Feast of Fire
Norah opened her eyes and looked up at the sunlight streaming through her open window overhead. She leaped out of bed and scrambled into her clothes for the day. She was already running late. A twinge of nervousness when she remembered what day it was.
Today was the big feast. Those who had done something significant would be presented with awards. One would be chosen. She knew she wouldn’t be. Norah would never be chosen because she had never done anything significant.
Norah’s routine was always the same. She spent her days outside of the village. She didn’t even think that most of the villagers outside of her immediate family and neighbors didn’t even know that she existed.
Often, Norah wished she had more friends. She wished that one of the handsome village boys would notice her. Maybe even kiss her. But there was no time for daydreaming today.
The slim, disheveled, dark-haired vixen threw some food into a bag and raced out the door. The scorching sun had already begun its fiery trek across the bronze sky overhead. It wasn’t long until she had broken a sweat as her feet crunched over the rocky trail to Ammar’s hideaway in the cliffs of Damaraw.
Off in the distance, she could see a couple of figures bent over. As she drew closer, Norah could hear them quarreling heatedly. She was running late, but her curiosity got the best of her. The young men were so engrossed in what they were looking at that they didn’t even hear her coming. They spun around with a look of terror in their eyes when she greeted them.
“What did you boys kill for the Feast of Fire?”
Ikraam bent with one hand on his knee and the other on his chest as he panted deeply. He had grown a mustache since the last time she had seen him. She had always thought he was cute, but found the fuzz under his nose strange. It didn’t suit him very well.
His buddy, Esmail, glared at her. Both boys blocked her view of whatever they had been looking at. She moved closer to peek around them and gasped.
“Is that a dead body? Who did you kill? Why did you burn them like that?”
She ran around them for a better look at the charred skeleton propped up against a rock on the ground. Its white bones singed and blackened around the edges. Suddenly, the realization struck her that she might be in danger for witnessing the boys were trying to dispose of a body.
“Hey, it’s okay, guys. I don’t know who this skeleton belongs to. I don’t know that you killed him. And if you did, I’m sure he deserved it. So, I’ll just keep on moving along and pretend like I didn’t see anything. Okay?”
Ikraam looked at her incredulously. “You, you think we killed somebody,” he stammered. “Are you crazy? Of course, we didn’t kill him, or her. Or whatever it is?”
“Stupid girl,” Esmail growled. “We were taking what we hunted down to the market and stumbled across this skeleton right before you showed up.”
He pointed to their bows that were resting on a pile of rabbits and hyraxes under a small grove of doom palms. She nodded in relief and turned back for a closer look at the blackened remains of the skeleton.
“So, who do you think it is? Or who did this?” Norah asked them.
Esmail scoffed and shook his head. “Most likely that crazy, old man you’re headed to see right now over there in those cliffs.”
“Ammar?” Norah laughed. “That’s crazy. Well, he is a little crazy. That is true. But I don’t think he would do something like this.”
Esmail rolled his eyes. Norah looked to Ikraam for support. He just shrugged his shoulders sheepishly.
“Oh, come on, Ikraam. You can’t believe that nice, old man would be able to hurt someone like this even if he wanted to. What are we going to do now?”
Esmail slung his quiver over his shoulder and picked up his bow. “We need to take these down the butcher. Then we’re going to alert the sheriff. And you’re coming with us. We can’t have you running over to Ammar’s so he can cover up his evidence.”
Now it was Norah’s turn to scoff. “You can’t just declare him guilty because he lives nearby.”
“Well, Norah, the tracks do come from that direction,” Ikraam said, pointing down toward the caves.
“Tracks?” Norah asked.
Ikraam pointed to scuffs in the sand and Esmail continued pointing out crushed blades of grass in the direction the trail came from.
“C’mon. Let’s go over there and have a chat with Ammar. You can ask him yourself and take him to the sheriff for a reward.”
“No way!” both boys stated emphatically. “That man is crazy. And he could put a spell on us to make us crazy, too. You’re his apprentice and know what he is capable of.”
“Oh, c’mon. Two of you against one. You don’t even have to tell him you found the corpse. Just see if he looks suspicious.”
“Yeah, well, maybe I’ll throw a spell on you too if you don’t do what I say.”
The boys looked at each other nervously. They relented and fell into line behind Norah. She felt better now that she had an excuse for being late. Old man Ammar liked to get an early start on things, and she usually left home at first light. Getting chewed out by the old man was never any fun.
Everything was silent when Norah arrived at the main cave entrance. The ashes like thick and white, as if a fire had been burning all night. But there was no fire now. No one was there to tend to it.
Norah quickly bustled about to get rid of the pile of ashes with the few small smoldering embers scattered at the bottom. Then built another fire to boil water for the old man’s tea while Ikraam and Esmail waited impatiently.
“See, he’s not here. Ammar roasted that skeleton and then took the poor soul out there to bury it. He heard us coming and fled so we wouldn’t see him.”
“More like he went down to the market to meet a client or pick up some items he needed for the Feast of Fire,” Norah said. She rolled her eyes and headed for the entrance. “C’mon, trackers. Let’s see how good you really are.”
She led the way back to the burned-out skeleton and then let them take over from there. The boys nervously led the way back down toward the caves. Norah could tell that they were afraid of what they might find.
The tracks led back to Ammar’s cave and came out of there, but the boys quickly realized that the tracks had come from somewhere else.
“Whoever brought the skeleton must have come looking for Ammar, before heading on over to where they left those bones,” Ikraam admitted.
“See, what did I tell you. It wasn’t Ammar then. But where did they come from? If we follow them back far enough, you boys should be able to tell where the body came from then. Right?”
Ikraam shrugged. “It is possible, I suppose,” he said as he continued to search the area to make sense of what the tracks were telling him.”
Esmail continued to scowl and poke around. But Norah got the impression that he still didn’t believe Ammar was innocent. He was using the opportunity to poke around Ammar’s belongings to make sense of his magical items.
“I wouldn’t poke around too much if you don’t know what you’re doing. Some of that stuff is dangerous. Some of those herbs and potions are poisonous.” Norah said with a sweet smile.
She almost hoped the surly boy would touch the wrong thing and keel over. It was depressing to be around such a negative person.
“Maybe whoever that is out there came in here got into the wrong thing and the potions burned him to a crisp as he ran down the trail,” Esmail said. He had a look of such seriousness that Norah burst out laughing. That only made the boy scowl even harder, even though he stopped touching stuff and moving things around.
“Do you hear what you’re saying, goofball? It doesn’t work like that. But let’s suppose that was a robber, and that he did touch the wrong thing in here. He would have dropped dead. He wouldn’t have become the barbecued deal of the day.”
Ikraam hollered from outside. Norah followed Esmail out to make sure he didn’t take anything that didn’t belong to him. They caught up with Ikraam farther down along the cliffs, and all walked in silence from there.
The boys almost lost the tracks a few times, but eventually managed to find it again. Their trail led to a small den. Norah had been past it before when she was out gathering herbs.
“Careful,” Norah warned. “I’ve seen a caracal around here with its cubs.”
Ikraam shook his head. “No fresh caracal tracks. It’s long gone. We should be safe,” he said as he walked down into the den. Norah crinkled up her nose at the foul scent and didn’t bother to go inside. It smelled of sour sweat and something dead.
The tall boy acted like it didn’t bother him and went deeper into the den. He scouted around in the dark corners as far back as he had light to see.
Norah and Esmail waited outside in the fresh air for him to return. Ikraam came out a few minutes later and shrugged.
“Where do the tracks lead from here?” Norah asked.
The boy shrugged in reply. “It looks like the tracks came from inside the cave. There aren’t any other tracks other than what we followed here. Whoever it was must have come from the tunnels inside.”
“Tunnels inside?” Norah asked. “I’ve been by here before and it’s just a small den.”
Ikraam frowned and shook his head as they walked away. “The den itself is small, but there is an opening at the back. A tunnel that looks like it leads deeper into cliffs. But it’s too dark to see much back there.”
Suddenly, an arrow appeared out of nowhere and hit Ikraam in the thigh. He screamed and fell to the ground, where he scrambled to get behind some rocks. Another arrow hit Esmail in the foot as he was pulling his bow off his back and running for cover.
Norah threw herself behind the dusty boulder with Ikraam. She helped pull him closer to the rock in a sitting position. Norah peeked around the side and saw a young girl running from a patch of trees and sagebrush where she had been hiding.
She grabbed Ikraam’s bow and took off running after the girl. Ikraam hissed for her to stay, but she ignored him. She didn’t consider herself a hunter, but like every other child in her village, Norah had been trained to hit a bullseye from 25 yards away.
Norah knew the hills and surrounding area like the back of her hand. So, she cut through the sparse trees of the savannah off the beaten path. It also helped that Norah was in pretty good shape from being physically active all day.
