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Archibald James Portendorf disliked stairs. With their ludicrous lengths, ever leading up, as if in some jest. There were times, he thought, he could even hear them snickering. If these stairs had eyes to see, they would do more than snicker—watching as he huffed through curling auburn whiskers, his short legs wobbling under his rotundity. It was criminal in this modern age that stairs should be allowed to yet exist—when lifts could carry passengers in comfort.
He stopped to rest against a giant replica of a copper teapot with a curving spout like a beak, setting down the burden he’d been carrying. It was shameful that someone of his years, having reached sixty and one in this year 1912, should suffer such indignities. He should be settling down for the night with a stiff drink, not trotting up a set of ruddy stairs!
“All for king, country, and company,” he muttered.
Mopping sweat from his forehead, he wished he could reach the dampness lining his back and other unmentionable regions that his dark suit, by fortune, hid away. It was warm for November, and in this overheated land it seemed his body no longer knew how not to sweat. With a sigh, he turned weary eyes to an arched window. At this hour he could still make out the sloping outline of the pyramids, the stone shining beneath a full moon that hung luminous in the black sky.
Egypt. The mysterious jewel of the Orient, land of pharaohs, fabled Mamlukes, and countless marvels. For ten long years now, Archibald had spent three, four, even six months in the country at a time. And one thing was certain: he’d had his fill.
He was tired of this miserably hot, dry place. Thirty years past they had been ripe for becoming another conquest in His Majesty’s Empire. Now Egypt was one of the great powers, and Cairo was fast outstripping London, even Paris. Their people swaggered through the streets—mocking England as “that dreary little isle.” Their foods troubled his stomach. Their praying came at all times of day and night. And they delighted in pretending not to understand English when he knew they very well could!
Then there were the djinn. Unnatural creatures!
Archibald sighed again, running a thumb across a lavender G stitched into his kerchief. Georgiana had gifted it to him before they’d married. She liked these sojourns no more than he, being left in London, with nothing but servants to order about.
“Just a few more weeks, my dear.” A few more weeks and he would be on an airship heading home. How he would welcome seeing his “dreary little isle,” where it was a sensibly cold and rainy November. He’d walk its narrow streets and savor every foul scent. For Christmas, he would get smashingly drunk—on good, hard English whisky!
The thoughts lifted his spirits. Hefting his bundle, he started up again, marching to the hum of “Rule, Britannia!” But a spot of patriotism was no match for these vexatious stairs. By the time he reached the top, the vigor was leached from him. He stumbled to a stop before a set of tall doors made of dark, almost black wood, fitted into a stone archway, and bent hands to knees, huffing noisily.
As he stood, he cocked his head at a faint ringing. He’d heard the odd sound off and on now for weeks—a distant echo of metal on metal. He’d inquired of the servants, but most never caught it. Those who did claimed it was probably unseen djinn living in the walls, and suggested he recite some scripture. Still, the sound had to be coming from—
The call sent Archibald straight. Adjusting, he turned to find two men striding toward him. The sight of the first almost made him grimace, but he willed his face to composure.
Wesley Dalton reminded Archibald of some caricature of the aristocratic Edwardian: golden hair neatly parted, moustache waxed to fine points, and a self-assurance brimming from eyebrows to dimpled chin. Altogether, it was nauseating. Walking up, the younger man delivered a hearty clap to Archibald’s back that almost tipped him over.
“So I’m not the only one late to the company’s soirée! Thought I might have to give my apologies to the old man. But walking in with the little kaiser should save me from a striping!”
Archibald smiled tightly. Portendorf had been an English name for centuries. And it was Austrian, not German. But it was poor form to get riled by a jest. He offered greetings and a handshake.
“Just flew in from Faiyum,” Dalton related. That explained the man’s dress—a tan pilot’s suit with pants stuffed into black boots. He’d probably flown one of those two-man gliding contraptions so popular here. “I was relayed information of a mummy worth exploring. Turned out to be a hoax. Natives constructed it out of straw and plaster, if you can believe it!”
