A Dead Djinn in Cairo

Egypt, 1912. In an alternate Cairo infused with the otherworldly, the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities investigate disturbances between the mortal and the (possibly) divine. What starts off as an odd suicide case for Special Investigator Fatma el-Sha’arawi leads her through the city’s underbelly as she encounters rampaging ghouls, saucy assassins, clockwork angels, and a plot that could unravel time itself.

 

Fatma el-Sha’arawi, special investigator with the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities, stood gazing through a pair of spectral goggles at the body slumped atop the mammoth divan.

A djinn.

An Old One, at that—near twice the size of a man, with fingers that ended in curved talons, long as knives. His skin was a sheath of aquamarine scales that shifted to turquoise beneath the glare of flickering gas lamps. He sat unclothed between tasseled cushions of lavender and burgundy, his muscular arms and legs spread wide and leaving nothing to the imagination.

“Now that’s impressive,” a voice came. Fatma glanced back at the figure hovering just over her shoulder. Two long graying whiskers fashioned in the style of some antiquated Janissary twitched on a plump face. It belonged to a man in a khaki uniform that fit his thick frame a bit too tightly, particularly around the belly. He jutted a shaved round chin at the dead djinn’s naked penis: a midnight-blue thing that hung near to the knee. “I’ve seen full-grown cobras that were smaller. A man can’t help but feel jealous, with that staring him in the face.”

Fatma returned to her work, not deigning to reply. Inspector Aasim Sharif was a member of the local constabulary who served as a police liaison with the Ministry. Not a bad sort. Just vulgar. Cairene men, despite their professed modernity, were still uncomfortable working alongside a woman. And they expressed their unease in peculiar, awkward ways. It was shocking enough to them that the Ministry had tapped some sun-dark backwater Sa’idi for a position in Cairo. But one so young, and who dressed in foreign garb—they’d never quite gotten used to her.

Today she’d chosen a light gray suit, complete with a matching vest, chartreuse tie, and a red-on-white pinstriped shirt. She had picked it up in the English District, and had it specially tailored to fit her small frame. The accompanying walking cane—a sturdy length of black steel capped by a silver pommel, a lion’s head—was admittedly a bit much. But it added a flair of extravagance to the ensemble. And her father always said if people were going to stare, you should give them a show.

“Exsanguination,” she declared. Fatma pulled off the copper-plated goggles and handed them over to a waiting boilerplate eunuch. The machine-man grasped the instrument between tactile metal fingers, folding it away with mechanical precision into a leather casing. She caught her reflection in its featureless brass countenance: dark oval eyes and a fleshy nose set against russet-brown skin on a slender face. Some might have called it boyish, if not for a set of full, bold lips passed on by her mother. As the boilerplate eunuch stepped away, she used her fingers to smooth back a mop of cropped black curls and turned to the constable. Aasim stared as if she’d just spoken Farsi.

“Those markings.” She tapped the floor with her cane, where curving white script engulfed the divan in a circle. “It’s an exsanguination spell.” Seeing Aasim’s blank look, she reached down to her waist to pull her janbiya free and placed the tip of the knife at the djinn’s thigh before sliding it beneath a scale. It came back out clean. “No blood. Not a drop. He’s been drained.”

The inspector blinked, catching on. “But where did it . . . the blood . . . go?”

Fatma fingered the dry edge of her blade. That was a good question. She slid the knife back into a silver-worked sheath fitted onto a broad leather belt. The janbiya had been given to her by a visiting Azd dignitary—a present for banishing a particularly nasty nasnas troubling his clan. It had been one of her first assignments at the Ministry. The half-blind old man had called her “pretty, for a young man, so brave to take on a half-djinn.” She hadn’t corrected him. And she’d kept the knife.

“Do you think it might have been . . .” Aasim grimaced, cupping his well-coiffed moustache before almost whispering the word: “. . . . ghuls?” The man hated talking about the undead. Then again, Fatma supposed everyone did. Ghul attacks were up in the city; three separate incidents had been reported in the past week. The Ministry suspected a radical cell of anarchist-necromancers, though no one had come up with any leads.

She crouched down to inspect the markings. “Not likely. Ghuls wouldn’t stop with feeding on just blood.” Aasim made a face. “And they don’t practice magic. This script is Old Marid. Djinn sorcery.” She frowned, pointing with her cane. “These, however, are unfamiliar.”

They were four glyphs, arranged equidistant around the circle. One looked like a set of curved horns. The second was a sickle. The third was an odd axe with a hooked blade. The fourth was larger than the rest, a half-circle like a moon, shrouded in twisting vines.

Aasim bent to look. “Never seen them before. Some sorcerer’s sigil?”

“Maybe.” She ran a finger along one of the glyphs, as if touching it might provide an answer.

Standing, she stepped back to stare up at the djinn—a giant who dwarfed them both in his considerable shadow. The eyes on that bowed head remained open, bright gold upon gold that beat down on her like molten suns. His face was almost human, if you ignored the pointed ears and cobalt-blue ram horns twisting from his head. She turned back to Aasim. “How long ago did you find the body?”

“Just past midnight. One of his regulars found him. Alarmed the neighbors.” He smirked. “She didn’t emit the usual screams, if you know what I mean.”

Fatma stared at him flatly before he continued.

“Anyway, she’s a plump little slum rat who comes into Azbakiyya for work. Greek, I think. Only got a few words in before her pezevenk lawyer arrived.” He made a disgusted sound. “The old Khedive had whores rounded up and sent south in my grandfather’s day. Now they hire Turkish pimps to read you the law.”

“It’s 1912—a new century,” Fatma reminded him. “Khedives don’t run Egypt anymore. The Ottomans are gone. We have a king now, a constitution. Everyone has rights, no matter their work.” Aasim grunted, as if that itself was a problem.

“Well, she seemed upset. Maybe it was at losing that.” He gestured again to the djinn’s exposed genitalia. “Or maybe at losing clients after this bad luck.”

Fatma could understand that. Azbakiyya was one of the more posh districts in Cairo. Having a client here was good money. Damn good. “Did she see anyone? A previous visitor, maybe?”

Aasim shook his head. “No one, she said.” He scratched the balding spot at the top of his head in thought. “There’s an Albanian gang, though, that’s been hitting the wealthier districts lately, tying their victims up before making off with valuables. Djinn blood probably sells well on the sorcerers’ black market.”

It was Fatma’s turn to shake her head, taking in the djinn’s impressive bulk—not to mention those talons. “A set of thieves would be in for a deadly surprise walking in on a Marid djinn. We know who he is?”

Aasim motioned to one of his men, a small, hawk-faced man who stared at Fatma reprovingly. She returned the stare, taking a set of papers from him before turning away. One of the papers bore a grainy black-and-white photo of a familiar face: the dead djinn. Beneath the picture was a seal, a white crescent moon and spear imposed upon a red-black-green tricolor—the flag of the Mahdist Revolutionary People’s Republic.

“Soudanese?” she asked in surprise, looking up from the passport.

“Seems so. We’ve cabled Khartoum. For all the good that’ll do. Probably a hundred djinn named Sennar.”

Probably, Fatma agreed silently. Sennar was a town, a set of mountains, and, alternately, an old sultanate in South Soudan. Djinn never gave their true names, using places instead—towns, hills, mountains, rivers. It didn’t seem to matter how many of them shared it. Somehow, they managed to tell each other apart. She returned to the passport, inspecting the signature and then glancing at the floor. She frowned, bending low and eyeing the script again.

Aasim watched her curiously. “What is it?”

“The writing.” She pointed at the script. “It’s the same.”

“What? You’re certain?”

Fatma nodded. She was positive. One may have been in Old Marid and the other in Arabic, but there was no mistaking the similarity in style. This was the djinn’s handiwork. He had performed an exsanguination spell—on himself.

“A suicide?” Aasim asked.