When she cut the young girl off at the pass, Norah had barely broken a sweat. The arrow was notched and her bow pulled tautly.
The terrified girl stopped running and burst into tears. By the paleness of her skin, she looked like she didn’t get out much. She doubled over in pain and pressed her hands against her sides as heaved to catch her breath.
“Rhyanna! What are you doing out here and why in the world are you shooting at us?”
The other girl had dropped her bow to clutch her sides. Norah loosened the arrow in hers and walked back a few paces to pick four broad leaves off a tree. She kicked the girl’s bow away as she handed the leaves to Rhyanna.
“Here! Place these on your sides where it hurts. It will help relieve the pain so you can breathe easier. And you definitely need to get more exercise if you feel winded after running that short distance.”
Rhyanna complied and sat down. Norah noticed she didn’t have any more arrows in her quiver, which was why she had been spared from getting shot at.
“Did you kill that man that was burned to the bones back there?” she asked when the girl stopped panting and sobbing.
“It wasn’t a man,” Rhyanna said. “Please don’t let them take me to Juhasuf. I don’t want to go. I don’t want to leave my family.”
“We don’t know who will be sent to the Blessed Land of Paradise yet,” Norah said. “We won’t know until the Feast tonight when the lucky one will be chosen. But I’m sure if you don’t want to go, they won’t force you. There are many who would offer to go if they could.”
Rhyanna burst into tears again and began sobbing until she couldn’t hold herself up any longer. She lay down in the sandy trail and wailed as if she were dying. Norah grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her. Yelling at her to stop, but it didn’t do any good.
Norah stood up and walked away far enough that ringing in her ears from Rhyanna’s bellering died down. After the girl calmed down a bit, Norah walked back over to her and helped her get back up.
“Why did you shoot at us?” she demanded to know.
“Because I told you already. I don’t want to go to Juhasuf. I won’t go. I assumed the boys had been sent to track me and you were there to trick me into turning myself in.”
“No, we didn’t even know you were out here. We were just trying to find out who left the skeleton back there. And why would you assume I don’t know how to track you if I wanted to? Girls can track too.” Norah said in an exasperated voice as she motioned for Rhyanna to stand up.
Norah carried Rhyanna’s bow as they walked back toward the boys. Rhyanna bawled like a baby and started shaking when she saw their wounds. She apologized profusely while helping Norah tend to their wounds with a few herbs she had gathered on their walk back.
“I overheard Nur and Ammar talking last evening. They’ve rigged the lottery so my name gets chosen tonight.” Rhyanna told them as they walked back toward Ammar’s cave so Norah could get some stronger potion for the boy’s wounds.
“But why? That doesn’t make sense.” Ikraam asked.
“They said that Gomauxnaakh demanded I be chosen,” she replied.
Esmail’s curiosity was piqued, even though he still seemed irritated. “Who is this Gomauxnaakh person?” he wanted to know.
Rhyanna shrugged. “At first I was thrilled when I heard that they were going to choose me, even though it sounds strange. Then I heard them say that they were going to bring me up here to the cliffs just before the fireworks started. They would give me to someone or something while everyone celebrated my journey to Juhasuf.”
She stopped talking long enough to choke back some sobs. Then continued.
“I confronted them and told them that I would refuse to go. They told me that I didn’t have a choice. If I didn’t go, they would kill my family. I ran away and hid out here. So, when I saw you coming out of the den, I thought you all were sent here to capture me and take me back.”
Norah thought it seemed like a strange tale, but let the girl talk and answer the boy’s questions. Finally, she asked, “So, how do you know that skeleton was a woman?”
“I saw three skeletons come out of that den where I shot at you. They were all walking around with flames coming off their bones. It called my name and said it could sense that I was near.”
“C’mon! A walking skeleton. You expect us to believe that story?” Esmail sneered and then yelped as Norah poured another potion on his wound.
Rhyanna nodded and said, “I know it sounds strange, but it’s the truth. It had a woman’s voice. The other one said that it wasn’t time and went back into the den. But she came out looking for me. I would have run, but it was dark and I knew it would make noise. So, I just laid low. The flames on her bones began to die down. She went back inside several times to get a boost somehow because every time she came back out, the flames were blazing again. The last time she went out was right before dawn, but I never saw her come back. I guess she didn’t make it back to the cave in time before her fuel ran out.”
“Oh, for crying out loud!” Esmail growled again. “I’m sure she’s lying. She killed the woman and burned her with a magical potion that she stole from this place. In fact, it’s probably Ammar’s skeleton that’s out there right now.”
Norah snorted. “First, you think Ammar killed that person out there. Now, you think this girl here killed Ammar. You don’t have any logic in your conclusions. You just take the first thing that pops into your head and run with it.”
Just then, Ammar walked through the door. “I agree. This boy has always been quite rash and impulsive.”
Suddenly, Ammar noticed the young girl who had backed into a corner as soon as she saw him walk into the cave entrance. His eyes flicked nervously around the area before he looked back and greeted Rhyanna.
“Hello, my dear. It’s good to see you again.”
Rhyanna looked like a cornered caracal. The poor girl glanced around desperately for a way to escape, but seeing none she took another step backward. Her foot bumped into a jar of Ammar’s potion and knocked it over with a loud clatter. She jumped forward and let out a nervous scream.
“Calm down, child. It’s okay. I’m not going to bite.” Ammar said in a quiet voice.
Norah didn’t say anything. She continued tending to Esmail’s wound while edging her away around to his other side where she had left the bows and quiver of arrows. She looked over at Ikraam and analyzed her chances of getting into a scuffle with Ammar. The boys wouldn’t be much good in a fight, and she wasn’t sure that she and Rhyanna would be able to take him on alone in a fight.
The silence that fell over the room was deafening. She could feel Ammar’s eyes burning into the back of her head. Norah looked up at him and tried to flash him a smile, as if all these people here were just a normal everyday occurrence.
“Hey, Ammar! Did you see a blackened skeleton when you were coming up the path from the village?” she asked nonchalantly.
He shook his head and replied, “No, I got called over to the Mufti farm because someone was sick during the night.”
But she could see that he paled visibly at her question. Norah stood up to get some more potions for the small bronze jars on the far shelf. She used her body to block Ammar from seeing the herbs she was mixing. A little Wekkasil and a few pinches of Vessafron stirred in with a vial of Blood Mallow. Then she went back to work patching up the boys.
Ammar poured himself a cup of tea. He politely offered everyone else a glass. No one accepted. The silence hung thick in the air. Norah saw his hand tremble as he sat down. A large bag full of silver sols clinked together as he lowered himself onto the chair. He looked like a guilty schoolboy trying to come up with a quick excuse to get out of a paddling.
“So, Rhyanna says that the lottery tonight is going to be rigged in her favor, which means that she is the lucky person who gets to go to Juhasuf.” Norah finally said as she put away her healing kits.
“Did she, now? She must be one very lucky girl if she gets chosen to visit the Blessed Land of Paradise.” Ammar said, looking at her with squinted eyes as he tried to understand where she was coming from.
“Rhyanna also says that she doesn’t think this blessed land is such a paradise. And she doesn’t want to leave home just yet.”
Ammar grunted and raised his cup of tea to his lips. He took a long, slow sip before answering. “Oftentimes in life, we must do things we don’t want to do. And the luck of the lottery is up to the guidance of the Fiery Ones. They chose during the Feast of Fire who will be allowed to enter Juhasuf that year.”
Esmail snorted and rolled his eyes. He sat up and groaned at the pain in his shoulder. But before he could even get all the way up, Ammar had flown across the room in a single bound. He brought his cane down hard across the boy’s right shoulder and knocked him back.
Ammar spun his cane around in the other direction and caught Ikraam at the base of the neck. The blow knocked the boy out cold. Then Ammar stood up as he turned toward Norah. He seemed surprised to see that she already had an arrow notched and pointed directly at his face.
“Bravo there, little lady. I didn’t think you had it in you to harm anyone. I thought that was why you wanted to be a healer. To make the wounded better. Wasn’t that what you told me?”
Norah circled around him toward Rhyanna and the exit while keeping the arrow trained on him.
“I can’t believe you’re in cahoots with Chief Nur and that wretched Mufti clan. They don’t take the lucky chosen ones to Juhasuf. Do they? You help them sell young girls like Rhyanna off as slaves to the highest bidder.”
Ammar smiled grimly and downed the rest of his tea in a single gulp.
“You’ll get no final confession from me, if that is what you are looking for, young lady. Put the bow down and I’ll pretend this never happened. Things are going to happen the way they are going to happen, and there is nothing you can do to prevent it. You can keep your apprenticeship as long as you don’t rock the boat and make things difficult.”
“Until next year, when my name comes up as the lucky one to be sold off into slavery, I mean until I get to go to Juhasuf.”
Ammar threw his teacup to the ground at his feet and smashing it into a thousand pieces. Ikraam and Esmail both moaned as shards of glass cut into their flesh.
