Ghazal preens his coal black feathers, a runt of a roc, though still immense, and my bosom friend. We sit on the sandstone cliff face above the blossoming desert oasis, my abaya whipping in the dawn’s wind.
“Habibi, you are lost in your mind again,” Ghazal sings, looking out at the goats that climb the acacia trees and eat leaves too high up for ants to dream of. “Rani, look – the griffins come flocking to feast on fresh meat. The phoenixes are rising – feel the stirring of djinn on the winds. The world awakens, but you are in dreamland, writing of rajs and whirling dervishes and saqis, of the love between man and immortal. We must eat more than your pretty poems. Come, mount my back, let us hunt.”
I smile up from my airy perch on a boulder and pack my quill, ink pot, and notebook into my camelskin bag alongside a quiverful of arrows and my rosewood bow. “You are right, Ghazal. What would I do without you, dear one? Though you are my wings, you keep me grounded. Let us get breakfast.”
I fasten the stirrups along his beak and secure the saddle at the downy ridge where his feathers fan out along his neck. Ghazal is my bonded pair, my means of surviving this flourishing backwater of Lotan, a land of spirits and ghosts and so many gossamer stories. I found him as a small girl in my father’s kingdom, and I rode him away from my forced marriage to a cruel raj of death and decay to this hideaway in the desert, seeking the sweetness of freedom.
I mount Ghazal and pull on the reins. We jet into the sky and the sylvan virginal dakinis sing of Paradise as they sit on clouds. I can hear the hum of djinn far below at their markets at the bottom of the cliff we make our home, and by now the goats are falling to the griffins in purple and blue and scarlet blood. Some djinn ride camels and herd phoenix flocks, scouring the sand for gems and lost treasure, for I live in a place where many people come to hide things, but the spirits take all.
My midnight black beauty of a bird finds a leopard hiding in a hollow by a watering hole. I aim my arrow and loose it to pierce it through the heart. Ghazal strikes with his beak, a sharp snap of the neck, then picks up the cat in his talons. Another leopard falls. Two are enough meat for both of us to be made into jerky for later and breakfast for now, and the djinn always love their skins, which we can sell for fresh fruit and more ink for my poetry.
I skin them later at our wind worn hut and Ghazal helps carry the hides down to the djinn market. We buy pomegranates and Ghazal swallows them in his gullet whole. I use the husks to perfume my roc down pillow, and that night, as the Milky Way stretches out like a sleeping woman, I sing my poetry to my angel of a bird and we dance by a campfire, bellies full, hearts aflame.
I never wanted to be a princess anyway, and I was born for the wild lands, where spirits roam and true poets find inspiration. My couplets and verse are carried by dakinis on the wind, by peris who come in caravans rich with silk and saffron, and I am growing quite famous in the human world, or so the djinn tell me.
Rani of the Ruins. Queen of Poetry. Roc Rider.
The rains have not come in months, and the oasis at the base of our carved Petra cliff is running dry. The griffins are growing hungry, and the goats are thin, and I am beginning to lose my ample curves, but Ghazal and I make do with treasure scavenged from the ruins and sold to the stingy djinn at half price.
I am picking at a handful of dates in the Ifrit markets while Ghazal is out exercising his wings. I’m in an alleyway between two mudbrick huts painted robin eggshell blue to ward off evil with intricate Hands of Fatima and evil eyes. There were many robins with tiny eggs like the sky in my kingdom, fertile valleys and rolling hills and petty princes fat off their father’s riches. I have no use for birds that squabble over roosts, and all there are in Lotan are golden eagles and vultures and scrappy desert birds that peck at cacti and dirt.
My favorite djinn, a wind-worn mother of five — Daja — with a paunch and wrinkles like tilled sand, her skin smoldering coals, is playing with her precious children. The little djinn here play with golden jewels and emeralds made into dolls their parents have found with phoenix-light in the ruins. Her youngest — Ahmed — plays with a sapphire carved soldier. The rains have not come, they are missing like Scherezade from her king’s bed, off chasing a thousand and one stories, and the djinn are hungry. I share some dates, the children laugh, and Daja smiles like sunlight on well water.
My poetry is making me money, with human travelers daring Lotan’s wastes from far kingdoms to sit and hear me recite my ghazals and sonnets and haikus on my sitar, paying for my singing in plentiful platinum and diamond. Half of them are scouts from my enemy betrothed — Malkira — and I have Ghazal slit the spy’s throats with his talons. Their jewels are useful, them ratting out the pathways to my hideout less so. Lotan is the land of legends, but even legends can be found by any unscrupulous mercenary that bribes a djinn with fiery wine.