“A damn painful one,” she murmured. Only that didn’t make sense. Immortals didn’t just kill themselves. At least, she couldn’t recall a documented case of such a thing.

Her gaze swept the apartment, searching for any bit of understanding. It was overdone, like most of Azbakiyya, with imported Parisian furniture, a Turkish chandelier, and other bits of opulence. The djinn had added his own touch, decorating the space with swords in engraved scabbards, rounded shields of stretched hippopotamus hide, and sprawling silk carpets: the collections of a being that had lived lifetimes. Her eyes stopped on a hanging mural, large enough to take up much of a wall. It was awash in vivid colors drawn into elaborate scenery—Mughal, perhaps, by the style. It depicted giants with tusked mouths and the bodies of fierce beasts. Fire danced along their skin, and wings of flame sprouted from their backs.

“More djinn?” Aasim asked, catching her gaze.

Fatma walked toward the mural, stopping just in front of it.

“Ifrit,” she answered.

“Oh,” Aasim said. “Glad we don’t have to deal with any of them.”

No argument there. Ifrit were a volatile class of djinn that generally didn’t live among mortals. Most of their immortal cousins kept their distance, as well. It was odd to see them among the artwork of a Marid. In the mural, the ifrit knelt before a vast black lake with their arms outstretched. Two words in djinn script were etched beneath: “The Rising.”

Now what does that mean? Fatma wondered. She ran a hand across the cryptic words, once more hoping a mere touch might offer understanding. Glancing away from the painting in thought, her eyes fell upon a book sitting on an octagonal wooden side table.

The weighty tome was bound in a tan leather covering worked with a repeating geometric relief and gold print—an antique Mamluk fashion. The cover read: Kitāb al-Kīmyā. She knew the book—a ninth-century text on alchemy. She’d read copies at university, but this looked like an original. She reached down to open to where someone had left a bookmark—and froze. It was on a page she was familiar with—the search for takwin, to create life. But that wasn’t what had stilled her.

She looked closer at the object she’d mistaken for a bookmark—a length of metallic silver tinged with hints of bright mandarin. She picked it up, holding it aloft as it glinted in the gas lamps’ glare.

Aasim cursed, his voice going hoarse. “Is that what I think it is?”

Fatma nodded. It was a metallic feather, as long as her forearm. Along its surface, faint lines of fiery script moved and writhed about as if alive.

“Holy tongue,” Aasim breathed.

“Holy tongue,” she confirmed.

“But that means it belongs to . . .”

“An angel, ” Fatma finished for him.

Her frown deepened. Now what in the many worlds, she wondered, would a djinn be doing with one of these?

 

Fatma sat back in a red-cushioned seat as the automated wheeled carriage plowed along the narrow streets. Most of Cairo slept, except for the glow of a gaslight market or the pinprick lights of towering mooring masts where airships came and went by the hour. Her fingers played with her cane’s lion-headed pommel, watching aerial trams that moved high above the city, crackling electricity illuminating the night along their lines. Their carriage passed a lone man in a rickety donkey cart. He drove his beast at a slow trot, as if in defiance of the modernity that surrounded him.

“Another damned ghul attack!” Aasim exclaimed. He sat opposite her, reading over several cables. “That’s odd. They didn’t kill anyone—they took them. Snatched them and ran right off.”

Fatma looked up. That was odd. Ghuls fed on the living. Their victims were usually found half-devoured. They weren’t in the habit of stealing people.

“Have they been found?”

“No. It happened just before midnight.” He made a face. “You don’t suppose they’re saving them . . . for a later meal?”

Fatma didn’t want to think on that. “I’m sure the Ministry has some people on it.”

The inspector sighed, folding away the papers and leaning back into his seat. “Whole city falling apart,” he muttered. “Djinn. Ghuls. Sorcerers. Never had to worry about this in my grandfather’s day. Thank you, al-Jahiz.”

The last words were mocking, common Cairo slang uttered with praise, sarcasm, or anger. How else to remember al-Jahiz, the famed Soudanese mystic and inventor? Some named him as one and the same with the medieval thinker of Basra, reborn or traveled through time. Sufis claimed he was a herald of the Mahdi; Coptics a harbinger of the apocalypse. Whether genius, saint, or madman, no one could deny that he had shaken the world.

It was al-Jahiz who, through mysticism and machines, bore a hole to the Kaf, the other-realm of the djinn. His purpose for doing so—curiosity, mischief, or malice—remained unknown. He later disappeared, taking his incredible machines with him. Some said even now he traveled the many worlds, sowing chaos wherever he went.

That had been a little more than forty years past. Fatma was born into the world al-Jahiz left behind: a world transformed by magic and the supernatural. The djinn, especially, took to the age, their penchant for building yielding more wonders than could be counted. Egypt now sat as one of the great powers, and Cairo was its beating heart.

“How about you?” Aasim asked. “Prefer the city to that sand trap you Sa’idi call home?”

Fatma cut her eyes to the man, which only made him grin. “When I was attending the women’s college in Luxor, I dreamed of coming to Cairo—to go to the coffeehouses, visit the libraries, see people from all over.”

“And now?”

“Now I’m as cynical as every other Cairene.”

Aasim laughed. “The city will do that.” He paused before leaning forward, a gleam in his eyes and a twitch in that ridiculous moustache. That meant he was going to ask something daring, or stupid.

“Always wanted to know—why the Englishman’s suit?” He gestured at her clothing. “We kept them out, thanks to the djinn. Sent them running back to their cold, dreary little island. So why dress like them?”

Fatma flicked the rim of the black bowler she’d donned, crossing a leg to show off a pair of caramel wing tips. “Jealous I can out-dress you?”

Aasim snorted, pulling at the edges of his too-tight uniform that showed patches of a summer night’s perspiration. “I have a daughter who’s twenty-one—just three years younger than you. And still not married. The thought of her walking unveiled in these streets, like some low-class factory woman . . . The men you meet out here are filthy-minded!”

Fatma stared. He was calling other men filthy-minded?

“Had I named my daughter after the Prophet’s own, peace be upon him,” he went on, “I would want her to honor that.”

“It’s good, then, that I’m not your daughter,” she remarked dryly. Reaching into her breast pocket, she pulled out a golden pocket watch fashioned like an old asturlab. “My father is a watchsmith. He gave me this when I left home. Said Cairo was so fast I’d need it to keep time. He came here once when he was younger, and used to tell us endless stories of the mechanical wonders of the djinn. When I tested for the Ministry, he was the proudest man in our village. Now he brags to anyone who will listen about his daughter Fatma, who lives in the city he still dreams about. He sees that as bringing blessings upon the Prophet, peace be upon him.”

Aasim pursed his lips. “Fine, then. I’ll leave upholding your family’s good name to your father. You still haven’t told me about the suit.”

Fatma closed the watch, tucking it away and sitting back. “When I was in school in Luxor I would see these photographs of Englishmen and Frenchmen who visited Egypt, before the djinn came. Mostly they were in suits. But sometimes they’d put on a jellabiya and headscarf. I found out they called it ‘going native.’ To look exotic, they said.”

“Did they?” Aasim cut in.

“Did they what?”

“Look exotic.”

“No. Just ridiculous.”

Aasim snickered.

“Anyway, when I bought my first suit, the English tailor asked me why I wanted it. I told him I wanted to look exotic.”

Aasim gaped at her for a moment before erupting into barking laughter. Fatma smiled. That story worked every time.

The carriage crossed onto the bridge that led to the neighborhood of al-Gezira, where two steel lions guarded the entrance. Such decorations were affectations of the wealthy in this flourishing island district. They drove past wide streets with well-built apartments and villas, stopping at a tall U-shaped building of polished white stone surrounded by sprawling gardens—once the summer palace of an old Khedive. It had a new occupant now.

Aasim eyed the imposing building nervously. “You’re certain about arriving so late?”

