincts warned they were anything but.
The storm was no longer blowing directly through the door, but the floor before the entrance was still a puddle, the walls damp up to the height of a man. In the flashes of lightning, he saw that the street outside was a river, piling up and flowing around the steps of the temple as though it were an island. He watched for a long time to see if the water was rising, but it never got higher than the fifth step, for which he quietly thanked Allah for His mercy.
After an hour or so of standing in the cold and watching lightning splinter the distant hills, he was weary enough to sleep at the very gates of hell. No one had ambushed them, and this place seemed more a dead city than a city of the dead. Whoever had built the fire had obviously fled. He wondered who they were — perhaps a last acolyte of the forgotten goddess, living like a hermit in a deserted, thousand-year-old city. This reminded him of what Ketei had suggested, and above the door he found the goddess’s name written in Roman letters — HECATE TRIODITVS.
Then he heard a soft voice, no more than a whisper, but it came from within the temple. He turned slowly, a cold stone in his stomach and all the hairs of his body standing on end. There was no ghost, only the fire, the colossal idol, and Ketei’s prone form.
“Leiley?” he answered.
A shadow slid out from behind a column. His breath caught in his throat, but not from fear. He rushed across the intervening space in a single beat of his thudding heart, lifted her up and crushed her in his arms.
She was warm flesh and blood, not the stuff of ghosts or dreams. As he covered her face and hair with kisses, he said, “How did you escape? Is Nuri nearby?”
“I knew you would find me, Jafar,” she answered.
He dragged her into the light and held her at arms length, drinking her in with his eyes. Her clothes were in tatters, scorched and torn, her black hair a nest of knots, but her eyes, her face, her body were as beautiful as the first time he saw her. More so. Her dirty knuckles and fingernails, the waifish shadows of hunger hollowing her cheeks and the haunted look of fear in her eyes made her more desirable than ever.
“I’m dreaming,” he said.
“Shhhh.” She touched a finger to his lips. He kissed it. “Let Ketei sleep,” she whispered. “Come with me.”
Taking him by the hand, she led him behind the columns into a kind of porch, where a trap door had been pushed aside, revealing stone stairs leading down. Jafar had thoroughly explored this area earlier and missed the door entirely, but not surprisingly, as it looked exactly like a part of the floor. They descended to a narrow corridor, which they followed to a small room, like a bedroom or perhaps a dressing chamber for the ancient priests. The room was dark, lit only by a flickering candle set on a pottery dish.
Once safely inside, Leiley threw herself into Jafar’s embrace. They sank together to the floor, where there were several old rugs piled together to make a sort of bed. As she kissed him, she tore hungrily at his tunic and cloak and tried to loosen his sword belt. He returned her feverish kisses with even greater ardor, but a hundred questions were banging around in his head, clamoring for answers.
“Where is Nuri?” he asked as he paused for breath.
She gnawed at his ear. “I escaped. He fled, but I knew you’d find me.” She scraped her teeth across his skin as she slipped down to kiss the cord of his neck.
“Escaped how?” he groaned. She pressed her breasts into his chest and ground her hip against his thigh. “Leiley, how long have you been here?”
“Days. Weeks. Forever without you,” she said. She finally managed to untangle his sword belt and toss it, sword and all, into a corner. She pressed him back on her musty bed of rugs and mounted him, obscenely rubbing herself against him through their clothes.
“Wait,” he said.
“The only thing I need is you, Jafar,” she breathed as she bent over him, her hair cascading over his face, long, black and luxurious, like sheets of fine silk. Something about this was wrong. Leiley was an ardent lover, to be sure, but she had never been wanton. He grabbed two fists full of her hair and forced her head back.
“Who are you?” he demanded.
“Jafar? My love, my light, my life, what are you doing?” she cried with tears starting from her eyes.
“Your hair was shorter than this!” he said as he tugged at her long tresses. He tried to throw her off, but she tore herself free of his grasp and slapped him hard, snapping his head back. He lay stunned by the blow, and she bent over him, hungrily licking his stinging cheek with a tongue rough as sandstone.
After a moment, she sat back on her heels and growled with lust, her lips and cheeks smeared with fresh blood. She smiled down at him as she tore off the remnants of her clothes and shook out her black mane of hair. Her pale skin flushed pink and her breasts swelled, nipples hardening as the air grew chill, close and slightly rank with the smell of rot, like the inside of an old tomb.
As she kneaded his shoulders with her strong fingers, her hooked claws gently shredded his skin into bloody tatters. She crushed him into the carpets with the sudden weight of her changing body. She had become a lamia – a monstrous creature with the naked breast and head of a demonically beautiful woman growing from a lioness’ body. He lay helpless beneath her, his arms pinned to the floor by her paws, the Sword of the Prophet useless in a corner.
“Oh, Jafar,” she sighed and licked her black lips, then yawned hugely, jaws cracking as her face continued to transform into a nightmarish version of his beloved Leiley. Her eyes slid apart, her small white teeth grew long and yellow as old ivory, her nose flattened and long stiff hairs sprang out of her swollen cheeks.
