At the Altar
by C. Marry Hultman
Al-Takani stood at the foot of the Mountains of Serenity. Four soldiers stood next to the giant boulder they had rolled away to reveal a cavern. It was the opening to the ancient Diamond Mine. Discovered eons ago by unwary miners of the çei, cave elves, who had accidentally released the soul of the mountains. Magical spirits known as the djinn spread over the land, until the humans had forced them back into the abandoned mine. Some men still kept them as serfs in order to use their powers for themselves.
“Are you certain you want to do this?” his aide-de-camp, Al-Hashimi, asked.
“I do not believe we have any other choice,” Al-Takani sighed, and handed his blade to the aide. “No steel in the realm of the djinn,” he quoted the ancient texts. “An open heart and empty palms.”
In his other hand, he still carried the parchment sent to him from Queen Zenia II. Hold the city at all costs, it read.
With a trembling heart, he walked through the naturally formed arch and down the stairs cut straight from the rock, covered in layers of sand. Al-Takani took them one at a time, carefully, fully aware that any misstep and he might break something.
As he descended, the sandstone walls of the tunnel morphed into a crystal covered surface, and finally an intricate mosaic of blues, greens, and gold. A large golden door stood ajar at the bottom. A blue glow leaked from beyond it, and with trepidation, Al-Takani slid through the slit.
He marveled at the expansive cavern before him. The çei had hollowed out the mountain, creating one large room with a vaulted ceiling supported by carved pillars. Small sprites flitted through the stale air like small annoying flies around a pile of dung. At times, he thought he saw them transform into faces, laughing at him as he swatted them away. The cave was empty apart from an altar standing in what must have been the center of it. A solitary robed figure leaned over it, arms stretched out.
“Sadjad Husmam Al-Takani of Efran,” a thunderous voice echoed through the cave, and caused him to perspire. “What brings you to the home of the djinn?”
Al-Takani approached the figure on unsteady legs, his hand instinctively moving to where his blade should have been.
“Efran and its people are in dire need of assistance,” he said, coming to a halt before the altar.
The cloaked figure removed the hood to reveal an almost childlike face. Round and plump with dimples, hairless except for the tiny strands of flimsy hairs protruding from its chin. Yellow eyes set in a dark face looked at him, pointed teeth formed a menacing grin, and then it laughed.
“So, now is the time for man to come to ask the djinn for favors,” it said, and let chubby fingers, covered in gold rings, glide across its bald scalp. “Why should Kameran, Lord of the Djinn, care to help mortal men? You have banished us to this prison, exploited the abilities of my kin in Alchemy Row, and used us to frighten your children at night.”
“I am begging you, Lord Kameran,” Al-Takani fell to his knees, and stretched out his hands. “I come to the djinn with an open heart and empty palms to ask for your forgiveness. If the walls of Efran fall, then Dourland falls with them.”
“The world of our oppressors falls,” the djinn tugged at a thick gold ring hanging from a pointed ear. “What concern is it of ours? The djinn will dwell as they always have, ousted and banished.”
Al-Takani slowly rose. “When the Haugarians breach our defenses and they find evidence of djinn, they will come here. When they do, I shudder to think what they might have the spirits do for them. Oppression? Slavery more like it.”
Kameran tapped one of the rings against the altar. “What do you propose?”
“In exchange for the help of the djinn, we would give you all that you wish for.”
“We want more than so, Al-Takani.”
“Whatever it might be, I shall grant it.”
“So be it.” Kameran held out his arm. “Take my hand.”
Al-Takani obliged. He had little choice, and the djinn held his wrist in a firm grip. Then Kameran moved his other hand over Al-Takani’s lower arm. A warm blue glow spread out from the djinn’s palm, and a burning sensation shot across the skin. Al-Takani closed his eyes against the pain, and when it subsided and he opened his eyes, Kameran was gone.
He gazed upon his arm to find the image of a star seared into his flesh.
Al-Takani stood on the parapet, looking out over the desert landscape as the sun rose above the soldiers standing in straight rows, their spears casting long shadows on the sand. Towers on great wheels rolled towards the walls, as did the battering rams.
“Time is nearly at hand,” Al-Takani said to Captain Al-Dongy standing next to him.
“What if this does not work?” Al-Dongy looked out over their own troops standing shoulder to shoulder in the first courtyard.
Convincing them to accept the mark of the djinn had been no easy feat. They were all taught djinn were evil spirits, so to be imbued and sutured to one for life was not a pleasant prospect. It had forced Al-Takani to reveal what Kameran could do. They tied up a single goat to a pole in the city square, and the djinn exploded forth from the mark, engulfing it in flames. It had convinced the soldiers to endure the excruciating pain of having a living spirit fused into their flesh.
“You and your djinn will be as one,” Kameran told them. “Each new child born shall bind a djinn to their flesh, and they will live together in harmony until the person passes and the djinn moves to a new one. They will be your moral guide and ally. In return, you will benefit from the magical abilities granted all elemental spirits.”
The troops marveled at the prospect, even though some whispered in cautious voices at a future they had not bargained for.
“Then we gambled, and lost,” Al-Takani replied, looking at the mark he bore.
Kameran, Lord of the Djinn, appeared from the mark and swirled around Al-Takani’s head. He circled above the troops and raised his arms, fire shooting into the cold morning air.
“Trust in the djinn, General,” Kameran turned to Al-Takani. “When the enemy has bathed in the fire of our spirits, each and every person in Efran shall have a spirit within them. That will be your solemn promise to us. Never again shall we live in banishment.”
Al-Takani looked down at his men. Had he made the right decision? Had he the right to offer up the bodies of his citizens as vessels to the djinn for as long as man walked Dourland?
“This will be the dawn of a new era,” Kameran remarked, and laughed as the first sounds of the battering rams struck the walls.
C. Marry Hultman is a teacher, writer and, sometimes podcaster who is equal parts Swede and Wisconsinite. He lives with his wife and two daughters and runs W.A.R.G. – The Guild podcast, dedicated to interviewing authors about their creative process. In addition to that, he runs the website Wisconsin Noir – Cosmic Horror set in the Dairy State where he collects short fiction and general thoughts.