Fatma stepped from the carriage to join him. “Their kind don’t sleep.” She nodded to two sleek shapes trotting toward them. They looked like jackals constructed of black and gold metal, only with wings that lay folded on their backs. The mechanical beasts walked up on slender legs to inspect the newcomers, the gears of their bodies rotating with their movements. Seeming satisfied, they turned, as if beckoning to be followed.

The small party crossed a large, well-tended garden before walking up a set of stairs and through a tall doorway. The inside of the old Khedive’s summer palace was like something from the last century, a mixture of Arabic, Turkish and Neoclassical styles brought together under one roof. The floor was made of antique marble arranged in a chessboard pattern of brown and white tiles while rectangular columns supported a golden ceiling of geometric ornamental design. Whatever furniture once decorated the interior had been replaced, by constructions of stone, wood, and iron. Inventions, Fatma could tell, from through the ages of time. She walked around a full replica of an old wooden noria water wheel, glancing at a detailed sketch of an aerial screw that took up a section of wall. This place was like a museum.

They stopped at another set of doors that opened before their mechanical guides, revealing a glass-domed room bathed in light. The air was filled with a curious blend of haunting Gregorian chants, lilting anasheed, and harmonies Fatma could not pick out, all coming from a towering tree of burnished steel. Beneath its broad canopy was a pair of bronze automata fashioned as a man and a woman. Colorful clockwork birds sat above on the tree’s outstretched branches between metallic green leaves that swayed as if in a breeze. Their open beaks poured music in time to a swirling display of light, like thousands of fireflies moving to the same rhythm.

Beneath the tree, a tall figure inspected a curious structure of overlapping gear wheels—some massive, others small and delicate as a coin. Each had been cut with precision, so that their teeth meshed seamlessly together. Their surfaces were engraved with metal script, some she knew to be numerals. At their arrival, the tall figure broke from his inspection and turned about.

With effort, Fatma suppressed a gasp similar to the one that escaped Aasim’s lips. It was always an odd thing to be in the presence of an angel—or at least the beings that claimed to be so.

They had appeared after the djinn, suddenly and without warning. Considerable debate was expended on affirming their identity. The Coptic Church argued that they could not be angels, for all such divinities resided in heaven with God. The Ulama similarly asserted that true angels had no free will, and could not have simply come here of their own volition. Both issued cautious statements naming them, at the least, “otherworldly entities.” The self-proclaimed angels were silent on the matter—validating no particulars of either faith, and remaining enigmatic regarding their motives.

Unlike djinn, their bodies were almost ephemeral, like light become flesh, and required frames to house them. This one towered at least twelve feet, his body a complex construction of iron, steel, and gears that mimicked muscles and bone. Four mechanical arms extended from his bronze armored shoulders, while brilliant platinum wings tinged in traces of crimson and gold lay flat upon his back. It was a wondrous working of machinery that seemed suited for nothing less than immortality.

“Welcome to my home, children,” the angel pronounced, his voice a melodic rumble. A translucent alabaster mask hid his face, with lips fixed into a permanent faint smirk—meant, perhaps, to put others at ease. Brilliance poured from behind oval openings that stood as eyes, as if holding back a star. “May you be found in peace and know His glory. You have come to see Maker. Reveal yourselves and your wants and Maker will aid you as he can.”

As with djinn, angels didn’t share their names. They instead took on titles that emphasized their purpose. Maker had come to monopolize the business of crafting mechanical bodies for his brethren, work not to be left for djinn hands.

Fatma stepped forward. “Peace be with you, Maker. I am Agent el-Sha’arawi with the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities, and this is Inspector Sharif of the Cairo Police. We don’t mean to disturb your work.” She paused, taking in the tall mechanism the angel had been busy with. “Is it . . . some kind of clock?”

Maker cocked his head at her, then nodded. “It is an instrument of time, yes. You are perceptive.” There was surprise in his voice.

“I grew up around watches and clocks,” Fatma explained. “This one looks like it’ll do more than just keep the local time.”

“Indeed,” the angel remarked, turning to look over his creation. “It will take the measure of the very transition of time. Not just here, but across space and distance, bringing together all of time in this one place. It shall be the greatest clock in this world, or perhaps any other.”

Fatma suppressed a smile at the obvious pride in his voice. First unwritten rule of investigation—when in need of information, make sure you flatter your source. In that regard, immortals were no different than anyone else. This one, in fact, seemed quite pleased with himself.

“It looks like it’ll be magnificent when finished,” she said.

Maker turned back to her and nodded. “I believe it will. And your business here Investigator?”

Fatma turned to Aasim, but the man just stared up at the angel beatifically. It seemed she would have to do the talking. Briefly, she laid out the events of the night. The angel listened in silence, no emotion on that unchanging face.

“Maker is saddened to hear of such senseless acts,” he said when she finished. “It seems, at times, as if all there is in this city of late is mayhem.”

“You mean the ghul attacks?”

“Ghuls, sorcerers, foul spirits, and other unclean things. Al-Jahiz’s touch yet marks your mortal world. Not for the better, I often fear.”

“It keeps us busy at the Ministry.”

If Maker got the joke, he didn’t show it. She wondered if there were any documented cases of an angel laughing.

“Your dead djinn,” he said instead. “They are unpredictable creatures. Lesser beings, you must understand. Only slightly above mortals. They are often consumed by their passions.”

“Right,” Fatma said, sidestepping the insult in that comment. “But suicide?”

“Djinn often make war upon their kind. Is it so hard to believe one might take his own life?”

Fatma couldn’t disagree there. She’d broken up some djinn brawls before—messy business. But there was more. She nudged Aasim, who broke from his awe long enough to unwrap a bundle tucked under his arm. The feather.

“We also found this, among the belongings of the djinn. Do you recognize it?”

The angel swept forward, gliding like air over water. He gripped the feather between mechanical fingers and brought it up for inspection. “Maker knows every gear, every wheel, every cog that is put together to form a vessel. Maker knows this feather. And it was found with the dead djinn?”

Fatma nodded. “We know your kind don’t surrender such things lightly. We thought maybe talking to the owner might give us some answers.”

Maker eyed the feather for a long while, seeming to be in thought. Angels were notoriously secretive. She wouldn’t be surprised if he simply refused to help. “Maker will give you the name of the one for whom this body was crafted,” he said finally. “May it be of help to you. He is called the Harvester. You will find him in the cemetery.”

Fatma released a gratified breath. “Thank you,” she said. Then, suddenly remembering: “One more thing. Would you happen to know what these might be?” She held up a sketch of the four mysterious glyphs from the djinn’s apartment. Those bright eyes took a glance and there was a pause.

“Glyphs,” he said plainly.

“Of course.” Disappointed, Fatma tucked away the sketch. “Well, thank you again for your help, Maker. The night’s peace be with you.”

“As with you. Walk in His grace.” With that, the angel turned his back to them and resumed the inspection of his unfinished contraption. Their cue, that this meeting was over.

As they left the palace and walked out into the night, Aasim spoke his first words. “Cemetery? Does he mean . . . ?”

“The City of the Dead,” Fatma finished. “Looks like a trip to the slums.”

By the time they reached their destination and Fatma stepped out into the dusty streets, she found herself wishing she had worn less expensive shoes. This part of Cairo seemed, at times, untouched by the wider world. The City of the Dead was a place most avoided. Mystics came seeking blessings by choice. Others were here because there was nowhere else to go. They lived in makeshift dwellings, or within the cramped spaces of tombs by now centuries old. It was an odd place for an angel to call home. But it was hard to know their reasons.

As Aasim questioned some of the locals, Fatma looked over the faces that peeked out from their crumbling homes. A small boy missing two front teeth eyed her curiously from one of them. She smiled, but that only made him disappear into the shadows. Everyone here seemed on edge. She turned back to Aasim, who listened as an old man with a thick white beard complained of fresh ghul attacks and disappearances.