“The clouds are arcing west. Rain,” Daja says in her plain way, her skin hardened like lava with veins of yellow and red that steam pours from. I lounge on her divan and braid the hot smoldering hair of one of her girls.
I follow her gaze to where Ghazal is chasing a dakini. “With rain comes travelers seeking shelter. Is your inn open for guests? I can help make the beds and brew the saffron tea.”
“That would be a blessing, sweet Habibi.”
I sometimes forget my name is Rani, with all the friends and creatures of legend that call me beloved. Humans are fragile here, but I am an iron rose, and my bones are angel adamantine.
We ready Daja’s guest rooms and sit under her tent fronting her two-story mudbrick inn drinking saffron tea. It is a djinn favorite pastime. All Daja must do is boil the kettle in her hands and the tea steeps and the saffron bulbs release their sweet odor, blossoming open in the dregs to spice our drinks. I must admit, it is an acquired taste for a human, but I do not really know how human I am anymore. The children have all fallen asleep, and the stars are out, and the rains fall, making cacti bloom.
Sand whips up with a thunderhead. The dakinis dance under the Milky Way. Peris move their caravans through the skies.
Someone is coming.
A guest arrives — a desert warrior with a scimitar at his back on a stubborn camel. I can smell the enchantment on him: black rags are around his face and his sword is bloody. His eyes are as green as a new onion but his skin is dark as night. All I can see are his nose bridge, thick black brows, and gaze — the rest is all ripped fabric and fraying bloody bandages.
The djinn in the market fall silent, sizing up their new potential predator or prey. To me, he is all desert lion, a jackal, and black magick sizzles on his Hand of Fatima branded palms. I can smell the rot of death on him, but it is sickly sweet, like a perfume of rotting wine, and I know in that instance he is one of Izrail’s — a necromancer to be sure, or I cannot write rhyming couplets. The bones of desert hares perk up and hop about by his camel’s feet and the spine of a rattlesnake follows him, hissing with its vertebrae.
Ghazal screeches and fans his tailfeathers, divebombing down into the middle of the market to place his spread wings square between me and the man who makes the dead dance.
The necromancer’s camel rears and his robes and rags whip in the tailwind of Ghazal’s flapping. He lets out a muffled laugh like bones rattling and calms his mount. From his drawstring bag the necromancer draws a silver bell shaped like a leaf. Ghazal recognizes it in an instant — one of the bells from Mikhail’s gardens at the edges of our paradise of Lote Trees, where the Prophet saw angels dancing on every leaf in the bark body of the living tree Samrafil. The leaves are a sign of peace around all a thousand and one kingdoms, but especially potent in Lotan where magic is amplified by the fantastic residents. One ring peals, and it soothes, and even the smell of his rot is like a song.
Ghazal kneels and chirrups. “So you are one of Izrail’s men, come in peace to the lands where malakhim are tempted away from Allah by sweet wines and sweeter still dakinis and djinni. What business have you here, necromancer?”
The necromancer puts the Lote Tree bell back in his pocket, and I can almost see a smile under his bloody rags. For every death reversed, a sacrifice to Allah and his triple-faced daughters Allat, Uzza, and Manat. His skin must be punctured with scars from his scimitars, ceremonial magick sigils carved like poetry in Arabic swirls across his chest, his back, his solar plexus. I want to drink down his death and write a poem of pain and ecstasy. My hand itches for my quill, but I focus and calm Daja, whose hand trembles around her tea cup.
The necromancer dismounts his camel and walks past Ghazal as if he were a chick newly hatched. He comes and kneels before me, reins pressed against his chest, and his golden camel kisses the sand. “I am here for the Queen of the Ruins, to seek audience with slender-ankled Rani, the bride that fled her marriage aback a roc for Lotan, Land of No Return. I am here to make a bargain: I will kill Malkira for you and put to rest his undead army that so disgusted you and now marches on the borders of Lotan, all for a poem of me and my travels, Izad of the Moon Kingdom.”
I arch my brow in the manner perfected in my father’s courts, neither disproval or approval, simply watching like the malakhim from Paradise on high. “Izad. Your name is a funny thing for he who walks with death. Are you also a being of air, winged messenger of Allah? But no, you come from his daughter’s land, sweet Allat of skin like milk and eyes silver as new coins. And you reek of the slain. There is little angelic about you, Izad. I grant you audience, but poems from the Queen of the Ruins are costly, and how am I to know Malkira marches on Lotan by hedging my faith on the words of a mongrel ghoul-raiser?”