Archibald could quite believe it. Dalton was obsessed with mummies—part of proving his theory that Egypt’s ancient rulers were truly flaxen-haired relatives to Anglo-Saxons, who held sway over the darker hordes of their realm. Archibald was as much a racialist as the next man, but even he found such claims rubbish and tommyrot.
“Sometimes, Moustafa,” Dalton went on, stripping off a pair of gloves, “I think you delight in sending me on these fool’s chases.”
Archibald had near forgotten about the second man, who stood silent as furniture—Dalton’s manservant, Moustafa, though it was increasingly difficult to find natives for that sort of work. Mummies were hard to come by, as Egypt’s parliament had restricted the trade. Moustafa, however, always seemed able to find Dalton some new lead—each one fruitless and, Archibald suspected, conducted at great expense.
“I only seek to serve, Mr. Dalton.” Moustafa spoke in clipped English, taking the gloves and folding them within his blue robes.
Dalton grunted. “Every hand out for a little bit of baksheesh. As bad as any London street urchin and will rob you blind if you let them.” Moustafa’s eyes shifted to Archibald, the barest smile on his full lips.
“I say!” Dalton exclaimed. “Is that … the item?”
Archibald snatched up the bundle from where it rested. He’d gone through quite a bit of dickering in acquiring the thing. He wouldn’t have the man’s fumbling hands all over it.
“You’ll see it when everyone else does,” he stated.
Dalton’s face showed disappointment and some indignation. But he merely shrugged. “Of course. Allow me, then?” The heavy doors rasped across stone as he pulled them open.
The room on the other side was enclosed by a round wall patterned in shades of gold, fawn, green, and umber against a royal blue. The smooth surface shimmered beneath the glare of a hanging brass chandelier cut with small stars in the Arab fashion. Along the sides stood rows of columns, their curving arches bearing stripes of ochre. Quite a show of Oriental decadence that was only fitting for the Hermetic Brotherhood of Al-Jahiz.
A pair of boilerplate eunuchs stepped up, their blank inhuman faces unreadable sheets of brass. Between tactile metal fingers, each automaton held white gloves, black robes, and a matching black tarboosh with a gold tassel. Archibald took his own, slipping the long garments over his clothing and fitting the hat atop his head—making sure the embroidered gold scimitar and down-turned crescent was forward facing.
There were twenty-two men in the hall, adding Dalton and himself. Moustafa had respectfully stayed outside. All were adorned in the Brotherhood’s regalia, some with colorful aprons or sashes to indicate rank. They stood conversing in knots of twos or threes, waited upon by boilerplate eunuchs serving refreshments.
Archibald knew every man here, all of standing in the company—there were no other means of joining the Brotherhood. They called greetings as he passed, and he was honor-bound to stop and give the proper handshake and cheek-to-cheek embrace—a ritual they’d picked up from the locals. Each eyed the bundle, which he assiduously kept from reaching hands. It was tedious business, and he was happy to make free of them, leaving Dalton in their company. Clearing the assemblage, he caught sight of the man he’d come to see.
Lord Alistair Worthington, Grand Master of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Al-Jahiz, struck an imposing figure in resplendent purple robes trimmed in silver. He sat at a black half-moon table, in a high-backed chair resembling a throne. Behind him, a long white banner hung from a rear wall, bearing the Brotherhood’s insignia.
Archibald could sparse remember a time when Lord Worthington had not been “the old man.” With snowy hair and bold patrician features, the head of the Worthington Company seemed to fit his role as elder priest of their esoteric fraternity. He had founded the Brotherhood back in 1898, tasked with uncovering the wisdom of al-Jahiz—the disappeared Soudanese mystic who had forever changed the world.
The fruits of their labor lined the walls: a bloodstained tunic, an alchemical equation reputedly written by his hand, a Qu’ran from which he taught. Archibald had helped to procure most, much as the bundle he now carried. Yet in all their searching, they’d not stumbled across divine wisdom or secret laws governing the heavens. The Brotherhood had instead become home to romantics, or crackpots like Dalton. Archibald’s faith had dwindled with the years, like the wick of a candle burned too long. But he held his tongue. He was a company man after all.
