trembled as he lifted himself from the sand-covered floor of the cave.
His quarterstaff lay shredded and beyond his reach. Blood trickled from
his nose and from a cut on his cheek. He pivoted on his knees to face
the inimical figure poised upon a stone ledge behind him. She sat as before,
her posture betraying little evidence of the speed and power with which
she had struck him. He shook his head to clear the ringing sound from
his ears and the flickering spots before his eyes.
"Don't try that again.
You'll not survive another attempt."
She spoke in flawless
Arabic, true even to the dialect of the Bene Kenana. He bent his neck
and wiped his face with his sleeve. Fear mingled with his anger, but he
"Abomination! Allah will
destroy you, even if his servant cannot."
She sighed, unmoved by
his fervor. "Why have you returned, if you feel that way? Why bother to
come at all?"
"I know who you are.
I've come to cast you out in Allah's name. I will call you by your name
and you will become powerless before the One, True God."
"If you could incapacitate
me with words, why try to split my skull with your staff?"
"You're an abomination
to my eyes."
"So you've said already.
Have you learned that you cannot injure me?"
"I've discovered that
I cannot overpower a demon by my own hand."
For the first time, she
showed impatience. With a shake of her head and a motion of dismissal,
she replied, "You tire me. I thought you were an educated man, one who
had learned to think."
"I am a learned man.
I have the wisdom of the ages, passed to me from the great libraries of
Alexandria." "You have nothing. You know nothing. You and your kind have
scarcely progressed beyond the caves of your forebears." Umar,
stung by her disparaging tone, retaliated with increased volume and at
a higher pitch. "I know who you are! I call you Bast! Bastet! Ubasti!
Go now from this place! Be thou forever gone from the land of the True
She smiled, showing her
fangs. "I've not heard that name in two thousand years. You have indeed,
discovered something new."
She reached into the
folds of her garment and withdrew a small but lustrous object. "Are you
willing to learn more?"
Almost against his will,
he nodded. Words would not come to him.
She stretched out her
hand to her left, a pellet of polished obsidian visible in her fingers.
"Then open your mind to this," she hissed.
With a crackling sizzle
that deepened into a soft and throaty roar, a pillar of violaceous light
erupted from the floor of the cave. It towered to the ceiling, where it
spread like the flame from a monstrous torch. There was no heat, no smoke.
Umar quailed with fear
as he fell back upon his heels. Has Allah abandoned me? To call a demon
by its name should nullify its power. He raised his hands before his
face, certain that the violet fire would consume him. She laughed in that
soft sibilance he had come to know so well.
"Control your fear. Had
I planned your demise, you would be dead already."
"What is it? Will it
"It's a simulacrum."
She hesitated, then replied,
"A servant. I must depart but this will become an advocate to continue
your education until I return."
"Then I have been successful.
You are cast out."
Her amber eyes flashed,
highlighted by the violet light from the pillar of flame. "Don't try my
patience. Have you forgotten my earlier lessons?"
Umar swallowed, regained
a measure of humility. "I remember them."
She smiled again, nodding.
"For your sake, do not press me further."
He licked his lips, his
throat dry. "I must be true to Islam."
"By all means, be true.
The Koran is truth. Have I ever said otherwise?"
"No! Butyou... You are…
"I am inexplicable."
She tossed the gleaming
black pellet toward him. When it left her hand, the shimmering pillar
vanished. The pellet struck the floor of the cave within a foot of where
he knelt. It lay motionless, half buried in the sand. Unconsciously, Umar
edged away from it.
"When will you return?"
he asked without taking his eyes from the almond-sized, obsidian stone.
"In four hundred years."
He could not repeat her
words, astounded by the idea. He raised his eyes from the stone as his
mouth worked. Finally, he choked out his objection.
"I will be as dust!"
She stood, pointed at
the object in the sand and said, "My servant will keep you whole and firm."
She turned to the smooth and featureless iron door of her inner chamber.
As he had seen so many times previously, the door disappeared with a rush
of air. Just before she stepped through, he called out.
She turned to face him.
"What do I call this…"
he gestured at the smooth small stone, "your servant?"
"Appeal to Illumi if
your need is truly great."
Umar sensed that she
was leaving, that he still lacked understanding. He felt panic nibble
at the edges of his mind. "What do I do with this stone?"
She smiled again, her
ferocity focused fully upon him. "If you find the courage, you'll swallow
She disappeared within
the chamber of lights; the metal door scything shut a moment later. He
never saw her again.
For many minutes, Umar
remained motionless, half-expecting, half dreading her return. Finally,
he reached out his hand and prodded with a tentative finger the artifact
she had left. Apart from slight warmth, it appeared to be inert, harmless.
Eventually, he lifted and bounced it in his palm. He shrugged and placed
it to his lips. A tendril of fear slipped amongst his thoughts, and he
hesitated. The decision to accept or reject her final challenge was not
yet due. He stood and shuffled out of the cave.
Rising above the eastern
dunes, a florid sphere vanquished his dread. Warm winds swept in from
the desert, dispelling the unreality of his experience in the cave no
less surely than the brightening glare chased away the shadows of night.
In the wadi, he heard the call to Shurooq.
Umar tumbled the small
black stone within his palm. He lifted it to his nose, inhaling the tangy
scent of cinnamon. In a moment of fateful decision, he drew back his arm
and hurled it skyward. He watched its dwindling shape until he lost sight
of it against the mosaic of the field below. He sauntered past the field
then increased his stride when he approached the mosque. In his prayers,
he vowed to expel his personal devil, just as he had cast away her gift.