The Demon’s Test
by Matthew T. Acheson
The pale light from the full moon cast an evil glow on the shattered walls and ruined columns of the fallen temple. Its creators had carved it directly into the side of a sandstone ridge, which afforded the place a spectacular overlook of the desert wasteland for miles in every direction.
Once, long ago, it had been the seat of a very old, very powerful cult before the pharaoh Akhenaton came to power and cleansed the site with fire and iron. What little remained of its ancient splendor lay buried in the harsh desert many miles outside of Luxor. It did not appear on any map, and tourists never wandered its ruined halls. Only a handful of the local Bedouins even knew of its existence, and fewer still dared to venture there.
Ahmed gently coaxed the camel to lie down by clicking his tongue against the roof of his mouth in rapid succession. Then he extended his hand to help the priest down off the beast. All the while his eyes never strayed away from that evil place for longer than a few seconds.
“Are you certain you wish to go in there, father?” he asked gravely.
The aged priest ignored the question and made his way briskly towards the temple. Ahmed followed him at a slower pace, squinting down at the ground in an attempt to avoid stepping on a serpent or into a scorpion hole. As they neared the stone stairwell that snaked its way around the ridge and up to the entrance of the ruins he stopped and cast his gaze skywards.
The ruined shell of the ancient temple loomed up at him out of the darkness. The atmosphere of the place was genuinely unsettling, and Ahmed’s hands began to shake uncontrollably at the thought of setting foot on such unholy ground. Had his family not been so desperately in need of the money, he would have fled from those wastes and never looked back.
He made a gesture to the heavens and bowed his head momentarily. “God have mercy,” he whispered aloud, and then followed the priest up into the temple.
From the inside, the ancient structure was anything but impressive. It was little more than a large, open space hemmed in on three sides by crumbling stonework and on the fourth by the ridge itself. Most of the columns were fallen and half-buried by drifts of sand carried in by the desert winds.
“Thank you for guiding me here, my son,” the old priest called out softly. “This is indeed the place that I sought. I wonder if you would fetch my luggage for me before I release you from my service.”
“Of course, father.” Ahmed bowed his head respectfully and made his way out of the edifice and back down to the camels. The luggage to which the priest had referred was a solitary wooden chest of sturdy construction and considerable size. Indeed it was so large that Ahmed had been obliged to fasten several ropes around it so that it could be dragged behind the priest’s camel.
With the aid of his kard, a Persian knife made from Damascus steel with a camel bone grip, he freed the chest from its bonds and hauled it to the base of the ridge. With much effort, and a great deal of panting and sweating, he managed to drag the heavy box up the twisting stairwell, through the ruined portal and into the temple.
Near the center of the open area there were a dozen large candles arranged in a circle, and burning with an eerie orange glow. The priest had apparently been busy in his absence. Although he had never seen one with his own eyes, Ahmed had heard from his cousin Ali that Catholic masses were highly ritualistic affairs that involved the burning of candles and incense in great quantities. He had no desire to stick around long enough to find out what sort of ceremony the priest intended to perform, but as he had not yet received his payment, he had little choice.
“Thank you, Ahmed, you may go now,” the priest’s voice hissed from the cowl of his hooded robe. “I have no further need of your services.”
Not wishing to view a heretical ceremony firsthand, Ahmed was only too happy to oblige. With a slight bow he excused himself and retired back down to the camels. He removed his tobacco pipe from one of the saddle bags and found himself a large, smooth rock to sit on.
When will I be paid? he wondered as he stuffed the bowl of his pipe with tobacco. After inhaling several long draws of smoke, he began to relax a little and waited patiently for the priest to finish his ceremony.
After a time the wind began to increase, kicking sand and dust up into his bearded face. Along with it came the gentle whisper of a voice in the distance. He turned his ear towards the temple proper and cupped a hand around his ear to listen.
At first the voice sounded far away and indistinct, but as time wore on it became gradually louder and louder. The shouting sounded almost frantic, and it occurred to him that the priest must have been calling for help. He leapt to his feet and ran to the temple as fast as his skinny legs could carry him.
Ahmed burst through the ruined archway, expecting to see the old priest lying prone and crying out for help. Instead, what he saw was so shocking and terrible to behold that it sucked the air from his lungs and sapped the strength from his limbs. His knees buckled, and he tumbled to the sand in a heap of flesh and clothing. As much as he wanted to will his frozen limbs into action, all he could do was watch the scene before him with a sense of awe and horror.
With a strange object held aloft, the old priest walked a slow circle around the candles, chanting aloud as he went. Rising up from the circle of candles was a flickering column of greenish blue light. In the center was the naked form of a man. Judging from the gaping wounds on his legs, which had been severed from the knees down, the man had been dead for some time. Ahmed realized at once the ghastly significance of the priest’s chest.