When he reached Lord Worthington, the old man wasn’t alone. Edward Pennington was there, one of the most senior men in the company and a true believer, though half-senile. He sat between two others, nodding his wizened head as both spoke into his ears.
“The Germans are making dreadful trouble for Europe,” a woman commented, the only one in the room: a dusky-skinned beauty with black kohl beneath her large liquid eyes and braided hair that hung past her shoulders. A wide collar of rows of green and turquoise stone beads circled her neck, striking upon a white dress. “Now the kaiser and tsar trade daily insults like children,” she continued in heavily accented English.
Before Pennington could reply, a man on his other side spoke. He wore, of all things, the pelt of a spotted beast over his heavy shoulders. “Do not forget the French. They have unfinished business with the Ottomans over Algeria’s territories.”
The woman clicked her tongue. “The Ottomans are too stretched. They expect to regain the Maghreb when they’re up to their ears in the Balkans?”
Archibald listened as the two went on, poor Pennington barely getting a word in edgewise. This pair was a reminder of how far astray the Brotherhood had wandered.
“I only hope Egypt isn’t drawn into your conflicts,” the woman sighed. “The last thing we need is war.”
“There will be no war,” Lord Worthington spoke. His voice rang with a quiet crispness that silenced the table. “We live in an age of industry. We manufacture vessels to traverse the seas and airships to roam the skies. With our manipulation of noxious vapors, and your country’s recovered skills of alchemy and the mystic arts? What new hideous weapons could this age create?” He shook his head, as if clearing away nightmarish conjurations. “No, this world cannot afford war. That is why I have aided your king on the coming summit of nations. The only way forward is peace, or we shall surely perish.”
There was a pause before the woman lifted her cup. “Egyptians are as fond of toasts as you Englishmen. We often say, ‘Fi sehetak’—to health. Perhaps now, we should toast, to peace.”
Lord Worthington inclined his head, holding up a goblet. “To peace.” The others followed, even senile old Pennington. Somewhere between, the old man sighted Archibald.
“Archie! I feared we might not see you! Come on, man. Why, you don’t even have a cup!”
Archibald mumbled apologies, lifting a cup from a boilerplate eunuch. Making the usual formal introductions, he sat beside the woman, who exuded a heady sweet perfume.
“Archie was instrumental in putting together our Brotherhood,” Lord Worthington related. “Oversaw the acquisition of this very house—a hunting lodge built for the old basha. Back then, Giza was still off the beaten track. Archie holds the title of my Vizier, much as…” The old man trailed off, blue eyes twinkling at the bundle leaned against a chair. “Is that…?”
“It is indeed, sir,” Archibald finished, placing the bundle atop the table. Every eye took in the dark cloth, their conversation dwindling. Even senile Pennington gawked.
Lord Worthington reached out an eager hand, then stopped. “No. We will present this gift to the Brotherhood.” As if on cue, a loud bell tolled, announcing the hour. “Ah! Impeccable timing. If you will give the call to order, Archie?”
Archibald rose to his feet, waiting for the bell to stop before shouting: “Order! Order! The Grand Master calls the Brotherhood to order!” The din died away as men turned forward. At this, Lord Worthington rose bringing the table to their feet as well.
“Hail! Hail! The Grand Master!” Archibald called.
“Hail! Hail! The Grand Master!” the room responded.
“Thank you, my Vizier,” Lord Worthington said. “And welcome, brothers, to this momentous gathering. Ten years we have carried out our quest to walk in the footsteps of al-Jahiz, to uncover the mysteries he laid upon the world.” His left arm gestured to the banner bearing the order’s insignia, and the words Quærite veritatem written in golden script. “Seek the Truth. Our Brotherhood is not bound by robes, or secret words, or handshakes, but by a higher and more noble purpose. It is important we remember this, and do not lose our way between bombast, and ritual!