“You have no idea of the forces we are dealing with here, young lady. In time, if you last long enough, you will learn everything I have to teach you. But suffice it to say, that if the chosen one does not go to Juhasuf, the entire village will perish. The Feast of Fire is how we appease evil and continue to dwell in peace from year to year. Now, give me that bow and I will forgive you.”
Ammar stepped forward and held out his hand. Norah didn’t back down. She motioned for Rhyanna to move toward the door while keeping her body between Ammar and the other girl.
The old man screamed in rage as she started to leave. He threw off his cape and began to wave his arms as he uttered an ancient incantation in the Tounge of Fire.
Norah didn’t understand many of the words but had studied enough to get the gist of what he was saying. Something about flames and skeletons. It was an ancient spell from one of his books. And she knew it would kill both her and Rhyanna when he finished his spell.
The arrow was pointed directly in Ammar’s face. She wasn’t more than 25 feet away from him. Norah had never really competed in the yearly archery contest because she didn’t consider herself as good as some of her other colleagues. But she could nail the bull’s eye in a target three times that distance.
She yelled for him to stop, but Ammar kept chanting. Norah screamed that she would kill him if he persisted, but he completely ignored her. Somewhere between her fear and rage, Norah found the nerve to let her arrow fly.
Norah squinted her eyes shut. Ammar’s chanting had stopped. She was afraid to open them and see her arrow sticking out of Ammar’s mouth and throat. But when she opened her eyes, Ammar was still standing in front of her. The arrow floating a foot in front of his face.
“I can’t believe you actually tried to kill me, you ungrateful, little wretch,” Ammar shouted. His face turned purple and contorted with rage. He grabbed the arrow out of the air and snapped it in half.
Norah threw down her bow and grabbed Rhyanna’s arm. Pulling her toward the door. But before they could get there, a large piece of rock appeared out of nowhere and sealed off the entrance.
The girls spun around and looked at Ammar in shock. His outstretched arm holding the rock in place as he walked toward them.
“What kind of fool did you take me for, child? Did you think I was just some stupid healing mage that you could take out with a single arrow when I did something you didn’t like? Even the village chieftain knows better than to kill me, just because he doesn’t like some of the things I do around here. Who do you think you are to try to kill me?”
Ammar was furious. Norah backed away from the advancing mage as she pushed Rhyanna back along with her. She had never seen Ammar like this before. He had always seemed like a sweet, charming old man who used his herbs and plants to heal those who were ill. Seeing this new side of him terrified her.
The terrifying mage continued coming until their backs were against the wall. Norah felt paralyzed with fear. Ammar grabbed her around the throat and lifted her off the ground with a single arm while he reached out to grab Rhyanna with the other.
Norah couldn’t believe how much strength the old man possessed. Ammar had always hobbled around like he was frail and weak with age. But this wasn’t like him at all.
“Where did this strength come from? Or had he just been fooling her all along?” she thought as his fingers slowly squeezed the life from her body. Norah realized that she was choking as her consciousness started to fade away.
“Stop it, Ammar!” Rhyanna screamed. “Let her and the boys live. Then I’ll go with you of my own free will to Juhasuf or wherever it is that I’m supposed to go at the Feast of Fire.”
“Why should I let them go now? I already have you. I can kill them and take you anyway.” Ammar growled.
Norah struggled to remain conscious long enough to reach into her pocket for the mixture of Wekkasil, Vessafron, and Blood Mallow. It was a potion strong enough to kill an adult human. She had planned on throwing it in Ammar’s face. But with his new display of character and magical powers, Norah didn’t know if it would have any effect on him.
So Norah did the next best thing she knew to do in this situation. She handed the mixture to Rhyanna.
“Poison!” Norah rasped.
“No!” Ammar screamed.
His arms were occupied, holding the girls up by the throat. He let Norah slide down to get her away from Rhyanna since he couldn’t grab the vial himself.
But Rhyanna was fast. She snatched it from Norah’s hand before her body slid to the ground. Rhyanna popped the cork with her left hand and brought the vial to her mouth. Ammar clamped the hand that had been holding Norah over Rhyanna’s mouth. But it was already too late. The pale girl had chugged the mixture into her mouth before Ammar could stop her.
Ammar screamed in frustration. He pressed against the bottom of her chin with one hand while choking the lower part of her throat with the other. As if somehow that would keep her from swallowing the mixture. Norah watched them from below and struggled to catch her breath again so she could sit up.
“Don’t you dare swallow it! Don’t you dare swallow it!” The angry old man screamed at Rhyanna. “Fine. I’ll let your friends live. I’ll let them go. Just don’t swallow that poison. If you die, we’re all dead. The entire village. Do you hear me? Don’t swallow the poison.”
Rhyanna motioned the little that she could with her head, that she would comply. The mage slid her body slowly back down to the ground and eased up on her throat.
“Spit that out,” Ammar ordered.
The girl leaned over to comply, but Norah ordered her to stop. “If you spit it out right now, Ammar will do what he wants,” Norah said from behind the mage’s trembling form.
She wasn’t sure if it was from rage or fear or exertion, or maybe even a bit of all three. But she held up three fingers for Rhyanna to see and motioned for the girl to spit the poison in her mouth in Ammar’s face. Rhyanna nodded.
Norah glanced over at the Ikraam and Esmail who had regained consciousness in the middle of all the commotion. Ammar hadn’t taken his attention off of Rhyanna as if willing her not to swallow the poison. He hadn’t even noticed that the boys had gathered their bows and notched their arrows.
They let loose their first volley of arrows when Norah counted down to three with her fingers. Rhyanna was smart enough to wait until after Ammar let out his bellowing scream. When he breathed in a deep, ragged gasp, she spewed the poison into his face. Ammar drew the poison directly into his lungs.
Ammar was bellowing out his second scream of anger, frustration, and pain when Ikraam and let their second volley of arrows fly. He turned toward them and tried to stop their third round with his magical powers, but he was too weak. Two more arrows hit him directly in the chest.
Rhyanna grabbed a solid brass instrument that was sitting on the deck beside her. She brought it down hard across the top of his head as the boys let loose a fourth set of arrows into Ammar’s chest. He fell to his knees and bellowed with rage. Still trying to call upon his powers to take the boys out.
It seemed to be affecting them somehow because Esmail started choking. It stopped when Ikraam shot the old man with his arrow right through the throat. Ammar started choking himself but turned his arm toward Ikraam, who seemed to feel the effects of his magical power.
Ikraam was brought to his hands and knees as well. Seeing Ikraam like that brought Norah out of her shocked state. She grabbed the broom that was leaning up against the wall and brought it down across the back of his neck. It hit him just above the tip of the arrow that had gone through his throat.
“Die, old man! Die!” Norah screamed as the broomstick snapped in half. The other end spun up into the air and clattered to the ground. Norah felt frustrated that the blow hadn’t seemed to have any effect upon the rotten old man that she had once admired.
Norah noticed the broomstick had broken off with a jagged point. She didn’t think twice. The girl stepped in for the killing blow as she raised the stake over her head and drove the wicked point down through his heart.
Rhyanna followed suit. She had picked up the other half of the broomstick and drove it through the other side of his body.
Ammar fell forward on his side with a terrified scream. He tried to roll over onto his back, but couldn’t because of the stakes and arrows sticking out of him on both sides of his body. He looked up at Norah and smiled at her.
“You think you’ve won some glorious victory, but instead you stupid kids have only made things worse. Run and tell Nur, the chief, that I am dead. Maybe, he can fix things still before it’s too late.”
Norah kneeled beside him and cradled his head in her arms. “I’m sorry, Ammar. We were just trying to protect this girl. What’s gotten into you? What’s all this about?”
Ammar coughed and swallowed hard before answering. “Many years ago, on this very day, Nur did something terrible. He killed a man. The man was troublesome. He deserved what was coming to him. But the way we went about it was wrong.”
He coughed and closed his eyes. For a second, it seemed as if he had stopped breathing. Norah shook him gently and called his name. Ammar coughed again and continued his story.
“Nur asked me to use an ancient curse on the man that transformed him into a burning skeleton. Not only on him, but on his wife and brother as well. They should have wandered as burning skeletons until the next full moon and then perished. But before the next moon came around, they found another mage, who managed to stop it.”
Norah looked up at Rhyanna. “That must have been the woman you saw last night.”
“It didn’t transform them back into their original form. But as long as they stayed near a source of heat that allowed the flames to burn, they would live. If they were away from the heat too long though, they would burn out and become a blackened skeleton.”
“So, what does the Feast of Fire have to do with all of this?”
Ammar grimaced and closed his eyes. But he kept speaking. “The fuel required to keep them alive is the blood of a young villager. Hence, we came up with the story that there was a way to send a lucky villager to the Blessed Land of Paradise.”