The camel spits on the ground and Izad’s eyes flash acidic. But it is a kind alchemy, and the rotting rose scent turns to one of ant-eaten peonies and leftover yesterday’s dew. He lifts the black bloody rags covering his face to show me Malkira’s mark on his head necromancer: a bone-slit nose hole and lips once sewn shut with phoenix tendons to enslave the necromancer to Malkira’s service, now scarred and puckered, for he is free.
Ice cold dread freezes my veins, and Ghazal devours the camel in one gulp. It screeches as its spine snaps and it falls into my roc’s gullet.
“You are one of Malkira’s,” I state, in shock, and all my poetry and poise flees me. Instead I am back in a forced marriage to the king of the cruel dead, and my father is laughing at my tears, and I am flying away from the only home I have ever known on Ghazal’s still premature back. The night swallows me and the peonies and dew drown my senses until I am swimming in this Izad, senseless and terrified.
“Was one of Malkira’s. Now I am one of Allat’s. She slit the bindings on my lips and marked me as her own. I may be Izrail’s son, but my mistress is the Goddess of the Moon Kingdom. Death and moonlight are the perfect marriage, after all, and with Allat on my side, I can murder all of Malkira’s ghouls. I raised them from the dead, after all. It is the greatest curse and greatest gift my malakhim father gave me, not that he gave me anything much but a name and absence from my life from my conception. Angels are flighty like that, I suppose.”
Daja’s children have all run to their rooms, and she is cleaning up their mess frantically. I part my hijab to see Izad clearer in the wind, and in his green onion eyes I remember him, flanking my ruin.
I remember my wedding day: my father leading me forward with my first moon’s blood stained on a white handkerchief, just thirteen and sacrificed as bride to the Ghoul King Malkira to protect our own borders from being consumed by Malkira’s armies. After all, that was the fate of all the surrounding kingdoms, citizens enslaved and crops gone to leave nothing but graveyards and burnt minarets and the restless dead riding desert winds. Malkira had offered my father a choice: his daughter or his death, and my father was only too happy to oblige.
I remember Malkira’s face, nothing but a skull with pussing eyes in their sockets and a long gray tongue lolling out over spiny teeth. Malkira took the handkerchief and licked up my moon’s blood and his eyes turned red, and he hissed in desire, and my father was pleased. The Ghoul King had accepted the sacrifice and would spare his lands. I was in chains, as befitting an offering, and though I kicked and screamed my father pushed me to the cold ground and Malkira grabbed me with his rotting hands and tore my abaya off until I was naked. He would have taken me there in front of my whole stony family and his undead army had not Ghazal broken free from his cage, snapped my bindings with his beak, and taken me away to his birthplace of Lotan on his back.
I remember onion green eyes crying silently at my debasement. I remember a spell spoken by a mysterious master magician to break Ghazal’s bindings, only one I and the wind could hear.
It had been Izad’s voice like music in my mind, though his lips were bound by the flesh of a phoenix. So what he was saying was true: he had been freed from his servitude to the Ghoul King. In fact, he had freed me.
“You were the one who freed Ghazal,” I say slowly, drawing out every syllable.
Izad smiles kindly — as kind as a scarred, noseless necromancer can be. “I saw your debasement, Rani. I could not let such a girl of Allah’s talent and masterwork be defiled by Malkira. It was in that moment Allat slit the bindings on my lips: we are both masters of words, mine of magic, yours of entrancement, and your father was an idiot to not see the power of poetry within you. Allat sees potential in you, dearest Rani. She speaks to me when it rains on the oasis and there are moonbows in the well water. So I ask you again: my service — and the slaughter of Malkira and his ghouls — all but for a poem.”
“I accept your offer, Moonkissed Izad. That is what I will call you when I sing your poems on my sitar. So you say Malkira is on the borders of Lotan. When does he plan to strike?”
“How many ghouls?”
“A thousand and one. Each one tattooed with one of Scheherazade’s stories. I suppose that is to woo you.”
The kohl around my eyes burns — I could swear I am allergic to Malkira’s idiocy. “How laughable. His intention?”
“To claim his bride.”
Ghazal and I share a long look.
“I am mighty and wind wild,” Ghazal chirrups. “I can take out dozens at a time, but the dead do not rest. They will keep attacking until they are dismembered, and even then they will fight on. I will need Rani with her phoenix-fletched arrows on my back to guide me — we always hunt together. But we need Israfel’s tears to quiet the ghouls for good, for that malakh weeps into the fiery lakes and slakes the thirst of all restless spirits. As you well know, only Israfel’s tears can put a ghoul to rest. Pray tell, do you have enough to whet my talons and beak and quench Rani’s arrows? What about your scimitar?”