“The ghuls take people!” he yelled, waving a crooked stick he appeared to use as a cane. “We report it but no one comes! We are left here to fend for ourselves!” A few more took up his cry, voicing their frustrations. A flustered Aasim assured them he would send out some men. But they scoffed, and someone made a crude joke about a policeman who somehow kept getting lost in a brothel. The crowd roared with laughter. When Aasim tried to hire a guide, however, he got no takers. Instead, they were just pointed in the right direction.

“Every Cairine is a comedian,” he grumbled as they walked away. “Never seen a slum rat turn down money.”

Fatma said nothing. Despite the jokes, the faces she saw were marked with fear. And no wonder, with stories of ghul attacks and disappearances. That would be enough to make anyone afraid.

The two passed through a secluded part of the cemetery to one of the larger mausoleums in the distance. The ground was rough and uneven here, and Aasim held up a lantern he’d bought off a local to guide their path. Like most other tombs, the mausoleum was composed of crumbling faded stone that had once been opulently decorated. A rounded dome capped its roof, still impressive even in its deteriorated state. They came to a wooden door inscribed with words in white chalk. The Harvester.

“What kind of name is that?” Aasim whispered. “Harvester of what?”

Fatma shook her head, uncertain she wanted to know. She rapped on the door. When there was no response she rapped again, calling out. Only silence. Grabbing hold of the handle, she pushed the door forward and it gave way. The scent that came from inside was jarring.

“It smells like death!” Aasim gagged.

Not just death, Fatma thought, covering her nose with a handkerchief. It smelled like the dead. Cautious, she stepped inside the dark space. Her cane she left at the door, instead gripping the small, Ministry-administered service pistol at her waist. Taking the lantern from Aasim, she swung it about and then stopped in her tracks.

Slumped against a wall was an angel. Or, rather, the body of one—a felled giant of iron and steel. The mechanical carcass lay lifeless, a great gash in its chest. The angel himself was gone.

“It looks like he was . . . ripped out,” Aasim said, shaken. He pointed to where the metal was peeled back, as if pried open with bare hands.

Fatma swung the lantern’s light across the floor, where the angel’s alabaster faceplate sat broken. There was something else. She leaned closer to look. They were glyphs, familiar glyphs, etched in white. Curving horns. A sickle. An axe with a hooked end. Even a half moon shrouded in twisting vines. The very same ones from the djinn’s apartment. She was set to point it out to Aasim when the shadows in the corner of her vision moved. It was her only warning.

Something gripped her arm, squeezing so tight she cried out in pain, dropping the lantern. An eyeless, pale-gray face came into her vision, blackened teeth snapping. A ghul.

Fatma reached for her pistol—but the creature spun her about as if she were a doll, dragging her down and slamming her hard onto the floor. She gasped for breath, both at the jarring impact and the searing burning in her shoulder. Ghuls were dead, but unnaturally strong. This one would tear out her arm if she didn’t break free. Reacting now on instinct, she reached for the first thing at her waist. Her janbiya. She drew it from its sheath, lifting it high and slicing a wide arc. The blade flashed in the dark, cutting through rotted muscle and bone. The ghul’s forearm fell away, flopping to the floor beside her with a sickening slap before turning to black ash.

Freed, she scrambled back on palms and heels for the lantern. More snarls and the sounds of struggle filled the darkened room. Aasim had his hands full. Reaching the lantern, Fatma grabbed it and lifted it high. In the light, she could see the one-armed ghul glaring at her from behind a pallid stretch of skin where its eyes should have been. Its mouth fixed into a rictus, it croaked, “The Rising!”

Then it surged forward, its remaining arm reaching with twitching fingers. This time, Fatma had her pistol at the ready and now aimed the long, thin barrel. She fired once through its head—the only way to stop a ghul. It dropped dead, like a puppet whose strings had been cut.

When a hand touched her shoulder she whirled about, pistol ready. Aasim stood behind her, blood trickling from a gash on his forehead.

“Ghuls,” he said shaking. Fatma realized he wasn’t looking at her.

Turning, she lifted the lantern. The light shone across a towering wall of twisted, naked, pale-gray bodies misshapen by the sorcery that rendered their corpses into this mockery of life. The writhing mass clung to each other, barely paying the two living beings any mind. They seemed busy, sharing something between them that glowed faintly in their elongated fingers, devouring it ravenously.

“Angel flesh,” Aasim said hoarsely. “They’re eating . . .”

Fatma felt her stomach go queasy. That was enough. Lifting the pistol, she fired. Once, twice, three times. Aasim joined in. The ghuls shrieked, tumbling to the floor as they were struck. Then as one, the entire wall of ghuls crumbled and the mass surged toward them like a pale, dead sea.

Fatma backed away, readying her janbiya for a fight. But the attack never came. The ghuls streamed past, flowing around her and Aasim as if the two were islands in their path. Their bellies were distended, bulbous to bursting, but they scrambled away, at times on all fours like beasts, fleeing out the front door into the night. In moments, the mausoleum was emptied. And all that could be heard was their panting.

“Are we still alive?” Aasim whispered in the silence.

Fatma released a long-held breath. They were alive, but with more questions than they had started with.

 

Fatma frowned into the cooling cup of coffee. She thought of calling for a boilerplate eunuch to heat it. But truthfully, she didn’t feel much like drinking. Her gaze turned to the window of the all-night Abyssinian coffee shop with gilded Amharic script across its front.

“So we’ve had men all over the mausoleum,” Aasim was saying, chewing noisily on some sweet stuffed baqlawa. “They’ve confirmed, this Harvester—he was our necromancer.”

Fatma didn’t need the confirmation. She’d seen the spells and alchemist instruments in the mausoleum, including a copy of Kitāb al-Kīmyā. Necromancers used a corrupted form of takwin to make ghuls, usually from corpses. But what she’d seen tonight explained the recent attacks. The Harvester was sending out his minions to steal living people, fresh bodies to make into ghuls. The place was a laboratory for creating the undead.

“A rogue angel.” Aasim shook his head. “What’s this city coming to?”

“They’re not really angels,” Fatma reminded him.

“Of course.” Aasim plucked pastry flakes from his moustache. “Well, whatever they are, they can go bad, it seems. This Harvester’s creations turned on him. Rather profound, don’t you think?”

“A pack of ghuls defeated one of them? More unlikely than profound.”

Aasim shrugged. “You saw it as well as I did. They were . . . feeding on him.” He made a face, but never lost his appetite.

“And those same ghuls just left us unharmed.”

“You’d rather they hadn’t? Maybe they were full!”

“What’s the Angelic Council saying?”

Aasim’s smirk was answer enough.

“Of course,” she muttered. “Silent, as usual.”

“As always,” he corrected. “Such higher beings don’t deign to tell us much.” He stuffed another baqlawa into his mouth, whole. “We did hear back from Khartoum about our dead djinn, Sennar. Turns out he was exiled from a lodge. The shaykh there accused him of “improper practices.”

Fatma frowned. “What does that mean?”

Aasim dusted sugary flakes from his fingers. “With revolutionary Sufists, who knows. All that mystic political talk hurts my head. You let some people read Marx . . .”

“So Sennar’s death is being ruled a suicide?”

“You said so yourself,” Aasim reminded her.

“But we didn’t learn anything. What happened to his blood? Those glyphs—they were the same ones as at the mausoleum. A dead djinn and a dead angel? That’s not coincidence. There’s some connection.”

Aasim sighed, sitting back with folded arms. “Maybe you’re right. But whatever link they shared they took with them to . . . wherever their kind go when they die. God willing, that’s the end of it.”

Fatma sat forward. “But what if it’s not?” She lowered her voice. “I told you what that ghul said to me. ‘The Rising.’ That painting with the black lake in the djinn’s apartment had the same words.”