“The world sits at a precipice. Our ability to create has exceeded our ability to understand. We play with forces that could destroy us. This is the task the Brotherhood must take up. To recover the most sacred wisdom of the ancients, to create a greater tomorrow. This is what we must stand for. This must be our greater truth.” The old man’s fingers moved to the bundle. “What better emblem of that purpose than what we have procured today.” Pulling back the cloth, he lifted out its treasure. “Behold, the sword of al-Jahiz!”
Gasps went up. Archibald could hear the woman murmur what might have been a prayer. He could not fault her, as he looked upon the finely wrought hilt that held a long slightly curving blade—all a shade of black so dark it seemed to drink in light.
“With this holy totem,” Lord Worthington declared, “I rededicate the purpose of our Brotherhood. Quærite veritatem!”
The gathering was set to return the rallying cry—when there came a sudden knock.
Archibald’s eyes went to the doors with everyone else’s. The knock came again. Three times in all. The doors shook with each blow, like a great hand pounded upon them. A bout of silence followed—before they were forcefully thrown open, one nearly coming off its hinges as the bar that bolted them snapped like a twig. Cries of alarm followed the sound of shuffling feet as men backed away from the destruction.
Archibald squinted to find a figure stepping through the archway. A man, garbed all in black—with long billowy black breeches tucked into boots, and a shirt draped tight across his torso. His face was hidden behind a black mask, with only his eyes revealed through oval slits. He stopped at the broken doors to survey the room, then lifted a gloved hand to snap his fingers.
And there were two of them.
Archibald glared. The man had just … doubled himself! The twin figures regarded each other, before the first snapped his fingers again. Now there were three. Snap! Snap! Snap! Now six of the strange men! All identical and seemingly pulled from air! As one, they turned masked faces upon the stunned gathering, and crept forward like shadows.
New distress gripped the room. Men stumbled back at the strangers’ silent approach. Archibald’s mind raced, grasping for sense. This was a trick. Like he’d seen performed on the city’s streets. These were locals—thieves perhaps? Thinking to rob some wealthy Englishmen? When the six reached near the center of the room they stopped, still as statues. The odd standoff was broken by Lord Worthington’s outraged voice.
“Who dares trespass this house!” No answer came from six sets of unblinking eyes. Lord Worthington rapped the table in anger. “This is the sacred place of the Brotherhood of Al-Jahiz! Be on your way, or I shall have the authorities lay hands upon you at once!”
“If this is the house of al-Jahiz,” a new voice came, “then I am here, by right.”
A figure strode between the broken doors—a man, tall and draped in black robes that flowed as he walked. His clasped hands were concealed behind gloves of dark chain mail while a black cowl covered his head, hiding his face from view. Even still, his presence filled the chamber, and it felt to Archibald as if a weight had been borne down atop them.
“Who are you to claim such a right?” Lord Worthington demanded.
The strange figure took his place at the head of his companions, and gave answer by pulling back his cowl. Archibald’s breath caught. The man’s face was concealed by a mask as well—carved in the guise of a man and adorned in strange script that appeared to move upon its golden surface. The eyes behind those oval slits were black pits that burned cold.
“I am the Father of Mysteries.” He spoke in deeply accented English. “The Walker of the Path of Wisdom. The Traveler of Worlds. Named mystic and madman. Spoken in reverence and curse. I am the one you seek. I am al-Jahiz. And I have returned.”
A stillness descended like a heavy shroud. Even Lord Worthington seemed at a loss. Archibald gaped, too stunned to do more than stare. It was a bark of laughter that jolted him.
“Nonsense!” someone shouted. Archibald groaned silently. Dalton.
The man shouldered his way forward, pushing past others to stand before the black-clad figures, staring down their leader with all the impertinence of aristocracy and youth. “I know for a fact you are no al-Jahiz! Brothers! Look over this specimen. Tall, with long arms and legs, a build typical to the tropical climes of Soudanese Negroes. But I contend al-Jahiz was no Negro, but in fact, a Caucasian!”