Izad draws blue vials from his pockets. “Only the most heartfelt tears ethically sourced from the ever-weeping archangel. I told him your story, Rani, and he cried a new river in Paradise. I am told it is chill enough to put out an Ifrit’s fire — not that we will test these tears on any,” he says mostly to Daja, whose trembling has greatly subsided. “Tell me Rani — your friends here: the peris, the dakinis, the djinn — will they fight for you?”
“How many dead lay in these sands?”
“Then our army is complete.”
There is an army of mirages — countless dead from Malkira’s conquered kingdoms, turned into ghouls. They stand at the border of Lotan, scimitars, spears, and shields on their rotting pennants of flesh that flop raw in a cruel wind. The peri fly above to protect their home, armed with fairy fire in their now-burning caravans. The djinn are boiling over with lava-made pikes, obsidian weapons at the ready. Even the griffins are biting at their harnesses, ridden by spirits aplenty. Izad has summoned the dead, and skeletons dance behind us, hundreds of animals and spirits and humans who fell prey to Lotan’s harsh desert, which nurtures a select few but kills many more. Izad rides the skeleton of a dragon, and it breathes killing simoom winds, flying beside me. I am perched above everyone with Ghazal spiraling up a thermal, my arrows and his beak dipped in Israfel’s tears.
Malkira is at the forefront of his army. He rides a giant basilisk that gnashes its venomous fangs. It is tall enough to strike Ghazal out of the sky, but we are faster than it, and I am bloodthirsty as Hannibal on his conquering elephants.
Malkira raises his scimitar and readies the charge. The ghouls come running on bone feet, the djinn train their fiery whips and obsidian weapons, and all hell breaks loose. The ghouls smell of decay and Izad is chanting and marking sigils in his bare chest and arms to direct the dead in a dance. His own ghouls fight the skeletons of Lotan, who piece the zombies with ribs and sharp rocks, bashing molding brains out. I aim my arrows at the ghouls’ hearts, the only sure way of taking them out with Israfel’s tears, and the bones of Izad’s dead are misted with the tears as well — only enough tears for a few hundred, but they will not break easily with Israfel’s blessing.
His dancing dead circle and isolate the ghouls, and they fall by the dozens. Ghazal and I dive down to snap the hearts out of the ghoul’s bodies and my arrows continue to fly. Malkira’s pussing eyes roll in his head, and he is roaring in his guttural thunder orders to destroy. His basilisk kills by the score, falling djinn and peri alike, and Malkira eats the leftover meat of his vanquished, growing hungry for the dead. I wince as he falls Daja, and in anger I scream, moving Ghazal so that he flies directly into the melee.
Malkira swallows down Daja’s fiery heart and the anger inside me could not be captured in any song or poem. It is too brutal, too raw, my almost-rapist killing my best friend in all of Lotan.
“Now, Ghazal!” I scream. “Aim for the basilisk’s throat!”
Malkira laughs like chains in a graveyard. “Little slender-ankled Rani. Queen of the Ruins, what a delight. How delicately I will break you when I have you as my bride.”
“I would rather roast on Iblis’ pike for the rest of my days!” I scream, aiming an arrow straight at his heart. The basilisk hisses and swerves to avoid his rider’s ruin.
The arrow misses, hitting him in his gray maggot-ridden shoulder. Malkira hisses and pulls it out. “You little bitch. I will not break you delicately, no, I shall make you bleed like you did on our beautiful almost-wedding day.”
He throws his scimitar straight at Ghazal.
Ghazal snaps back, but it is too late, and the scimitar buries deep in his breast. He shrieks a falcon cry and plummets towards the ground.
“Habibi ….” Ghazal chokes up blood, flapping his wings askew to crash land in a dune. Malkira laughs up pus and his basilisk advances.
I dismount Ghazal and run reckless through the dead, dodging blows, and pull the poisoned scimitar from Ghazal’s downy breast. His yellow irises dull, and suddenly the basilisk’s tail lashes my back like a whip. I scream.
Ghazal cries out in fury as the basilisk’s tail wraps itself around me, shaming me by ridding me of my abaya. Before his slit-pupil eyes roll back into his head, he snaps the basilisk’s tail with his giant beak.
“Habibi, you were always the thermal under my wings,” Ghazal sings, collapsing. I scream in rage as I fall in slick scaly tangles in the severed serpent tail. Grabbing Malkira’s poisoned scimitar, I wave it in abandon.