“Yeah! Lucky, my eye.” Esmail growled from across the room.
Ammar ignored him and continued speaking. “To appease the man that Nur had turned into a living, burning skeleton, the fiery monster required a yearly sacrifice. At the Feast of Fire. The anniversary of the night Nur and I transformed him.”
“So, how can we kill this creature or undo this curse?” Ikraam asked.
Ammar shrugged. “I never really tried. They came after Nur and his family, but we managed to make a treaty by offering the yearly sacrifice. I didn’t want to attempt anything to escalate the situation. So, every year, Nur throws a big party and we send some unwitting young lady to her death here in the mountains. We tell her to follow the rope until she comes to the end of it. There she was told to wait until a glowing angel came to take her to Juhasuf.”
“You disgusting monster!” Esmail yelled. “We should kill you right now.”
The old man looked over at him and chuckled. “I think you already have. I deserve this. Go and enjoy your last few hours. When the girl doesn’t appear tonight, Gomauxnaakh will kill Nur and burn the village to the ground.”
“His name is Gomauxnaakh? The same Gomauxnaakh that we were taught in our history lessons was the mighty hero who saved us from our enemies and founded this great village?”
Ammar opened his eyes to look up at Rhyanna and chuckled again. “Ironic, isn’t it? That was part of our treaty with him. Gomauxnaakh wanted to be remembered as a hero. We had to find creative ways to weave him into our history. And he gets to choose which villager will be his yearly tribute.”
“That is so messed up!” Esmail roared and hobbled over to where the old man was sprawled out on the hard cave floor. “We’ve been lied to and deceived our entire lives.”
“It is what it is. Look on the bright side, kid. It appeased Gomauxnaakh’s wrath and you are still alive.”
Esmail growled and limped back to his seat. The four people looked at each other to see if anyone else had a plan.
“So, how can we save Rhyanna tonight?” Norah asked.
“You can’t. Not unless you want to risk the lives of the entire village. If Gomauxnaakh doesn’t get the prettiest, young woman in the village, there will be trouble. You’ll have one very angry, flaming skeleton stomping through the village. You can run away, but he’ll burn your homes, kill your families, and just take someone else in her place. It’s better if you three just turn her over to keep the peace.”
Rhyanna looked at them with a terrified look. “You can’t do this to me. You can’t just hand me over to those foul things and walk away with a clean conscience.”
“Well, if we let you die, that means others in the village can continue to live. Either way, someone is going to die. At least this way, everything is orderly and peaceful.”
“What?!” Rhyanna screeched at him. “You wouldn’t be talking like this if it were you in my shoes. You would let everyone else die just so you could live.”
Esmail was at loss for an argument and stammered for a bit before finally saying, “Well, you just have to think about others and do the right thing.”
“Yes, and the right thing is to make sure I don’t die. I don’t want anyone else to die, either. But I don’t want to have to die just so we cover up Ammar and Nur’s mess. They should be the ones to pay for what they did.”
Norah looked down at Ammar. His eyes were closed. She shook him to see if he was still alive. The old man let out a low groan.
“Ammar, what were some of the options for eliminating Gomauxnaakh that you considered but didn’t want to risk trying?” she asked.
The old man opened his eyes and looked up at her. He started to chuckle at her audacity, but burst into a fit of painful coughing. He wheezed for a few seconds until he got himself under control.
“Nur had a pendant forged with magical properties. He brought it to me, and I added my spells to it. We hoped it would destroy Gomauxnaakh. But…”
The old man paused and took a deep breath. Norah thought it was his final breath, and shook him hard to keep him awake. “But what?” she screeched.
“Calm down there, little lady. Let me catch my breath, will you? But, we were also afraid that it might have the opposite effect and make him even more powerful. We don’t know exactly what the other mage did to keep him alive. Magic isn’t an exact science you know.”
Another long pause as Ammar breathed deeply before continuing. “The other issue was how to get it on him. We couldn’t just waltz down into his cave and force it over his head.”
“So, if we can get the pendant from Nur, and put it on the man you cursed, we either finish the job you started or make him more powerful.”
Ammar smiled grimly, without chuckling like he normally did, and took a few more deep breaths. “I like the way you think there, little lady. You always have been a sharp one. You’re going to make a great apprentice. I’m just sad I won’t be here to continue your training and see how you turn out.”
Norah worked swiftly to remove Ammar’s arrows and apply potion to his wounds. Ammar protested weakly. They both knew it wouldn’t do much good. He was too far gone, but he appreciated her effort to alleviate his pain.
“Thank you, child,” he whispered quietly as she gathered her things to leave.
She motioned for Rhyanna to follow her. The boys wanted to know where Norah was headed.
“To fix this mess,” was all she told them.
The boys protested that they should be there with her while she fixed things. But she shook her head and told them to stay put.
“The sun is moving quickly. We have little time to do what needs to be done before darkness falls and the Feast of Fire begins. You both are wounded and will just slow me down. Stay here and keep an eye on Ammar. Try to keep him alive until we can turn him over to Gomauxnaakh and make our own deal.”
Ammar protested weakly. The boy’s eyes widened. They wanted to know what she was planning. But she didn’t have time to explain herself and left quickly for the village with Rhyanna.
Norah walked as quickly down the path toward the village as Rhyanna could keep up with her. She went straight home and gathered her brothers and a few close friends. Norah told them what was going on.
They were all shocked to learn that she and her friends had almost killed Ammar. And even more shocked to hear the truth about the Feast of Fire.
“You mean to tell us that the chosen one doesn’t actually go to Juhasuf and instead actually gets sacrificed to a burning skeleton?” Norah’s father said when he came in and heard what was going on.
The group swore to keep Norah’s information a secret until they could put her plan into motion. Norah’s father and oldest brother called an urgent meeting with the chief. He made several excuses but finally came over due to their insistence.
Capturing him turned out to be the easiest part of the entire process. Norah’s brothers and friends drew their bows and trained their arrows on them. Once foolish bodyguard tried to play hero and pull his bow.
The bodyguard looked like a porcupine before he got his arrow notched. The other bodyguards wisely tossed their bows and arrows to the middle of the room. Once they understood what was going on, three of them chose to join Norah’s attempt to save Rhyanna. The rest sat quietly by until things got sorted out.
Nur threw a fit. He screamed and yelled that Norah’s story was all a lie. She let two of the bodyguards go up to his cave to verify the story. It didn’t take long for them to run up there to verify that Ammar had indeed been wounded but was still alive. Just barely, but still alive. They also said that Ikraam and Esmail’s story matched up with what the girls were saying.
The chief sulked and scowled, but realized that they now knew the truth. Nothing he could do now would get him out of this predicament. He still swore that he would make Norah and her family pay for this once things had settled down.
Norah liked the way her dad handled him. He didn’t cower down or grovel. He put the smug chief in his place by telling him that he might not be chief or even alive once the rest of the village found out the truth.
“They are going to be pretty ticked when they found out what you’ve been doing to their daughters every year at the Feast of Fire. You may end up being a burning skeleton when they burn you at the stake.”
The chief finally quieted down when he realized that his bullying wasn’t getting him anywhere. He finally got to the point where he was begging and pleading for them to help him get out of this mess. Nur still refused to tell them where he kept the magic pendant that Ammar had given him.
Most of the men were hesitant to apply a little pressure until Norah reminded them how little time they had till the Feast of Fire. A glance up at the sun dropping quickly in the sky, and the men convinced Nur to tell them where the pendant was.
They didn’t even have to torture him. Just the threat of the men circling around the chief was enough to convince him to reveal the location of the magical object. Again, the two runners left to verify that he was telling the truth.
It didn’t take them long to come back with the pendant wrapped in a cloth, just like he had told them. They gave it to Norah and wanted to know what to do next. Norah didn’t hesitate. She already had a plan ready for them.
“Remember when they taught us about Gomauxnaakh’s travels in school? How he came to the land of the little people, and they tied him up?” Norah asked.
Everyone nodded. It was one of their most famous stories in history class. The chief laughed at them. “You fools. Ammar and I made those stories up to explain Gomauxnaakh’s disappearance. We simply adapted stories we had heard in other places.”
Norah ignored his mocking laughs and continued. “It doesn’t matter where the story came from. That’s what we are going to do. We’re going to tie Gomauxnaakh up and place the pendant on his neck. Either it will kill him and he will die, as Nur intended. Or we will break the curse and return the fiery skeleton to its original form.”
Some of the men liked the sound of her plan. Most of them didn’t. No one else had a better idea though, so eventually, they all agreed to go along with it.
“One question though, Norah. How are we going to tie these skeletons up? Won’t the fire burn the ropes?”
“Ammar has a magical rope that he has brought from far-away lands. He calls them steel cables. The fire won’t burn them.”
“What if the pendant doesn’t transform Gomauxnaakh or kill him? Then what will we do?” Norah’s father asked what everyone else was thinking.
