Read A Dead Djinn in Cairo Online
Authors: P. Djeli Clark
“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—
—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!
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,
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
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.