“Izad!” I scream, my scimitar glinting off the sun. The necromancer swoops down from the clouds aback his undead dragon and tussles with the tailless basilisk.
“My sword!” Malkira shrieks. “Damn you, you idiot girl, give it back. It will poison my rosy bride on her wedding night — we can’t have your virginal flesh sullied before my feast.”
“Allah curse you for every life, in every kingdom, for a thousand and one eternities!” I slash down ghouls left and right, and the djinn and peris and dakinis rally behind me, griffin mounts raising bitter sand.
Malkira’s words are true — the blade is poisoning me, but I have an Ifrit fire inside me now, adrenaline like strong wine. Senseless, I grab onto the basilisk that is avoiding Izad’s dead and the simoom winds of his mount and plunge the poisoned blade into it with all my fury.
The basilisk hisses wildly, and Malkira falls from his mount headfirst into the sand. He roars as he rights himself, undead flesh impervious to harm — impervious to all but his own venom, for Malkira, or Samael, is the Poison of God, from whom the simoom wind takes its desolate name.
The first of the fallen malakhim is tearing apart the opponents that stand in his way with brutish strength, stuffing guts and hearts into his mouth then spitting them out. He licks his tongue at me and kicks a dead child out of the way who got caught in the fray.
“You will be mine, impudent poetess! I will lock you in a cage on my bed like the king his nightingale!”
“My most famous poem will be the ballad of your slaughter!” I scream, and I run senseless towards him, his poison making me froth at the mouth. My vision is dimming, but this is worth dying for.
I get close, closer, enough for him to squeeze me and caress me, and I drop the blade.
“Little beloved poetesses have no fight in them after all — better for the breaking.”
He is squeezing the life out of me, but it is his life who is forfeit in the end.
“You will never break me, fool.”
Samael laughs low. “We shall see.”
He plunges his poison tongue down my throat in a repulsive kiss, unthinking. The headstrong malakh drinks down death as my spit meets his flesh, and now he is poisoned too.
The gall of death stretches in me, my limbs turn to lead, and my vision swims. I become limp.
“Goodbye, Malkira. Better to swallow your own venom than spit it out like your damn basilisk. Or was it the other way around?”
His puss eyes open in shock, so wide the globes fall out and hang by bloody flesh strings. “What? No! You desert whore!”
He drops me like hot lead.
The last thing I see is my dear Ghazal, dead.
I join my roc in sweet revenge.
I open eyes, and they are not moist, but eyelids like glass over stone. Not uncomfortable.
“So is this Mikhail’s Paradise?” I whisper, and my voice is even sweeter than my living one.
Izad smiles from beside me, and I am in my own bed in leopard skin, not beside the Lake of Memories. I hear no Bell Trees of Paradise, and it is not a burning haired archangel that greats me, but Izrail’s bastard son.
“Did you really think a necromancer would let you die, Rani? I made some adjustments according to your beloved neighbors to you and Ghazal, as the flesh is gone, but eternity is much stronger, and the treasures of Lotan endure for a thousand and one lifetimes.”
I look down at my arms and hands — fingers of diamond, knuckles of ruby, veins of emerald and desert mirage. My skin is gold, and the abaya I wear is the finest silk of midnight from Allat’s kingdom.
“So you have stitched me back together with your strange alchemy. Better alive than dead, I suppose.”
“I am owed a poem, after all.”
I stand on silver feet, and look in the mirror. The treasures the djinn, dakinis, and peris have donated from their beloved mantels has formed my new flesh. It is an act of love greater than the word Habibi itself. I cannot find anything to mourn in my obsidian eyes.
“I will write you many poems, Moonkissed Izad, but first, the defeat of the Wicked King Samael, who has plagued Lotan since he first fell, must be sung.”
Izad smiles his scarred smirk. “I will sing it with all my strength.”
“Fletched of phoenix feather, beak, and ash now. The birds are immortal, after all, and they donated the burnings of their eternal nests easily.”
“Ghazal!” I rush outside to see my now brilliant, burning phoenix roc awaiting me.
He chirrups sweetly. “Fly with me, Habibi.”
Girl and her first poem become one in the sylvan skies, and all is well in Lotan.
[Allie Nelson a grad student by night and Communication professor by day. A Heathen and witch, she finds endless inspiration in mythology and the splendors of nature. Former editor at the College of William and Mary’s award-winning Gallery Literary Magazine, She has been published in several outlets including the October 2016 Apex Magazine issue and numerous anthologies and journals, most recently Eternal Haunted Summer‘s Winter Solstice Issue. In 2014, she won the Goronwy Owen Prize, judged by acclaimed poet Kazim Ali.]