Aasim frowned, clearly discomfited. “I didn’t hear any of that. Besides, ghuls don’t talk. They just—” He made a snarling face and crooked his fingers in pantomime. “There was a lot happening. Maybe you thought you heard it.”

Fatma scowled into her coffee. Aasim was right. Ghuls barely had sentience, much less sense. They didn’t talk. They never talked. Only this one did. Had she just been hearing things?

“What about those ghuls that got away?”

“We have men out hunting. They’ll be found soon enough. Always ghuls about. Thanks, al-Jahiz.” Aasim wiped his hands clean, standing to go. “The Cairo police, however, consider this case closed. And a necromancer was stopped in the process. Not a bad night’s work.”

Fatma frowned deeper into her coffee. “Ministry’s wired me the same.”

“Then do what I’m going to do. Head home. Get some sleep. There’ll be more than enough paperwork to do in the morning. The modern world loves paperwork. Another thing my grandfather didn’t have to worry over.” He sighed. “God protect you, Investigator.”

“God protect you, Inspector.”

When he had gone, Fatma sat alone, trying to put together the pieces from the night. But they just wouldn’t fit. She was working on a puzzle without knowing the whole, and it was going nowhere. Reaching beneath her bowler she ran a hand through her hair in frustration, and then resignation. She placed a few notes on the table and left the coffee shop, walking into the night. Perhaps she would take Aasim’s advice.

Pulling out her pocket watch, she flipped it open. A faint ticking sounded as a crescent moon moved slowly on spinning gears. Still a few hours till dawn, though this part of downtown Cairo never seemed to sleep. She replaced the watch, trying to decide whether to take a carriage or an aerial tram, when someone collided with her. A man, clad in black. The exchange only took moments before he was gone, without so much as an apology, leaving her to scowl at his rudeness. Sometimes this city—

Fatma stopped as her hand fell on an empty space in her breast pocket. Her watch was gone. A pickpocket! She’d fallen for a damn pickpocket!

Cursing, she spun about and scanned the night for him. Something lesser she might let go, but not her watch! Small groups of patrons moved between nighttime hookah cafes, or to the gaslight markets. She found her accoster easily enough, though—at the other end of the street. He stopped, dangling her watch teasingly by its chain before dashing away.

Fatma growled and gave chase. Could this night possibly get any worse? The man was fast, but so was she—even in these shoes. She kept up easily, pushing past startled passersby. When he disappeared abruptly around a corner, she followed, finding herself in an alley. It led to a wall, the length of it covered in shadows. Fatma drew her pistol, remembering that worse than thieves lurked in Cairo at night.

“I only want my watch back!” she called out. And to deliver a few good kicks. “Just hand it over. I’m armed!”

She walked into the alley. The only sound that came back was her shoes on the paved stone. And faint breathing. Not her own. She whirled about as the black-clad figure stepped out of the shadows. How had he gotten behind her? His face was hidden in a wrap of black cloth, revealing nothing but eyes that stared daggers.

“Stop right there!” she ordered, lifting the pistol.

She blinked. And then he was on her. So fast! The pistol was swatted away by something sharp, sending it clattering uselessly across the stone. A steely glint caught her eyes. The man’s fingers were capped by curled points of sharp silver. Were those claws? She had little time to think before he came at her again, arms swinging wide and slashing a tear in the fabric across her torso. She gasped at that. Not her suit!

With a determined grunt, Fatma went on the attack, wielding her cane as a weapon—feigning, cutting, jabbing, thrusting. The damned thing wasn’t just for show! Her opponent parried with those claws, throwing off fresh sparks each time they met the metal cane. Despite the risk, Fatma kept the fight close, looking for an opening to deliver a well-placed jab.

She never saw the sweep that took her from her feet. She came down hard and her combatant pounced, knocking her flat and pressing her down with his weight—putting a black dagger to her neck. Fatma stopped struggling at that, staring up at dark, reflective eyes. When the man lowered his face to hers she tensed, expecting a blow. But instead there was a purr, like a cat.

“Impressive,” a sultry voice came. Decidedly not a man. A woman, then. Stupid mistake. “Didn’t expect you to last so long. Pretty little boy.” She traced a sharp talon across Fatma’s jugular. “I’ll let you tussle with me again, if you promise to wear one of these nice suits.” Her eyes narrowed. “We have something you might want.”

We? “You mean my watch?” Fatma asked angrily.

The woman dropped the golden timepiece on her chest. “Something else. Something you and the inspector missed.” Her voice went to a whisper. “The Rising!”

Fatma’s eyes rounded now. But before she could ask more, something was pressed into her hand. “Come to the House of the Lady of Stars,” the woman said. “And browse our wares.”

She bounded up then, and with a terrific leap, she vaulted to a wall and began to climb—clinging to its surface. Fatma scrambled to her feet, watching the woman’s impossible ascent. When she reached the top, she gave a heave and flipped onto the roof, stopping to give a teasing glance before speeding away.

Fatma strained her neck, staring. Magic. No one could move like that otherwise. She looked at the object in her hand. A bronze coin. On one side was an engraving of a cow, while a woman was inscribed on the other. Her face bore a pleasant smile; two curving horns with a disc between them sprouted from her head. Fatma recognized it well enough. And it meant that sleep would have wait. She was off to see a fortune-teller.

 

Fatma shouldered her way through the throngs at Khan el-Khalili market. A pair of women in long Parisian dresses and veils of pure white glided by, both surrounded by a troop of guards. Late-night jaunts by the wealthy to more common areas had become fashionable of late. And Khan el-Khalili was the place to be. One of the oldest bazaars in Cairo, the coming of gas lighting now meant the place never had to close—and it rarely did.

Day merchants left in the evenings, and by the glow of gas lamps night vendors kept the market going through dawn. In shops or simple wooden stalls, goods filled shelves, sprawled along tables, or gathered in heaps in every available space—from gilded brass lamps that dangled on strings to barometric pressure gauges for dirigible engines. Even at this hour, the open-air bazaar was a cacophony of dickering and haggling, amid the aroma of peppery spices, baked breads, and sweet oils. It was enough to overwhelm the senses.

Fatma left it all, turning down a narrow passageway that diverged from the main market. The House of the Lady of Stars shared its front with an apothecary. One entrance led to a space filled with bushels of pungent herbs while the other displayed a fortune-teller’s door. It was marked with a great eye of celestial blue surrounded by gold stars and red candles.

Stepping inside, Fatma found an old woman seated at a table with a small girl—strangely still awake in the predawn hours. Both were engrossed with a rectangular board, atop which sat variously-shaped pieces along a grid of squares. Senet. The game hadn’t been played regularly in Egypt for some two thousand years. But she was not surprised to see it here.

The old woman looked up, her dark skin creasing as she smiled. “Peace be with you, daughter, and welcome to the House of the Lady of Stars. How may I—”

Fatma held up the bronze coin, cutting her off. “Merira,” she demanded.

The old woman’s smile vanished with her creases, and her gaze sharpened. “Have the young today lost all manners in speaking to one my age?” she rasped.

Fatma felt her face heat and she shook her head, abashed. “Apologies, Auntie. Peace be upon you. I’ve come to speak to the mistress of the house, Merira.”

The old woman gave an accepting nod. “Very well, daughter. You may come. Merira expects you.” She turned, beckoning for Fatma to follow. The small girl watched them go, her young eyes outlined in black kohl. They walked through a long curtain of blue and gold beads that led to a narrow hallway and then to a door. The old woman gave a series of patterned knocks before it opened.

Fatma stepped into the hidden room, illuminated by bright burning lamps. The space was richly decorated, with mahogany tables and cushioned chairs. Colorful symbols that had not been used for centuries adorned the walls, alongside murals of ancient kings and queens lost to time.