Norah smiled, “If worse comes to worst, we will drag him out of the cave and far from the sacrificial fires that fuel their burning bones. There we let them perish like the bones that Ikraam and Esmail found this morning.”
The men liked this idea. They all agreed that they needed to work together to do whatever it takes to put an end to this ridiculous Feast of Fire ritual.
The chief tried to talk them out of it. He mocked them when they didn’t listen to him. Rhyanna’s dad had come by to see what all the ruckus was about. He went into a rage and punched the chief into silence. The men had to pull Rhyanna’s father away from the chief before he killed Nur.”
“We will all die this night if need be, but we will never give another one of our daughters to feed this monstrous beast and keep it alive. I will give my life to protect my daughter tonight, and that beast will die with us tonight.”
“Death to Gomauxnaakh. Death to the fiery skeleton. Death to the burning bones.” Norah’s younger brother came up with a simple chant that the others quickly picked up.
It didn’t take long for word to spread. Soon the entire village was chanting along with him. Everyone gathered their swords and bows and arrows.
Those who didn’t have a weapon gathered their pitchforks and kitchen knives. They formed a long line headed up the trail in the direction of the setting sun toward the Cliffs of Damaraw and the Ammar’s cave.
When the crowd gathered outside Ammar’s cavern, the people wanted him dragged out to face their fury along with Nur. He was still alive, but barely conscious and burning with fever. Norah convinced them to leave him for the time being.
She had the men gather and prepare the steel cables while the women prepared torches for their entrance into the den tunnels. Norah went back inside to check on Ikraam and Esmail.
They seemed to be doing much better and wanted to go along with her. They still limped a lot, so Norah told them to stay and keep an eye on Ammar. Ikraam wanted her to take his bow. She almost refused it, but decided to oblige him. It might come in handy.
Once again, Nur screamed at them to stop this foolishness and nonsense. He told them they had no idea what they were getting themselves into.
“Ammar and I created this treaty to protect you. The Feast of Fire is for your own good. If you break it tonight, you will all perish.” Nur yelled.
It didn’t long for a few men to tie a gag around his mouth. It didn’t stop him from yelling, but it did muffle the sound. His former bodyguards were careful to keep the parents of those whose children had been lost in previous Feasts of Fire from getting too near. Many of them looked like were ready to dispatch him right then and there.
“Calm down, everyone! Let’s stay focused on the task at hand. Our first task is to deal with Gomauxnaakh. After that, we’ll deal with Nur and Ammar. For now, let’s just stick to the plan.” Norah urged them before leading the group to the den.
The mob of angry villagers arrived at the den just before the setting sun slipped behind a glowing red and orange horizon. When they arrived, a burning skeleton was already at the entrance waiting for them.
“Nur, what is this? Why are you breaking your treaty with Gomauxnaakh?”
Norah grinned when she saw him. This dude didn’t stand a chance against this angry mob. She motioned for the men to remove the gag and push him forward.
Nur fell to his knees as he were actually afraid of this measly skeleton.
“Please, I apologize for this unruly mob. They don’t know who they are dealing with yet. Through no fault of my own, they discovered that the young maidens were being brought here. This child here has instigated the people to try and stop the Feast of Fire.” Nur said, pointing at Norah.
Norah stepped forward to address the burning skeleton. “Are you not Gomauxnaakh?”
The fiery skeleton shook his head. “I am not. You had best return to your village and leave your tribute here. You should not think to face the wrath of Gomauxnaakh.”
Norah looked at the villagers around her. She saw the fury in their eyes. Anger at the lies they had been fed all these many years. Anger stronger than fear.
“We will no longer pay tribute to Gomauxnaakh. We will no longer provide him with the girls from our village. We are here to make our own treaty with him. Go tell Gomauxnaakh to come out here and speak with us himself.”
The skeleton lowered its head and pointed its finger in her face. “You impertinent girl. Gomauxnaakh listens to no man. He is a giant of a skeleton. He is three times larger than me. If he comes out here, it will not be to talk with you. Only to consume you with his eternal burning flame. You had best listen to me and give me the child he requests. Leave her and go home before I lose my cool and demand seven young maidens for the Feast of Fire.”
Norah heard some in the crowd murmuring at his words. If she didn’t act fast, some of the more cowardly might convince the others just to toss Rhyanna to the skeleton and leave. She needed to act fast before the sunset completely.
“Listen here, you silly excuse for a skeleton,” Rhyanna’s father screamed. “I will never leave my child here with you monsters.”
His yell fired Norah up and she
“Take him down,” Norah yelled to the men ready with steel cables. “Let’s show this skeleton how we do things in Damaraw. Then we’ll drag Gomauxnaakh out bone by bone if he really is too big to come out of the tunnel himself.”
Several of the men had already positioned themselves around the cave entrance. Two threw lassos over the skeleton. One missed, but the other fell perfectly over its shoulders. The villagers yanked the skeleton farther out into the open.
“Death to the skeletons!” Norah’s brother chanted.
The people soon followed suit and chanted along with him. The skeleton struggled against the lasso, but more of the men circled him with their cables. They quickly had him wrapped around so it couldn’t get away and pulled him to the ground.
The courage of the villagers grew as they realized he wasn’t invincible. They surged in and helped pull on the cables to drag the kicking and screaming skeleton out into the clearing. The maddened crowd fell upon it with their pitchforks and shovels and rakes. They beat out the flames and hacked its bones apart at the joints.
“This is what you should have done years ago, Nur!” Rhyanna’s father screamed. “You should have put an end to these monsters like you originally intended instead of letting it get the best of you.”
“Nur is the real monster here. Creating these creatures and feeding them our children.” Someone in the crowd cried out.
The rest of the villagers began to chant, “Nur is the real monster here!”
The crescendo of voices grew louder and louder as more of the villagers began to chant, along with the rest of the crowd. Norah screamed along with them. The feeling of exhilaration at having completed the first phase of her plan even though it had been completely improvised.
The villagers soon quieted down and looked expectantly at her for their next step. Norah looked around at the crowd and smiled as she raised Ikraam’s bow. She enjoyed having it as a symbol to rally the people around.
“You all have done well! But we still have work to do. We know there is at least one more of these things inside that cave. We just have to go in there and find it. Then we’ll drag it out and make sure it never gets any of your daughters, your sisters, and your friends again.”
Someone in the crowd picked up the chant, “You’ll never get our daughters and sisters and friends again!” They continued chanting it as they entered the cave.
Several of Norah’s brothers and friends stood at the entrance to the caves with torches. She realized they were waiting for her to lead the way. Norah wasn’t sure why everyone suddenly was looking to her as their leader, but she liked it.
The flickering light from the torches threw silent shadows on the walls and glittered off the minerals buried in the walls. Norah wasn’t sure how far they would have to go, so she had the men scratch markings into the walls to guide them back out again.
They didn’t have far to go, though. The tunnel soon opened into an enormous cavern. It echoed as the people marched through giant pillars that lined both sides of the tunnel with strange etchings.
Even stranger still was the fact that a soft glow filled the entire cavern that wasn’t coming from their torches. Norah couldn’t tell where it was coming from exactly, but it seemed to emanate from the walls of the cavern on all sides.
It was a light that didn’t flicker or create moving shadows. And it was bright enough that she could see all the way to the other end of the cavern. Norah knew that it definitely wasn’t coming from their torches.
Unlike the arid savannah and rocky deserts that surrounded the village, the environment down here was the exact opposite. There were soft fields of grass, tall trees, and the lush growth of underbrush.
Norah looked at the people coming in behind her to see if they were seeing the same things she was. Everyone’s face was in awe as they looked around them.
“What is this place?” they asked each other in hushed voices.
Norah looked at the chief and motioned for the men leading him to remove his gag. He shrugged and growled at her.
“What is this place?” Norah’s father asked Nur.
“Ammar and I found this place soon after we settled here. It didn’t like this then, but we knew it had potential. Ammar began to cultivate it. We were going to farm here, and sell the produce in the market. But after Gomauxnaakh made it his home, we couldn’t come down here anymore.”
“So, not only have you been feeding this monster our children, you’ve let him have the best land around?” Norah’s father asked incredulously.
“Where do we find Gomauxnaakh?” Norah asked.
The king shrugged and told them that he hadn’t ever come back down here since Gomauxnaakh took over.
“There is a dry, rocky place full of fire and lava down that other tunnel there,” he said pointing to a second tunnel off to the side.
Norah led the group down the trail through the lush surroundings. She admired every detail of this amazing place. The air was fresh and sweet. So different from the dry, arid oxygen that she was used to breathing outside this cavern.
When they came to the glowing red tunnel, Norah to look at the strange symbols, etc etched along the sides of the entrance. . Two of the men offered to go through first and lead the way. Norah and the villagers watched as they followed the rocky slope down to the level below.