Then she paused, her smile faded and her eyes clouded with pain. A bright silver point appeared at the center of her naked breast, then grew into a shark’s fin of bloody steel that swam in jerks toward her belly. She coughed up a bubble of blood that clung to her misshapen chin and then whipped around with a leonine roar that smote the ears with its ferocity.
Ketei staggered back, wringing his numb fingers. In turning, the monster had ripped the sword from his fist. She lunged at him and with a swipe of her massive paw sent him skidding out of the room.
Jafar scrambled to his feet and grabbed the Sword of the Prophet, then rolled aside as she leaped after him. His back thudded against the wall, his skull cracked its ancient stones. She loomed up, monstrous and huge, filling the tiny chamber, her shadow darkening all but a tiny circle of light surrounding the lone candle in the corner. She reached over her shoulder, grasped Ketei’s sword by the hilt, and dragged it out of her back.
“You cannot harm me,” she said as she held the weapon up and shook her own blood from its edge. The wound in her chest vanished as though it had never been. “Not with steel made by human hands.”
“What are you?” Jafar hissed. His fingers tightened around the Sword of the Prophet.
“I’m Leiley. Don’t you recognize me?” she laughed, while her long tail lashed the rugs into a hopeless tangle.
“You’re not Leiley! What have you done with her?” Jafar demanded. He tugged his sword a finger’s breadth from its sheath.
“I? I have done nothing with her,” the monster said. “She is safe with my mother, Queen Kherefu, in her city Akhetaten, far beyond your aid. I’ve been waiting for you, Jafar. Nuri said you would come, and that I should find ways to entertain you.” She tossed Ketei’s sword aside and settled down as though to rest, but her hind claws scratched at the stone floor, seeking purchase as she prepared to make her killing lunge.
“What do I have to fear from your mother?” Jafar growled. He steeled himself, back to the wall, all his thought and strength ready for one blow, for that was all he could hope for, if Allah willed it.
“She is a god!” the monster thundered. “And I am her last living daughter, Ankhesenpaaten. We are immortal, but she is far worse than I. Better you submit to me and become my slave than go seeking your lover in her lair.”
“By God’s grace, I have sailed beyond the edge of the world and slain a demon,” Jafar said. “I am not afraid of you . . .”
With a roar, she sprang. The blade flashed in Jafar’s hand, a crescent of blood splashed across the ceiling, and the Sword of the Prophet was back in its sheath before her head came to rest between his feet. A look of surprised fury was frozen on her hideous face.
Her fingers clawed at the fountain of blood spewing from her neck while her lion body sank to the ground. “. . . or your mother,” Jafar finished.
Even as he said this, her body began to collapse like an empty bladder, while from the stump of her neck slithered dozens of asps slimy with her blood. Jafar leaped over them and rolled into the hall.
A groan from a side chamber told him where Ketei lay. He dragged his friend from a crypt filled with the grisly relics of warriors the creature had tempted to her lair and slain over the centuries. In addition to the bones and skulls, there were weapons, armor, helms and shields from a half dozen different ages, going back a thousand years or more. Even in his stupor, Ketei clutched to his chest a quiver of arrows that he had found.
As he heaved Ketei over his shoulder, Jafar paused a moment to stare in horrified wonder at the creature. A bag of tawny skin, roiling with snakes, was all that remained of her. The floor was carpeted with serpents swimming in a thick slime of old blood. “God is great!” he said. Then he ran.
At the top of the steps, he laid Ketei on the cold stone floor of the temple, then slammed the trap door to keep any serpents from following them. Ketei groaned and sat up, wincing as he touched three deep gashes that parted the hair on the back of his head. Jafar took him by the wrist and dragged him to his feet.
“Have a care!” Ketei winced. “My scalp is loose as a veil.”
“Come on,” Jafar said. “I’ll not spend another hour in this place.”
“You haven’t even thanked me yet,” Ketei said. Jafar held him by the elbow as they stumbled toward their dying fire. Ketei clung to the quiver of arrows he’d taken from the creature’s lair.
“Thanked you for what?” Jafar grumbled.
“For saving your life again, of course,” Ketei said.
Jafar lifted his friend onto his horse’s back. “Thanks,” he said, then grabbed the other horse and cinched its saddle tight. All he wanted to do was get out of this cursed city and was in no mood for Ketei’s levity. He had slain the one creature who could have told them where to find Leiley and the lost city of Akhetaten. Somewhere in Egypt, the djinn had said. The deserts of Egypt had swallowed entire legions, never to be seen again. Where would he begin to look for one woman?
Ketei spoke his thoughts aloud. “Where now, Jafar?”
“Wherever Allah leads us,” Jafar snarled and leaped astride the saddle.
Jeff Crook is a shy, secretive creature who lives in a house near the top of a mole hill in a village in Mississippi. He is fond of cats and soup, though never at the same time. “Death’s Last Daughter” is drawn from his as-yet unpublished historical fantasy novel “The Sword of the Prophet.” He is the author of numerous short stories and four novels in the Dragonlance series. He is the administrator of The Harper’s Pen Award for heroic fantasy short fiction.
You can learn more about Jeff at his website, http://jeffcrook.blogspot.com