There were perhaps a dozen people in the room, all women, all dressed in diaphanous white garments. Some sat in small groups, conversing in hushed tones. Others appeared to be practicing a ritual, ringing a bell and burning bitter-smelling incense while they chanted. The most arresting sight was the tall, black granite statue of a seated woman, the very one on the coin. Her head was adorned with curving cow horns, a disc in the center. Hathor. The Lady of Stars.

If the arrival of djinn, alleged angels, and magic into the world had made many more faithful, it had led to a questioning of faith for others. Adherents to alternative philosophies had appeared, as well—esoteric mystics and spiritualists. It wasn’t long before some turned to Egypt’s most ancient religions. Denounced as idolaters, they were forced to move underground, where they could meet without persecution. Because of their secrecy, their numbers were unknown. But the Ministry suspected their ranks to be in the thousands—and growing.

Fatma was led to a broad divan, where a matronly woman in a gold pleated dress waited. A black braided wig fell over her shoulders as she sat arranging a set of rectangular cards on a table with fingers adorned in henna. A black cat lounged in her lap; bits of gold piercing its nose and ears while a collar of lapis lazuli circled its neck.

To her right stood a strikingly tall woman with marbled aquamarine skin and jade eyes, whose body seemed as ephemeral as her sheer white dress that billowed from an unseen wind. A djinn. A jann, to be exact, one of the elementals. Not too surprising. Djinn could be of any faith, and more than a few now numbered among the adherents of the old religions.

A younger woman in a form-fitting crimson dress stood to their left, her hair forming a curly mane about her shoulders. Tall, with a slender, muscular frame, she leaned idly against a wall, twirling a familiar black dagger. Fatma met her reflective gaze: almost as dark as her skin. Very familiar. A faint smile played on her lips.

“May you be at peace, Investigator,” the seated woman called, catching her attention. “Please, sit.”

Fatma did so reluctantly. “Merira,” she greeted tightly, skipping the normal courtesies. Merira was a priestess of the local Cult of Hathor, with whom she had dealt before. Her eyes held a doting look and her round cheeks appeared always on the verge of smiling. But Fatma wasn’t fooled. Behind that motherly face was a steel mind that worked like a fine-tuned mechanism.

“You’re upset,” she noted, staring at Fatma with brown eyes lined in blue kohl.

“Next time you want me, Merira, you can just send a note.” She glanced at the woman with the dagger, who only winked.

The older woman put on an apologetic look. “Forgive us. Siti was only sent as a messenger. But she has more of Sekhmet in her than most, and can be . . . overzealous.” The priestess gave the younger woman a remonstrative glare, which finally erased her smile.

Siti, was it? Fatma thought. “What’s this all about, Merira? Thought your kind kept a low profile. Not running around accosting Ministry agents!”

“We near the end of worlds,” the jann put in with an echoing voice. “And the hour is late.” Fatma frowned at her, then turned back to Merira questioningly.

“You’ve seen many things this night,” the priestess said. She flipped over the cards on the table, revealing the image each bore: a pair of curving horns, a sickle, an axe with a hooked end, and a half moon shrouded in twisting vines.

Fatma stared, unable to hold back at the sight of the familiar glyphs. She leaned forward, gripping the table.

“Enough of the games, Merira! How do you know about any of this?”

The woman’s cheeks dimpled with a slight smile. “We may be forced into the shadows, but the Eye of Ra pierces all.” She motioned and someone stepped unexpectedly from around a corner. Like the other women, she wore a diaphanous gown that hugged her plump curves well. She sat beside the priestess, staring apprehensively at Fatma with large green eyes set in a round, olive-skinned face.

“Rika came to us seeking sanctuary,” Merira said. “She had business with a certain djinn.”

Fatma’s eyebrows rose. The dead djinn’s Greek lover? It had to be. The woman fit Aasim’s description perfectly. “What do you have to do with any of this?”

The woman glanced to the priestess, who nodded with approval.

“I met Sennar at a brothel house,” she said in a thick accent, definitely Greek. “He picked me out. Said he liked my eyes.” She shrugged. “I play a role, he pays. But he became obsessed with me, starting to asking that he be my only customer. I didn’t mind, so long as he paid for my time. Then he started talking to me about other things.” She paused, looking again to Merira, who nodded. “He would tell me about other worlds,” she continued. “He claimed there were places beyond where he came from, where gods lived. Gods that could curse you with madness, if you dared speak their name.”

Fatma shook her head. “I don’t understand. What are you saying?”

The jann glided forward, pointing an ephemeral finger at the card with the half moon shrouded in twisted vines. “Djinn once worshipped their own gods, Investigator, old beings that dwelled beyond the Kaf in cold and dark worlds. Do you not see them here? Rising from that darkness?”

Fatma looked down at the half moon, for the first time realizing it looked like something emerging, the way the sun rose on the horizon.

“The Rising,” she breathed aloud.

“Sennar bragged that these old gods would soon make this world their own,” Rika went on. “He said he would be able to die and live again. He promised me I could remain with him when everyone else perished. I could be his . . . pet.” Her eyes flashed with anger at the word. “He bragged about powerful friends. I asked him for proof and he showed me a feather. Did you find it, Investigator? Where I left it?”

Fatma nodded in astonishment, looking at the woman with new eyes. Aasim had underestimated this one. “Why didn’t you go to the police with this? To the Ministry?”

The woman’s plump face went pale. “Me? Speak against a Marid djinn? And his powerful friends? What would have happened then? No dark gods were going to make me live again. When I found Sennar tonight, like that, I knew it had begun. I ran. Siti is a friend. She brought me here to hide. I told the holy mother . . . the priestess . . . everything I knew.”

“And now we’re telling you,” Merira finished.

“Telling me what, exactly?”

“Of an old djinn prophecy,” the jann said. “A prophecy being performed on this very night. It is claimed that three are needed, who must offer themselves willingly.” She pointed to the horns on the card. “The Ram. Old and powerful. His blood was given first.”

Fatma looked down, catching on. “Sennar. The exsanguination spell.”

The jann nodded. “The second reaped the dead, much as a farmer reaps wheat.” She pointed to the sickle.

“The Harvester,” Fatma breathed. “And the axe with the hook? Who is that?”

“Not an axe,” Merira corrected. “An adze. An ancient instrument. The tool of the last of the three. The Builder. His face, we do not know.”

“Many believe al-Jahiz tore a hole to the Kaf,” the Jann said. “It’s better stated by saying that he unlocked a door by finding a particular moment in space and time unique to the Kaf. That, in turn, weakened the barriers of other worlds, allowing magic and beings beyond the djinn to find their way into this one. There are worlds upon worlds that exist. Finding their locks requires knowing their unique places in the pattern.”

“The system of overlapping spheres,” Fatma recited. “Every second-year in Theoretical Alchemy learns that. Al-Jahiz’s grand formula. But no one’s been able to replicate it. Not even the djinn.”

“This Builder found a way,” the jann said.

“How?” Fatma asked. Merira nodded to Rika.

The woman licked her lips nervously. “I don’t understand it, really. Sennar called it the Clock of Worlds. Some kind of machine, he said, that would open the doorway to their dark gods. This was the work of the Builder.”

Fatma went silent. Space and time, she repeated in her head. A machine that brought together all of time, in one space. And just like that, the last piece of the puzzle fit into place. Or, perhaps, the last cog. She had seen this Clock of Worlds. She had stood before it and not recognized it.

“I know who the Builder is,” she whispered. “And we’re in trouble.”

 

Fatma held fast to her bowler, clenching her teeth at every jolt of the two-seater glider that raced high above Cairo. Beside her, Siti laughed, piloting the craft in sharp turns that made its wing flaps ripple in the wind.

“Don’t like to fly, pretty little boy?” the woman shouted above the ruckus of the rattling engines, eyeing Fatma from beneath bulbous goggles.