Once they reached it, they called Norah and the rest of the villagers on through. Norah notched an arrow in her bow. She didn’t know how much good it would do against a flaming skeleton. Having it gave her a sense of comfort as she led the villagers down the tunnel into the unknown, though.
Chief Nur resisted and tried to hold back, but the men lifted him by the arms and carried him through, kicking and screaming.
“It’s not my fault, Gomauxnaakh! I didn’t bring them. They came on their own, even though I warned them not to mess with you. I told them to continue to pay tribute to you.”
Unlike the cavern behind them that led to lush forests and grasslands, the environment here was rocky and bare. The air was heavy and hot. Although, unlike the air of the desert, the oxygen was humid and moist.
The farther they moved into the barren cavern, the worse the stench became. It reminded Norah of the smell of chicken eggs that didn’t hatch. One of Norah’s brothers noticed her scrunched-up face as she tried to plug her nose.
“My teacher taught us about this. It’s called sulfur. She said that in areas with volcanic activity this stench is very common.” He said.
“But we don’t have volcanoes here in Damaraw,” Norah protested.
“No, but look at the red, glowing river up ahead. That is called lava. It’s the molten rocks of the mountain. Fortunately for us, it only runs underground and hasn’t exploded into the sky over our village. Our teacher told us that this has happened in other places. Especially on new islands that rise up out of the oceans.”
Norah recalled having studied this phenomenon briefly when she was in school. But that had been several years ago. She had to stop studying to begin working to help her family. Norah had missed school but felt like she learned something new each day with Ammar.
The small group of villagers spread out as they admired the place and looked around the fierce-looking cavern in awe. Barring the stench, it had its own form of beauty as did the previous cavern they had come through.
Norah continued to move forward, toward the molten river on her own. She went as close as the heat would allow. The air was so thick that she could barely breathe. Norah bent forward and dipped the tip of an arrow into the lava to see what would happen. It instantly burst into flames.
She had just started to turn to go back and show it to her brother when a shadowy movement caught her eye off to the side.
Norah instantly ducked and notched the burning arrow as a giant skeleton came rushing toward her. Based on the previous skeleton’s description, this must be Gomauxnaakh. The little skeleton hadn’t been lying when it said Gomauxnaakh was three times bigger than her.
The giant skeleton roared as it rushed in the direction of the villagers from the backside of the cavern. Flames bursting from every bone on its body. Norah hadn’t even seen where it came from. The thought that it may have leaped out of the lava crossed her mind as she prepared to be swept aside.
Fortunately for Norah and the villagers, the large skeleton wasn’t very fast. And it seemed a bit clumsy, if not unsteady on its feet. Norah let her arrow fly up into its face. At that close distance, there was no way Norah could have missed. Her aim was true.
Unfortunately for Norah, though, the arrow went straight through an empty eye socket with nothing to hit except the back of its skull. The creature let out a dull roar, but simply swatted the front half of the arrow away as the flames consumed the other half that was still stuck in its skull. That gave her enough time to race back to the villagers huddled back near the entrance.
The skeleton roared and continued to lumber in their direction. Norah yelled for them to hold their ground and prepare to take it down. But the more cowardly began to run up the tunnel. Then, others followed suit.
As the skeleton drew near, only Norah and a few brave men stood with her. She realized that this wasn’t going to be as easy as she had anticipated and ordered them to flee up the tunnel too.
Everyone had run screaming their heads off out the tunnel and through to the other side of the lush cavern the way they had come in. They had stopped there when they realized Norah wasn’t with them. By the size of the diminished group, it looked like a good portion of them had run all the way through the final tunnel out onto the edge of the cliffs of Damaraw.
When Norah arrived and stopped running, she turned around and looked back. The skeleton was nowhere in sight. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Norah’s two fearless soldiers once again offered to go take a look. They quickly raced across the lush, green grass of the cavern and then returned.
“I think we are safe now,” the one named Rauf shouted excitedly.
“Gomauxnaakh is still there, but it seems he has grown too large to crawl up through the tunnel.” The other one, called Nadir, said.
Some of the villagers who had run out started to come back in when they realized they were out of danger. They gathered around to discuss their options. Some seemed content to leave Gomauxnaakh alone. Others thought it too dangerous. Norah agreed with them.
“He could dig his way out eventually,” she stated emphatically.
“There may be other tunnels for him to come around the long way,” Rauf added.
In the end, Norah and the villagers crossed the grassy cavern back to the reddish, glowing tunnel of heat and lava.
“Gomauxnaakh!” she called.
The creature replied by roaring and shoving his arm up the tunnel as far as he could reach.
“You will die. You will all die.” Gomauxnaakh hissed. “Gomauxnaakh will eat you all.”
Norah watched its giant fingers wiggling around in front of her father down the tunnel. She laughed out loud. “How do you eat, skeleton? You have no throat to swallow. No tongue to taste. And no belly to digest. You don’t scare me.”
The skeleton hissed and let out another giant roar of rage. Norah and the villagers had to put their hands over their ears till it stopped.
Norah motioned for the men to prepare the steel cables. They wrapped one end of the steel cable around a rocky stalagmite. Then, Jabbar, the blacksmith, worked until he was able to create a noose at the other end with pliers and tools on his belt.
He couldn’t guarantee that it would hold, but Norah gave the okay for them to slip it around the giant skeleton’s thumb. Gomauxnaakh jerked his arm back as hard as he could when he felt the noose close around his finger. That only tightened the noose even more. He roared, but couldn’t pull his hand back out of the tunnel.
The sudden jerk on the cable pulled it taut. Everyone threw themselves back against the sides of the tunnel to get away from it. But poor Jabbar, who had been right at the front, got caught in its path before he could jump out of the way.
It smacked him back up against the wall and several other men hard, knocking two of them unconscious. Jabbar was screaming. When Norah crawled over to him, she could see that his arm had been broken.
Norah had several of the men remove him carefully from the tunnel so they could continue dealing with Gomauxnaakh.
“Find one of the village doctors in the group and have them take care of Jabbar,” she ordered.
Once they had gotten Jabbar out of the tunnel safely, Norah focused her attention back on the skeleton. Gomauxnaakh had reached its second hand up the tunnel to try and free the noose that held it captive.
She had the men wrap another steel cable around another pillar. They wanted to wrap it around the same pillar, but Nadir and her smart little brother had pointed out that the pillar seemed to be weakening. Each time the skeleton jerked the cable around, the sides crumbled and grew weaker.
Unlike Jabbar, none of the other men were blacksmiths and didn’t know much about how to use his tools. They admired the steel cable that looked like the ropes they were used to tying things with. But several of the men who had helped Jabbar and paid attention earlier were able to replicate his efforts.
The men worked swiftly under Norah’s guidance to create a noose and throw it over the thumb of Gomauxnaakh’s other hand. They all managed to leap back in time. No one was injured. They all applauded her and slapped Norah on the back as they watched Gomauxnaakh struggle with both of its hands caught in the tunnel.
Gomauxnaakh roared threats and screamed curses at them. It swore it would break free and kill them all. Norah waited a minute or two until it had tired itself down.
“Listen, Gomauxnaakh. We want to make a new treaty with you,” she shouted down the tunnel.
“Hush, child. Run back home to your mommy. I will never make a treaty with you. I am Gomauxnaakh. Even your chief and your mage fear me. You should do the same. Give me, my tribute and I will let you all live.”
Norah snorted. “We’re going to tear you apart, bone by bone, like we did your other little friends. Watch this, you stupid skeleton.”
Everyone followed suit as she grabbed the steel cable, and they pulled against the skeleton. It was a dangerous move and had its risks. But Norah didn’t think about it and acted on instinct. The skeleton was lying down with both hands outstretched up into the tunnel where it was stuck, so it had little leverage.
Everyone pulled until they slid Gomauxnaakh’s arms up into the tunnel as far as they could. The skeleton pulled and struggled, but they managed to dig in and hold him in place. Norah grabbed another cable and motioned for the other men to help her wrap it around the skeleton’s wrists.
The flames were too hot for them to get close to do much good. And on top of that, Gomauxnaakh could still move his wrists and arm a bit. That meant they ran the risk of getting crushed if they got too close.
Norah decided to try something different. The left side of the cave entrance was lower and sloped down at an angle. Since the skeleton was jammed up on the other side, she and Rauf managed to slip past Gomauxnaakh and ran down to his feet.
She threw the cable over the skeleton’s legs and motioned for Rauf to stay on that side. Norah ran around to the other side and picked up the end of the cable she had thrown. She pulled more of the cable over to herself.
Just then the skeleton kicked its lower leg up at the knee and pulled the cable higher up its body. It jerked Norah along with it, and she almost fell into its burning thigh. When its leg came back down, it almost crushed her underneath. Norah rolled back out from underneath it just in time.