“Gh’ryaane Ryeohgeoth, answer my summons,” the withered priest commanded over and over again in a deep baritone.
At first Ahmed thought his eyes were playing tricks on him, but as the movements became increasingly pronounced he realized that it was not his imagination. The arms and head of the corpse twitched spasmodically.
He watched with a mixture of disbelief and horrified fascination as the dead man’s lips began to move. The voice that spoke was raspy and sounded so unnatural that it sent ice cold shivers up and down his spine and brought goose bumps to his arms and neck.
“What fool has called me?”
“I call,” the old priest replied calmly.
The creature’s eyelids fluttered open, and Ahmed thought that they seemed to emit a dull reddish glow.
“No priest would be foolish enough to evoke me in this place of power,” the creature hissed menacingly. “Who are you?”
“I seek information,” the old man replied evasively.
“Ah,” it purred hideously. “You are a sorcerer.”
“I have bound you within this body, and within this circle, demon,” the old priest stated flatly. “There you shall stay until you have answered my question.”
The creature’s laugh was so hideous and unnatural that it sent cold pinpricks of fear surging throughout Ahmed’s body. He desperately tried to stand and flee, but his body was frozen with icy horror. His gaze was fixed on the blasphemous scene unfolding before him.
“I answer to no mortal,” the demon hissed and then its body went into a series of convulsions. The old priest seemed to tense as well, as if the two were engaged in some sort of mental struggle, the depths of which Ahmed could never hope to comprehend.
Terrified that the demon might break the will of the old priest, Ahmed made a fresh effort to escape. Still unable to stand, he began to push himself backwards through the sand with his feet.
Finally the demon ended the struggle with a howl of frustration. “You cannot hold me forever, mortal. You will tire, and when you do, I will be waiting.”
“I wish to summon your master,” the old man said, ignoring its threats. “What is its true name so that I might call out to it?” At that moment the wind kicked up ferociously, and its airy screaming blotted out much of the conversation.
Ahmed watched as the priest turned his back to the demon and started to walk away. For a moment the creature’s howl rose above that of the wind, and the old man stopped and swung around to face it. “Then give me your master’s true name,” he shouted above the din.
As if by the priest’s own will, the buffeting of the wind ceased altogether and the desert air became calm again. Ahmed had back-pedaled his way across the sand almost to the upper landing of the stairwell, but even from that distance he could see the creature’s body writhing in agony.
“B’halek Dhar R’uksuir,” it squealed finally.
The crooked form of the old priest straightened immediately, and it seemed to Ahmed as if he became considerably thicker as well. The creature’s limbs ceased their flailing, and its prone form seemed to freeze in place.
“You are no sorcerer!” it wailed in a high pitched voice. “Who are you?”
“You disappoint me, Ryeohgeoth,” the priest replied solemnly as he drew a long object from the folds of his robe. The blade curved wickedly, and seemed to bend and shape the very beams of moonlight around it so that they gathered on its surface with an awful, deadly glow.
“No, master! Have mercy!” the demon cried desperately.
The old priest raised the evil knife high into the air, and then thrust it down into the demon’s chest with uncanny speed. A shrill scream issued from the creature’s mouth, and its body writhed violently as death came to take it. It was a cry so terrible that it would haunt Ahmed’s dreams for the remainder of his life. Finally the wailing stopped, and the column of greenish blue light vanished along with it.
It took his eyes several long moments to adjust to the darkness, and when they did he spotted the form of the priest padding softly towards him. Ahmed managed to clamber to his feet for a moment before collapsing back down into the sand. His entire body trembled violently with fear, and he felt the caress of warm liquid as it trickled down his leg. In what he expected to be his final moments, Ahmed the carpet weaver tried to make peace with his maker.
“God forgive me,” he stuttered through chattering teeth. “Protect me from the Jinn and guide me to all truth.”
The tall figure of the priest loomed over him suddenly. The old man pulled the cowl of his robe back and leered down at Ahmed with a toothy grin and eyes that seemed to glow like hot coals. “Ahmed, I thought I dismissed you. What are you still doing here?” he hissed.
Ahmed tried to speak, but the words died on his lips.
“Of course, your payment. How careless of me to forget,” the priest teased playfully. He reached into his robes, withdrew a small leather pouch and gave it a meaningful shake. Ahmed heard the unmistakable sound of coins clinking together. “I always reward my faithful servants, Ahmed,” he croaked, tossing the bag of coins down onto his chest.
Then with a flash and a loud fluttering of his robes, the priest melted into the night.
Copyright © 2011 by Matthew T. Acheson