Fatma didn’t reply, focusing instead on keeping down her last meal. She had been prepared to catch a carriage, but Siti insisted on a faster way. And time was not on their side. As they passed into the island district of al-Gezira, she pointed to their destination and the glider dived. The drop was fast, and Fatma could feel her stomach in her throat. Beside her, Siti just laughed. Was this the woman’s idea of a good time? Just when she thought she might finally be sick, they landed. Or rather, they took several rough bounces that jarred Fatma deep in the pit of her stomach. She didn’t breathe until they’d come to a stop.

“On the front doorstep?” she asked, jumping to the ground on shaky legs.

“I like to be direct,” Siti replied. She had changed into a pair of snug-fitting tan breeches that tucked into sturdy brown leather boots. A red, quilted Mamluk kaftan served as a top, tied together at the waist by a broad sash.

“You don’t have to come with me,” Fatma said, drawing her pistol. “The police are on their way.”

Siti gave her a wry look, pulling out a long rifle fitted with rounded lenses from her flying craft. “Merira sent me to help. This land has enough gods as it is. Don’t need these dark upstarts. Besides, Inspector Sharif and his men won’t get here until it’s too late.” She flashed a smile. “Can’t be too particular for a partner at the end of the world.”

Fatma had to admit that the woman had a point. “Come on, then.” She glanced to the long rifle. “And keep that thing ready.”

For the second time this night, she walked toward the summer palace of the old Khedive. As they approached, the mechanical jackals appeared again from the garden, moving toward them. Only this time they did not trot—they ran, sleek and with intent.

When one of them spread golden wings and took flight, a shot from Siti’s rifle quickly brought it down in a crashing heap of twisted metal. Fatma waited until the second one came close before shooting it through a glass eye, then running its mechanical body through with her cane.

Siti kicked at the iron carcass. “Looks like we’re not welcome. Two angels gone bad in one night. That has to be some kind of record.”

“They’re not really angels,” Fatma replied.

The two broke into a run, weapons at the ready, as they cleared the garden and reached the front doors of the palace. Fatma glanced up for the first hints of dawn. The jann had made it clear. The Clock of Worlds had to be opened in time to the rising sun. And that couldn’t be allowed to happen. At the end of a hallway, they came to the set of large mahogany doors. With Siti at the ready, Fatma pulled them open. A grisly scene greeted them.

The Clock of Worlds stood where she had last seen it—a towering contraption of plates and wheels. Only now they moved with harmonious ticks of precision, and the numerals on those large plates glowed bright. A deep blue liquid had been poured in a circle around the machine. The djinn’s missing blood, she surmised. In a larger circle sat the bodies of ghuls in a pile of twisted limbs. Their heads had been removed and their stomachs slit to reveal the devoured flesh of an angel. Here was what remained of the Ram and the Harvester, who had offered themselves up as sacrifices.

In the midst of this horror stood the Builder—Maker.

The angel was terrifying to behold. Three of his hands held long curved knives, all smeared in gore. In the fourth hand hung the limp body of a headless ghul. As they watched, he gutted the creature, spilling out the glowing contents of its belly.

“Maker!” Fatma shouted. The angel turned, his alabaster mask as calm as ever. He dropped the ghul in place and glided toward the two mortals, his metallic wings spread wide and tinged with blood.

“Stop!” Fatma warned, aiming her pistol. To her relief, he did, staring down with those brilliant eyes.

“The very perceptive investigator,” he remarked in his melodious voice.

“I know what you’re up to! The Clock of Worlds. “

“You know nothing.”

Fatma gestured toward the clock. “Shut that thing off! Or we will!”

Maker cocked his head curiously. “You have come here to stop me? When I do this all for Him?”

“This has nothing to do with God. We know about the things you worship! Your hope for rebirth!”

“No.” Maker seemed offended at the charge. “I serve only Him!”

“The djinn, Sennar. He said—”

“Djinn are superstitious and easily fooled,” Maker cut in. “Their dark gods have no power of granting life. Only destruction.”

Fatma stared, now confused. “Then why?”

“Because He wants me to,” Maker replied plainly. He extended his arms. “Look upon your world. So despoiled, so wanting. You are disobedient. Arrogant. You squabble. You war. This is not what He wanted. This is not what He created. He is perfect, and could not have made such imperfection. This is your doing. Your corruption.

“I dwelled long on this, until I understood my place in His plan. I am Maker. It is my essence. I am in that way like Him. What I create is also perfect.” He gestured to the mechanical tree, with its two human automatons standing beneath. “This world can be remade, perfect again. Your kind can be remade. And I will help Him do so. But to fix an imperfection, the first creation must be cast aside. These dark gods of the djinn will do that. They will cleanse this world so that He and I can begin anew.”

Fatma stood numbed at the perverse logic. “These beings you plan to unleash, they’ll kill thousands!”

“Millions,” Maker corrected. There was no anger or emotion, just a calculation. “The Harvester was eager to help reap such death, even knowing he would not see it. A loyal servant.”

“You ever spoken to Him?” someone asked. Both Fatma and Maker turned to Siti, who still held her rifle trained.

“I know His heart,” the angel replied.

Siti snorted. “That’s a no, then. What I thought. You made Him up.”

Maker paused. “How do you mean—?”

Siti shrugged. “You angels. You made this God up. Maybe only a few higher-ups did at first. Then the rest of you believed it. But I think He’s made up all the same.”

Maker glared, seeming at a loss for words. So was Fatma. That had to be the most sacrilegious thing she’d ever heard. Siti merely shrugged again.

“I have seen the bones of your dead gods, child,” Maker rasped. He was certainly angry now. “They rot in the earth, their magic gone and bodies devoured by worms.” He inhaled deeply, becoming calm again, and turning back to the clock. “I only wish to make you worthy of Him. When they come from their dark realm, you will see. You will pluck out your mortal eyes to look upon them, but you will see.”

His gaze tilted to the domed glass ceiling as the first rays of dawn pierced the sky. “It begins.” He lifted his three blades high and Fatma braced for attack. Where was Aasim? She and Siti alone wouldn’t last long against an angel. But Maker didn’t move toward them, instead looking down with those bright eyes and releasing a piteous sigh.

“Even now, you fail to grasp the strength of my conviction.” And with those last words, he plunged the three blades through his body—one stabbing into his chest, a second ripping apart the armor surrounding his heart, and a third sliding through the metallic links of his neck. Bright fluid like the blood of a star poured from the wounds. He swayed, then toppled to crash upon the ground and was still.

“Well, that was unexpected,” Siti remarked.

Fatma said nothing. Her eyes were pinned to an area in front of the clock. A hole had appeared. It sat there in the air, impossible yet all too real—like someone had bored into reality and found only black nothingness on the other end. Wisps of ephemeral vapor lifted from the dead offerings on the floor, all drawn into that nothingness to be devoured by oblivion. And as she watched, the hole grew.

Fatma recounted the prophecy related by the jann. The Ram, the Harvester, the Builder. Their lives given willingly. Her eyes shifted to the dead angel, now shrouded in that ephemeral vapor. Given willingly.

“Maker was the last,” she said aloud. “He was the last sacrifice. He intended to die all along. To fulfill the prophecy.” The image of the final glyph came to her, a half moon shrouded in vines. “To open the door.” She had barely spoken the words before the surface of the hole rippled like water, and then the tendrils poured out.

They were a translucent gray, long fleshy tentacles that emerged from that fathomless black sea. Some were thin as hair, others thicker than a man, spilling onto the ground in a twisting mass and spreading around. They wrapped about the ghul carcasses, which blackened and shriveled under their touch, decaying in moments. The same became of the angel, the light of his body fading until he was left a dried and desiccated husk.

“That’s. Disgusting.” Siti grimaced behind clenched teeth.