She grabbed the cable and pulled again. Norah held the cable loosely until the skeleton raised its leg again. This time she let go of the end and tossed it back over toward Rauf so that they could loop it together around Gomauxnaakh’s legs.
When she ran back around, they looped the cable in a loop. Then Rauf tossed the end over the skeleton’s legs. This time he ran around its feet to the other side and did the same thing Norah had.
They repeated this until they were able to wrap the cable around Gomauxnaakh several times. It was hard to do without getting close enough to get burned. When they had used as much of the cable as they could, the team stood back to admire their handiwork.
“Think it’ll hold him?” Rauf asked.
“Of course it will,” Norah said confidently.
Now, they just had to find a way to get the pendant around Gomauxnaakh’s neck. Norah moved along his side to see how close she could get to its side before it got too hot. As long as the others could keep the skeleton’s arms pulled up into the tunnel, she might have a chance to get it on him.
Norah heard someone shout. Several other villagers began screaming up inside the tunnel. At first, she thought that more fiery skeletons had arrived and they were being attacked. She squeezed past the burning bones toward the panicked mob.
When she arrived, someone pointed out that the base of the pillar that they had wrapped one of the cables around had begun to crumble. The pulling and tugging of the cables had weakened it. The crowd was currently holding it in place, but at the rate it was going, it wouldn’t take much longer before the pillar gave way.
Some of the men had wrapped another cable around a different pillar, but it was even smaller than the first two and farther away. Before they finished securing it, the first pillar had crumbled away and broken off. The people strained to hold Gomauxnaakh in place, but they were already tired.
Gomauxnaakh realized that he had been able to loosen one of the cables. He roared with excitement and redoubled his efforts of tugging and pulling to free himself completely. Norah grabbed onto the cable with the others to pull and keep it in place, but she soon realized that this was a losing battle for them. The skeleton didn’t seem to be tiring like they were.
The villagers struggled valiantly. They almost got the other cable in place to replace the one that had pulled free of the pillar. But the second pillar finally crumbled and gave way as well. Split between the two cables and without the support of the pillars, the villagers began to lose hope.
Gomauxnaakh roared and pulled as furiously as a catfish on a hook. The villagers, holding onto the cable attached to his right hand, began to get pulled in towards the cavern. Several let go and then it pulled the rest even farther in towards it.
Eventually, everyone let go of that cable, and most reached over to help hold the other one. But Gomauxnaakh reached back up in the tunnel with his right hand and grabbed onto the other cable himself to provide more leverage.
They were all getting pulled in toward the cavern. Norah yelled for them to hang on. But many of the villagers had already let go. Norah yelled for everyone to let go before it was too late.
Everyone let go and scrambled to get away from the steel cable as it slid past them. Gomauxnaakh let out a loud bellow of furious glee at having gotten free. He stood to his feet and tried to turn around. But the cables wrapped around his legs tripped him up and fell back in the other direction with a loud thud.
The skeleton howled and looked down at his feet. It shook them angrily and to get loose. It sat up and tried to untie the knots that Norah and Rauf had left. It looked over at the villagers, watching it from the edge of the tunnel.
Gomauxnaakh jerked in their direction and let out a terrifying yell. Those at the front leaped back and slammed into those standing behind them. Several people tumbled and fell as the crowd scrambled to race back up the tunnel. The skeleton got a kick out of seeing their mad dash and let out a howl of laughter.
He made a few more attempts to untie the knots, but his bony fingers were too clumsy to loosen the steel knots. Gomauxnaakh growled at those who were still watching him. He stood to his feet slowly and made sure he was balanced. He took a few shuffling steps forward and then hopped over a rock.
Norah noticed that the flames weren’t as bright and fiery as they had been when they first arrived in the cave. She realized it was trying to get back to the lava streams to fuel itself back up.
The cables they had gotten around his thumbs were still attached and hanging down to the ground. The loose ends that had been tied around the pillar caught onto the rock and boulders and pulled them along.
Norah had a flash of insight. She gave an excited shout to the people still in the tunnel with her.
“Quick! Everyone who has a bow, come here. Bring the cables. We can’t let Gomauxnaakh make it back to the lava stream. That’s what keeps him alive and strong.”
The skeleton overheard them and nervously started shuffling along and hopping a bit faster. Norah had the villagers tie arrows to each end of a cable.
Norah and Rauf each shot an arrow at the same time on either side of the skeleton. The arrows flew past the skeleton, but the cable they were pulling smacked it in the back.
The arrows still tied to the cable were pulled toward each other and crossed in front of Gomauxnaakh. The cable wrapped loosely around the skeleton’s frame, dropped to his feet and tripped him up. It continued to move forward, but even more slowly so it wouldn’t fall over.
The rest of the men with bows each tied one of their arrows to the end of a cable and lined up to take turns to shoot their cables in pairs around the skeleton. The shorter cables worked the best since the weight was lighter, the arrows flew stronger and faster. They wrapped around the skeleton higher up its body. The longer, heavier cables slid down around its legs.
Gomauxnaakh roared and tried to get away from them. But after firing all of their arrows, several of the men raced forward to grab the ends of the cables closest to them.
They pulled and the skeleton couldn’t continue his forward trek. It roared and turned back to them. As it moved back, they continued to back away and pull on the cables so the skeleton couldn’t reach them.
More of the villagers ran forward to help when they realized it wasn’t such a dangerous idea. The only ones in danger were those holding on to cables higher up around its arms. Since there were only a few,
Gomauxnaakh managed to pull them up off the ground. But they quickly let go and dropped back down to the ground, where they grabbed onto the main cables that everyone else was hanging onto.
The skeleton paused for a moment as it looked back and forth from the people to the safety of the lava streams behind it. It shuffled forward, and the group moved back toward the tunnels while keeping the ropes taut.
Gomauxnaakh turned and tried to shuffle back, but couldn’t pull the entire group along with itself. It turned back to them and screamed furiously at them. Unsure of what to do, it pulled away from them and then tried to shuffle forward at them quickly to scare them off.
Whatever it was trying to do didn’t work as Gomauxnaakh intended. The giant skeleton tripped and toppled forward toward the people. They scattered off to the sides, but most of them still hung onto the ropes.
When Gomauxnaakh hit the ground, they quickly moved together under Norah’s direction. She had them strategically stretch the ropes higher over the burning bones so that the skeleton couldn’t pull itself back up.
The skeleton roared and screamed and kicked, but it didn’t do him any good. Norah could tell that the skeleton was much weaker than when they had previously arrived. She assumed that due to its size, Gomauxnaakh consumed much more of its fuel to stay alive. The smaller skeletons didn’t consume as much as he did, which is why they were able to move around longer outside.
“Listen to me Gomauxnaakh. Are you ready to make a treaty with us?” Norah yelled.
Gomauxnaakh stopped yelling and turned to look at her. “Never,” it roared. “I will kill you all.” Then it began yelling and struggling again. After a few moments, it quieted down, but continued to squirm.
“Your bones will grow cold as did those of your companions that are lying outside in the cold, night air,” Norah said calmly.
The skeleton sighed and lay still. “What do you want from me? And what do I get in return?”
“We’ll give you Nur. His blood will pay for what he did to you.” Rhyanna’s father said loudly, stepping up beside her where the skeleton could see him.
Go fetch the chief and bring him down here,” Rhyanna’s father shouted to villagers standing close to the tunnel exit.
“But you can no longer have any of our daughters. You may live in this cave in peace. Once his blood no longer fuels you, you will go the way of all men.”
“That is no treaty,” the skeleton growled and struggled against the ropes.
“You can have this too,” Norah said as she held up the pendant.
“What is that?” Gomauxnaakh asked.
Just then, the men came back through the tunnel, dragging Nur between them. He kicked and screamed and tried to keep them from dragging him toward the skeleton. But several others jumped in and pushed him forward.
“What is this?” Gomauxnaakh asked Nur.
“Nothing. It’s nothing. Just an old trinket that Ammar is fooling these people with.” Nur growled.
“Nur had this trinket forged with magic, and Ammar added more magic to it. They think it will remove the curse and make you whole. Maybe. But they aren’t really sure what it will do.” Norah admitted with her fingers crossed, hoping that it would actually kill this monster for what he had done to them all these years.
But at the same time, Norah felt guilty. It wasn’t his fault. Nur and Ammar had put him in this situation. They were the true villains.
Gomauxnaakh looked at her for a long moment that made Norah feel uncomfortable.
“I accept your treaty then,” Gomauxnaakh finally said. “I appreciate your honesty and courage. And truth be told, I’m tired of living down here. Even more so, now that my family is dead. I have nothing left to keep on living for. I will take this pendant. Give me Nur and Ammar. Then you all may go.”
“Ammar is already dying, if not dead. We shot him with arrows this morning when we learned of his secret.”
Gomauxnaakh growled at the news. “No loss to me. I only regret not getting my revenge on him myself. Give me the pendant and Nur then.”