Archibald willed Dalton to stop. For the love of God. But the fool carried on, gesturing dramatically at the stranger. “The true al-Jahiz descends from the rulers of old Egypt. That is the secret to his genius! Were you to place him on Baker Street or among the teeming crowds of Wentworth, I daresay he would be indistinguishable from any other Londoner! I state with conviction that beneath this mask is not the fair complexion shared by our own Anglo-Saxon lineage but instead the sooty, low-browed countenance—”
Dalton cut off as the stranger, who had stood quiet, lifted a chain-mailed hand. The sword in Lord Worthington’s grip suddenly began to hum and vibrate. The noise grew to a whine, so that the old man shook with its movement. With a sharp pull, it tore itself free, sailing through the air until it was caught by the stranger’s outstretched fingers. His hand closed around the hilt, and stepping forward, he lowered the blade at Dalton.
“Speak another word,” the masked man warned, “and it will be your last.”
Dalton’s eyes went momentarily wide, crossing to look down at the sword’s pointed edge. Once again, Archibald willed the man—for all that was holy—to for once keep his mouth shut! But alas, it was not to be. The natives here often joked of Englishmen too stubborn to heed cautions of keeping out of the punishing midday sun, until they toppled over from heat exhaustion. Young Dalton appeared determined to follow in that trope. Fixing the stranger with a look that carried all the haughtiness of British pride and imperial hubris, he opened his mouth to begin upon another half-baked tirade.
The masked man didn’t move. But one of his companions did. It was swift, like watching stone come to life. Gloved hands reached for Dalton and blurred—sending up an odd wrenching—before the figure flowed back into his statue-like pose. Archibald blinked. It took him a moment to make sense of what he was seeing. Dalton still stood in the same place. But his head had been turned fully around. Or perhaps his body had. Either way, his chin now rested impossibly on the back of his robes—while his arms extended out behind him. He made a full tottering circle, looking almost comical, as if trying to sort himself out. Then stopping, he gave them one last befuddled look before falling flat onto his wrong-way face—the tips of his black boots pointed up into the air.
Around the room men cried out. Some retched. Archibald tried not to join them.
“There’s no need,” Lord Worthington pleaded, face ashen. “No need for violence.”
The stranger turned black pupils to the old man. “Yet there is need for retribution. Upon men who claim my name. Masr has become a place of decadence. Polluted by foreign designs. But I have returned, to see my great work completed.”
“I am sure we can help,” Lord Worthington said urgently. “If indeed you are who you claim to be. If you could show us some sign that you are truly al-Jahiz, then you will have me at your disposal. My wealth. My influence. I would give you all I hold dear if you prove yourself worthy of the name you claim!”
Archibald turned in shock. The old man’s face bore the look of someone who desperately wanted to believe. Who needed to believe. It was the most disheartening thing he’d ever seen.
The black-robed figure stared appraisingly at Lord Worthington, eyes growing darker still. “Give all that you hold dear,” he spoke bitterly. “You would at that, wouldn’t you? I have no more need for anything you can offer, old man. But if it is a sign you require, I will give one.”
The stranger raised the sword, pointing the blade at them. The room went dim, the light filtering through shadows. That unmistakable presence emanating from the man grew stronger, building until it felt to Archibald he would fall to his knees. He turned to Lord Worthington—to find the old man burning. Bright red flames crept across his hands, shriveling and blistering the skin. But Lord Worthington didn’t seem to notice. His eyes stared out at the chamber, where every member of the Brotherhood was also burning—bodies alight in smokeless fire the color of blood. The strange flames left their clothes untouched, but singed away skin and hair as their screams filled the room.
Not just their screams, Archibald realized. Because he was screaming too.
He looked down at the fire wreathing his arms, devouring the flesh beneath his unmarred robes. Beside him, the woman shrieked, her death cries mingling into the terrible cacophony. Somewhere past the pain, past the horror, before the last bits of him were given to the flames, Archibald grieved for his London, for Christmas, for dear Georgiana and dreams that would not be.
Copyright © 2021 by P. Djèlí Clark