Arabian Peninsula, many centuries ago
Asad peered east through the desert dawn. This was his favorite time of day. All but the impassive sentries were in their tents, either still asleep or just beginning to stir. He felt as if sunrise was a personal ritual, rich with meaning and promise for him alone. He loved life in the desert, so vast and open. He loved that his was a nomadic life. He could not imagine living in a village, being confined to the same home month after month, year upon year.
Suddenly, the lowest point on the fixed horizon began to swell and move. What he at first took to be a swarm of insects surged above the dunes and broke into a confusion of dark and ominous shapes. Before Asad could make out what they were, the sentries had sounded the piercing alarm that was reserved for the most dire emergency. Asad knew the response would be instant.
The flying legion was closing on the encampment quickly. As they grew closer and the dawn lightened, he could see them more clearly and they were indeed hideous. These must be the ghuls, he thought, though he knew shape shifters could assume any appearance. They rode the air on wings of dragons, attached to the bodies of great snarling wolves, but with feet armed with the razor talons of eagles. The Elders had been expecting, evading, preparing for the enemy for many days. They did not know what horror might appear, only that it would.
The ghuls were still at least three or four ghalva away and they already looked enormous. A horrible howling emitted from their foaming jaws. Asad was transfixed and did not at first notice his father and the others forming a line at the front edge of the camp. Their lips were moving in a silent chant and their arms and hands gestured in a calm and steady unison. As one, they drew the acacia rods from their sheaths and pointed them at the oncoming multitude.
An eerie stiff breeze rose abruptly from the west, propelling numerous dervishes of sand toward the ghuls. The breeze grew to a wind, the wind to a gale, and it howled back at the flying beasts. Ghuls crashed into each other as countless grains of sand pelted them with force sufficient to damage their wings and blind their eyes. Angered and confused, many began to attack each other. Asad was both elated and sickened when, through a brief window in the sandstorm, he saw one of the dragon-wolves grasp a comrade tight in its talons and with its fearsome jaws clamp on the other’s neck and rip out its throat. The dead ghul fell from the sky to the desert floor.
Or, rather, would have. Instead, the wind reached a crescendo and, now swirling from every direction, morphed into a full-throated scirocco. It swallowed the entire horde and swept them high aloft with a thunderous shriek. In moments, it had disappeared to the east, where the sun was finally rising over the restored horizon.
In the camp, without anyone giving direction, the fifty-four members of the clan made their way silently to the Chief’s tent in the center of camp. An observer would have a difficult time describing them individually. The adults were all about the same height and weight. Males and females wore the same loose, sand-colored robing. Only if the hoods were down, as they were now, could you see that some of them had longer, braided hair. The females, presumably. But their dark hair and eyes differed little from one to another.
One would never suppose that the ages in the clan ranged as much as they in fact did. Asad was obviously the youngest. The observer might have guessed– correctly– that the Chief was the oldest among them, but would have been hard pressed to explain why he thought so. Perhaps it was the Chief’s serious mien, as though weighed down by additional responsibility and years. Certainly, it would at least come as no surprise. But he might be surprised if he learned that the Chief’s age was well over 300, the exact number being mislaid at some point along the way. All of the elders were of the same generation and had lived no fewer than 250 years. Indeed, Asad’s parents were each not far from being a century old, yet were the youngest remaining of the clan adults. Asad, the only child, could not remember when there had been other children, though his mother said that had been true when he was born.
The tent of the Chief looked average from without, sand colored like all their fabric and large enough to sleep four comfortably. But, walking through the unadorned entrance revealed an interior spacious enough for the entire clan and simply but beautifully decorated. The floor was covered with ornate and colorful carpets. Several plain brass oil lamps produced a warm, soft light.
As they filed in, they were silent, but their eyes conveyed to one another their concern and determination. Some sat easily on the carpets, a few made subtle hand gestures and pulled cushioned stools out of the air, and others did something rather hard to describe. They simply sat back in a lounging position with nothing visible supporting them.
Once everyone was settled, the Chief of the clan, whose name was Semharush and who was Asad’s great-grandfather, stood and smiled gravely. His voice was soft but strong and it easily filled the tent. “Well, my brother and sister jinn. We have long known this day would eventually arrive. Since we fled Madinat al-Nabi a fortnight ago, the Elders have gathered several times to consider what we must do. Their wisdom is great, but our choices are few and their counsel is…will be…bitter for us all. Mirdas will relate their plan.”
A jinn sitting to the right of Semharush, rose from his stool as if shouldering a massive weight. Yet, he quickly straightened himself and gazed around the room with confidence and compassion, with eyes that gleamed steadily in the lamplight. Mirdas was the son of Semharush and his eyes, like his father’s, were almond-shaped and hazel. But, whereas the Chief’s eyes were more brownish, Asad’s grandfather’s contained much more green and were so light they nearly glowed. Just like Asad’s eyes, everyone said, and very rare in a jinn. Mirdas was the most charismatic among them and it was natural that he would be the one to speak now.
Mirdas began slowly, carefully choosing his first words. “I know there has been murmuring that it was too risky, a mistake, to go to Madinat al-Nabi. That, had we avoided a city where so many dark jinn and ghuls are at work, we would still be undetected and safe. I remind you that the Council of Elders weighed that possibility at the time. The risk, we determined, was outweighed by our responsibilities, our destiny on earth as affirmed for many generations. You all know our history, why we stand apart from the other clans.”
Mirdas paused. Looking down to where Asad sat crosslegged on the carpet, the luminous green eyes of grandfather and grandson held one another’s gaze for a long moment. “All except you, Asad,” Mirdas said softly, yet with barely contained emotion. “We had thought there would be more time. But now, we must complete your education, if not your training. Come.” And he summoned the boy to join him.
“Yes, Grandfather,” Asad’s voice broke and was barely audible. From where he sat between his mother and father, he quickly stood, cleared his throat, and started again. “Yes, Grandfather.” Still awaiting puberty, his voice was high, but clear this time and it penetrated to the far reaches of the tent. He strode forward and Mirdas placed both hands on the boy’s shoulders.
Asad was only three moons shy of his Fulfillment Ceremony, which would take place in Najir, his birth month. At that time, he would have begun his thirteenth year and completed his education and training, when all of the clan’s secrets and full powers would be conveyed to him.
Mirdas’s smile was grim, but kind. His eyes shifted to the boy’s parents. Asad’s mother was Ankara, the daughter of Mirdas. She was the most clever among them at shape shifting, so was often asked to assume the most dangerous tasks. Her courage was legend. Still, Ankara was gentle with Asad, and protective. Despite his entreaties, she refused to train him in her art any faster than was prescribed. His father, Tyabur, was one of the clan’s fiercest warriors and most daring in the inherent magic powers of the jinn. While all in their clan were trained to fight when necessary, the true warriors, male and female, did so with uninhibited ferocity and creative use of their powers. Those powers had been on display that morning in turning back the ghuls.
Mirdas inclined his head toward them in query. Ankara and Tyabur nodded.
“I have something to show you,” Mirdas said solemnly, as he lifted his fingers to Asad’s light green eyes, and brushed gently downward to close the boy’s lids.