The pendant’s chain wasn’t big enough to fit around the giant skeleton’s neck. Norah requested one of the smaller cables. Rauf brought it to her, and she ran the cable through it.
She tossed the cable over the giant’s neck and had Rauf slide the far end of it under his neck toward her. Norah ran the cable through the pendant and tied a few knots with the help of Jabbar’s apprentice, who had since appeared.
The young fellow knew how to use the blacksmith’s tools well. He helped her tie several tight knots in it. They made it as small as possible around his neck to keep him from pulling it off easily.
Norah couldn’t get as close to the burning bones as he did, but the young man had long gloves. He also said that he was used to working in the heat of the fire all day, so it didn’t bother him. He did sweat quite a bit, but she admired the fact that he didn’t flinch or back away until the task was complete. Then he slid the cable around so that the pendant was centered over Gomauxnaakh’s chest. When the blacksmith’s apprentice let the magical object drop onto its chest, the skeleton gave a loud roar that turned into a scream.
The sound grew louder and shriller. So shrill that the people had to back away and cover their ears. It didn’t last long though and quickly faded away as the skeleton took several last choking gasps as the flames coming off its bones died away. Then Gomauxnaakh fell silent.
The villagers cheered and yelled and jumped and hugged each other excitedly. Even Norah, who wasn’t one to get emotional, felt her eyes tear up with joy and a sense of relief. She hugged Rhyanna, and her father, her brothers, and even Rauf.
Other villagers came up to hug her and thank her for what she had done. Norah blushed and brushed it off, by acknowledging all the others who had helped her out. But they all acknowledged her fearless courage and bravery in completing this mission.
When she turned back to take another look at Gomauxnaakh, the giant bony skeleton was no longer there.
“Where did he go?” she asked.
Others were surprised as well, but someone pointed to the body of a normal-sized human lying on the cavern floor.
“Is that really him?” she asked.
Those standing around and watching his transformation all nodded and stepped back.
“He’s still breathing,” Rauf pointed out.
Norah stepped closer for a better look. The pendant had slipped off to the side and had started coming off his neck. Someone pulled on it and it slipped off completely. Instantly, Gomauxnaakh’s body burst into flames and began burning the flesh off his bones once again.
He came to and let out a terrified scream, full of pain and anguish. The person shoved it back around his neck, and the flames subsided once again. Norah called the blacksmith’s apprentice over and had him use another cable to create a smaller circle for the pendant.
They fastened the pendant securely around this smaller, human-sized version of Gomauxnaakh’s neck. Then they cut the longer, original cable. Norah and some of the others waited for him to regain consciousness.
Most of the villagers grew tired and went home to prepare for bed. Others started exploring the caverns and tunnels in small groups.
Once he came around and was able to stand to his feet, some of the villagers wanted to throw Gomauxnaakh and Nur into the fiery streams of lava. But Norah refused and with the support of her father and brothers and Rauf, convinced them to wait until the villagers could make them stand trial.
As for Gomauxnaakh, he was horrified at the things he had done. He claimed that the last thing he remembered was Nur and Ammar cursing him into becoming a fiery skeleton. Norah wasn’t sure she believed him, but for now, she was too tired to interrogate him.
“Tomorrow, we’ll bring them out before the village. We’ll let the people judge them and decide what to do with them.” Norah said.
She didn’t know what they would decide about Gomauxnaakh. But she was pretty sure that they would make Nur pay with his life. Some form of punishment worthy of what he had done. Maybe they would burn him at the stake. Maybe they would hang him.
Gomauxnaakh though. That was a different story. What if they let him live? And what if he ever removed his pendant? What if he liked being a giant, burning skeleton who lived in a cavern of lava streams?
And even more than that. What was in those caverns? Those plants down there were incredible. It would take a lifetime of study for her to learn them all and what kind of healing properties they possessed.
After the group left the cave with Nur and Gomauxnaah, Norah swung by Ammar’s abode to see how he was doing. Ikraam and Esmail seemed excited to see her alive and well. Norah was especially surprised at Esmail’s reaction. He always seemed so distant and aloof, except when he was berating her.
The boys seemed to be doing much better and were able to move around. They had improvised some makeshift crutches to lean on as they limped around. They moved over toward Ammar’s lifeless body, but instead of looking at them, she watched Gomauxnaakh’s face to see if he showed any emotion.
He remained neutral and didn’t act excited to see his old enemy’s death as a form of vengeance. Nor did he seem disappointed at not having gotten to avenge himself on the old man. He did pay close attention to the jars and bowls of herbs on the shelves. Especially the blood mallow that was still out where she had left it earlier that day.
Gomauxnaakh turned to her when she asked him about his interest in it. He admitted that it was a good herb and very hard to find around the village.
“Oh, of course. I’m the one who showed Ammar where to find it down in the caves back when we first arrived here and founded the village. He was just a whippersnapper at the time and apprenticed under me.” Gomauxnaakh said when she asked him how he knew about it.
That was a surprising bit of information that she hadn’t expected to hear. On their walk back down toward the told her about several uses that Ammar had never mentioned to her before.
Gomauxnaakh wasn’t surprised. “Ammar was an arrogant fool that never even finished his apprenticeship under me before he and Nur tried to kill me.”
“What?!” Norah exclaimed.
“We were the original explorers of this land. We settled here because of the cave. We broke off from another larger village and came here to make a new life for ourselves. We planned on exporting all the good things and growing this into the largest city in the region.”
“So, what happened?” Norah asked.
“Nur and I didn’t see eye-to-eye on a few major issues. And he was a scoundrel. I went to Ammar hoping that he would take my side, but Nur had already promised him what he really wanted. The last thing I remember was them tackling me and wrestling me to the ground.”
“Then, why didn’t they ever access the cave gardens or whatever is down there?”
Gomauxnaakh shrugged and sighed. “I don’t remember. Maybe that was part of our treaty. Or maybe they were just scared to go with us skeletons down there. Honestly, I don’t even remember us getting transformed into flaming skeletons.”
When they arrived in the village, people streamed out of their homes to gather around Norah and the group that had just arrived. They handed Nur and Gomauxnaakh over to the guards for safekeeping till the next morning.
The people had built a huge bonfire in the village square. They brought out the food that they had prepared for the Feast of Fire. Everyone ate until they were stuffed. The band played. The villagers sang and danced around the fire.
Norah danced and jumped with everyone around the fire. Rauf grabbed her and tried to kiss her. It was nice, but she was conscious of everyone around her and pushed him away.
“Slow down there, Romeo,” she said with a smile.
She noticed Ikraam and Esmail sitting off to the side and scowling. Norah ran over and pulled them out of their seats. They couldn’t really jump and dance with their wounded leg and foot. But Ikraam was a good sport and waved his makeshift crutches in the air.
Even Esmail was in a surprisingly good mood. She was shocked when Esmail tried to kiss her too. She pushed him too, which threw him off balance with his wounded leg. He fell backward and Norah leaped forward to pull him back up.
She didn’t know how she felt about him and didn’t know what to say. But he acted like nothing had happened and continued laughing and waving his crutches around over his head in time with the music.
The villagers crowded around the group. Everyone hugged Norah and clapped her on the back.
“Norah should be the new chief to replace Nur!” someone in the crowd shouted.
“But she’s a woman,” someone else replied with a laugh.
“So, what! She is brave, courageous and wise. Norah led all the men of the village against that giant burning skeleton.” Another person shouted out.
“Brave and wise Norah for chief!” Norah’s younger brother shouted.
At first, Norah laughed, thinking it was all in fun. But as more of the villagers picked up the chant, she waved her arms to quiet them down. But they just shouted over her to drown out her protests.
She looked over at her father. He just raised his eyebrows and shrugged with a pleased smile. He flashed her two thumbs up.
“Oh, well! We’ll figure everything out in the morning.” she thought to herself.
Norah just went with the flow and danced around with the crowd until late into the night until she grew tired.
“Can I kiss you?” Ikraam asked.
She looked at him quizzically.
“I mean, I saw the other guys just grabbed you and tried to kiss you. But you pushed them away. I don’t know if you don’t like them and I have a chance with you or what.” Ikraam stammered hesitantly.
Norah smiled and said, “I don’t know. I might like you kissing me. But I won’t know till you do. But just don’t try it here in front of my family.”
She lowered her voice at the end and pointed her finger in his face in a mock threat. He grinned and laughed at her.
Ikraam waited to walk her home. He did kiss her at the front door when they said good night. And she did like it.
“Not too bad,” she said. “You kiss alright.”
“What!? Just alright,” he said, trying to grab her again before she ran inside.
“Good night, Ikraam. I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said with a wave.
She sighed and threw herself into bed, exhausted. Glancing up at the open window over her bed, Norah reviewed her day. Wondering how in the world she had managed to survive everything they had been through as she drifted off to sleep.