There was a sudden bellowing from within the hole, a harsh, guttural mashing of tongues that rose as many and fell as one. The force of it was deafening, trembling the palace and sending terror through Fatma that staggered her under its weight. She remembered now the black lake in the mural in Sennar’s apartment, of the ifrit summoning their darks gods. This was the Rising. Whatever thing—things—lived in that primordial darkness were now trying to come through. When they did, these terrible gods would demand no less than death. They nourished themselves on it. They would demand the death of a whole world.

“We have to close it!” Fatma said, finding her voice.

Siti nodded stiffly, staring wide-eyed at the groping tendrils that continued to emerge from the hole. “I’m open to any ideas.”

Fatma’s mind raced, trying to recall her readings in second-year alchemy. Al-Jahiz. The Theory of Overlapping Spheres. This Clock of Worlds worked on his grand formula. What had that jann said? Space and time. She looked at the clock, at its gears that ground inexorably forward like some inevitable countdown. That was it! Time.

She turned to Siti. “I have to get to the clock!”

Siti gave a curt nod, readying her long rifle. And Fatma ran.

Behind her, she could hear the other woman firing off rounds. Bullets streaked by, hitting tendrils, cutting through gray translucent flesh in spurts of black fetid blood that made her want to gag. Another stomach-turning bellow came from inside the portal, this time a howl of pain and anger. Fatma wondered if what she looked upon now were many beings, or merely the appendage of one dipping into their world. She shook off the terrifying thought, concentrating instead on reaching the clock. When a tendril lashed toward her, she pulled her janbiya from its belt and slashed through the tip, which fell squirming to the floor.

A shout from Siti made Fatma look up in time to see a massive tentacle rushing her way. She went flat, covering her head as it snaked its way over and above, seeking the source of the biting bullets. She turned to see Siti leaping beyond the lashing limb, landing nimbly on top of a table like a cat. The woman had slung the long rifle over her back, and donned those silver talon claws on each hand. Roaring, she slashed at the thick tentacle, raking deep gashes in its flesh. Not a cat, Fatma thought. A lioness! The other tendrils quickly joined the fray, tearing apart the room and flinging furniture in their frustration as the small figure remained just out of their reach.

Fatma looked ahead, found the path clear, and almost shouted in relief. She pushed herself up, and ran again for the clock. When she reached it she stared up at the complex design of machinery, where iron wheels and pinions all turned in a harmonious union. A loud ticking emanated from within the structure, like the beating heart of some metronomic being. Space and time, the jann had said. That’s how the doorway was opened. This clock was too big to move, but maybe she could do something about time.

Fatma lifted her cane, searching for a spot between the spinning plates—finding one, she rammed the cane in all the way to the silver lion-headed pommel. The clock groaned with a metal whine, shuddering as the wheels’ teeth ground around the cane. The two gears slowed and for a heartbeat she dared to hope. Then, with a forceful crunch, the iron teeth bit through the cane, pressing forward and crushing it to bits. Fatma’s heart faltered.

Not enough. Maker had outdone himself. This was a machine created by a being driven to achieve perfection. Every wheel had been cut specifically, each one put in place by exacting hands, with extreme care and an unfaltering will. This wasn’t just a clock, it was a masterpiece of perfect precision. It wouldn’t be stopped so easily.

Perfect precision. The thought played in Fatma’s head as that rhythmic ticking resonated. Putting a hand to a space in the clock, she hoisted herself up and climbed. This had indeed been Maker’s handiwork. A being not just driven by, but obsessed with perfection. A being that would make certain each piece of his masterful design performed in absolute precision—or not at all. And every clock had a means to keep it precise. She climbed until she reached a place where she could peer inside the clock’s ironwork chassis, past the plates and wheels, searching for that means of precision until she found it. The pendulum—a thick metal bar cut sharp on either end. It swung back and forth to that metronomic rhythm, allowing each tooth of a large central spinning gear to escape in precise timing. The thing was too big to pry it loose. But if she could find something to upset that tempo . . .

Without another thought, Fatma reached into her breast pocket and pulled out a round bit of gold. Her father’s watch. Praise be to God! She reached her arm inside the clock, lodging the watch between the pendulum and the gear. It ceased swinging abruptly, caught on the small piece of metal. Fatma held her breath, praying that this would work. There was a strained groaning as a terrific tremor ran along the length of the clock. Everywhere, gear wheels skipped or seized, losing their perfect precision. That harmonious movement was replaced by a growing discord as time itself lost precision. Fatma looked to see the gaping hole in the air waver —and slowly begin to close.

She might have cried out in triumph, but that terrible bellowing came again, this time in fitful snarls. For one heart-stopping moment the hole suddenly expanded. Gazing into that darkness spread out before her, Fatma caught the outline of a monstrous shape she could not begin to describe. And every fear, every nightmare she’d ever had seized within her chest. Then, like a band stretched to its limit, the hole contracted, collapsing in on itself, as reality crashed back together with the thunderous handclap of a god.

Fatma was thrown from the clock as a concussive roar swept the room. For a moment she was flying, then she struck the ground hard. Air was pushed from her lungs in a gasp, and agony flared where her shoulder impacted with stone. She rolled several times over before her back slammed against something, stopping her momentum. She lay there for a long moment through a haze of dizzying pain, as a ringing sounded in her ears.

Then someone was there, lifting debris from atop her. Siti. The woman was covered in dust, and blood flowed from more than a few cuts—including a gash that left her hair slick with crimson on the right side of her head. She extended a hand and Fatma was sure to offer the good arm. Standing, the two surveyed the room, now barely recognizable, with splintered furniture and shattered contraptions. A wall had collapsed and the air was filled with thick, billowing dust. Only parts of the clock were left, a few stubborn wheels somehow still spinning. The doorway itself was gone.

“Looks like you’ll need a new suit,” Siti wheezed between coughs. Fatma looked down. Her pants were torn and her jacket was little better. There was a pang of loss as she remembered the fate of her cane. And what had become of her bowler?

“Think this is yours,” Siti offered, holding a bit of gold that dangled from a chain. Fatma took her watch and flipped it open, smiling at the familiar ticking. Scratched and worse for wear, but the damn thing still worked. Closing it, she slipped it back into her breast pocket.

Slowly, the two women began to make their way through the wreckage. Fatma stopped at sight of gray flesh in their path. One of the tendrils. It had been sheared clean at the base, cut off from the thing—or things—now trapped back in that dark realm. She kicked it. Dead.

“What do you think that belonged to?” Siti asked.

Fatma grimaced, remembering her glimpse through the doorway. “We don’t want to know.” Both women looked up at sounds from the distance. Voices. Shouts. One was Aasim.

“You’ll excuse me,” Siti said. “But Merira prefers we keep our distance from the local constabulary.”

Fatma caught her meaning. “Don’t worry. As far as they’re concerned, I never spoke to any of you. You were never here.” She paused. “Thank you, Siti.”

The taller woman beamed, a mischievous look in her eyes. “You can thank me over a nice meal.”

Fatma raised an eyebrow. “The two of us? Share a meal?”

“And why not?”

“You’re an infidel. And maybe a little insane.”

Siti grinned, not denying either charge. She reached up with dexterous fingers to adjust the loosed knot on Fatma’s tie. “My family owns a restaurant downtown. You’ve never had better Nubian food. I have an aunt who will make us the best fatta if asked, no matter the time of year. And wait till you taste her mulukhiya.” Finishing the knot, she played with the length of the tie. “Just make sure you wear one of these nice little suits.” There was a wink before the woman turned and was gone, disappearing into the dust with that rifle slung over her back.

Fatma shook her head, turning in time to see three men in khaki uniforms scrambling over wreckage to enter the room—a dumbfounded Aasim in their lead. Holding her injured shoulder, she hobbled over toward the inspector. He was going to hate the paperwork on this one.

 

“A Dead Djinn in Cairo” copyright © 2016 by P.Djeli Clark

Art copyright © 2016 by Kevin Hong

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