The sorcery of djinn was like a stalking beast. You had to stay downwind of it, even when you were the hunter. Antar knew, as always, everything depended on him seeing the unseen and forcing his eyes to reveal what lay in the membrane between light and darkness. He drew a deep breath and rolled between his thumb and forefinger the seal that was chained to his neck. Instinctively his eyes scanned for weaknesses as he stepped out of the door and into the night. As he walked through the strewn refuse of the alley, he smelled the stench of stale urine and beer that eternally impregnated the gutters. He liked the warm evenings like this one — if he closed his eyes and didn’t breathe for a moment, he could convince himself that he was home again. The sounds coalesced into the clangour of a bustling soukh, the cries of merchants touting their wares . . . he imagined the sweet smell of cinnamon and burning frankincense . . .
But, as always, he had to breathe, and the stale decay of St Kilda re-entered his blood stream.
Sasha was there at the corner again, dressed in her tired black halter and leopard skin leggings. He had long ago lost count of how many streetwalkers had stood on that corner. They were a blur of bright red lipstick and heavy eyeliner. Most of them gave up quickly when he ignored them night after night. Let them think he was a harmless half-nutter — that was the best defence. Don’t threaten, avoid eye contact, and move on. It had always worked. It had to work. He couldn’t have anyone prying. No one should get close enough to distract him from his vigil.
“Another night on the town, eh Andy?” Sasha still persisted in trying to engage Antar, even after all these months.
Antar mumbled something that he hoped would satisfy her. As he stepped off the path onto the street to walk past, he couldn’t help but look at her out of the corner of his eye. There was something different about her, but he had always found it hard to work out what it was. The mass of dark hair had been forced to fall across one shoulder, her breasts pushed skyward and her face had the mask-like look of all the others. Yet something different shone from her mascaraed eyes. He always glanced at her as he walked past. He knew no good would come of it. That wasn’t the way to end his loneliness. Only completing his vigil would do that.
“See you at the end of shift, Andy,” she said. “Hope you enjoy your job more than I do.”
Why didn’t she give up? Couldn’t she just not see him, like all the others? She kept trying to connect. Night after night she treated him like a human being — it put him in the wrong frame of mind.
As he turned into Fitzroy Street, the lights momentarily distracted him, as they always did. He hesitated, and blinked quickly for focus. How easily he lost his vision. How rapidly this world could distract him with its brightness and movement. How hard it was to be a vigilant.
The toxic mixture of sleaze and glamour that St Kilda had become during his time here enveloped him. The warmth of the night brought it all out onto the footpaths. The young designer couples trying to impress each other over glasses of pinot. The pierced gays parading bare-midriffed along the promenade, stopping only long enough to be certain they had been seen. The ranter stumbling from table to table as he muttered incoherencies at an unseen tormentor.
Antar forced his eyes to focus, rolled the seal again, and squinted to find what he was really looking for: the spaces between the lights, the portents behind the punters, the reality within it all.
After so long, he instinctively knew where to look. Conflict was always a potential source of a breach. He scanned the tables and chairs at the front of Chichio’s. His eyes were drawn to a couple. There’s a source, he thought. Both were struggling to appear calm and casual, but he sensed a seething fury emanating from them. The woman twirled her hair with her fingers and stared into her wine. Occasionally she would take a rapid token sip and glare at her partner across the table as she made some point. A deep red emanation issued from her mouth each time she spoke, staining the night air. The man sat there, pretending to be unaffected, glaring at the passersby with a masked intensity. No stains poured from his mouth, but from his head an aura of bright red shone like a halo of blood.
If only they knew what damage they were doing, thought Antar. The weaknesses they create in the membrane. He watched the spaces between the lights of the café. Was there a breach imminent? He hoped not. Somehow, he didn’t feel he had the strength tonight.
He watched the couple a while longer as he crossed Fitzroy Street, the seal weighing heavily on the chain around his neck. He knew he could never stare at anyone for too long. Being a vigilant wasn’t a matter of just observing. You had to watch without drawing attention to yourself. He stood at the tram stop in the middle of the street, pretending he was waiting for a tram. Glancing over his shoulder, he could see the man was now leaning over and talking to the woman. The emanations had dulled. Despite his natural caution, Antar breathed a sigh of relief. Perhaps a breach would be averted after all.
He hoped that the membrane would now hold for another night. A quick scan for other weaknesses. A barefooted woman stood against a building near the corner. Addicts’ emanations were rarely intense. The damage they caused was a slow, dull drip over a long time as the red bled from them. A single addict couldn’t cause a breach on her own, yet over time their many dulled psyches together stretched the membrane to its limits.
For a brief moment the addict made contact through her dead eyes. Antar hated it when that happened. It always felt as if a little of his own resolve died. Then he reminded himself that hate shouldn’t be an emotion he was feeling. It was too human and too distracting.
As he sat deathly still for the brief moment, he almost failed to notice the flare that flamed in the corner of his vision.
Damn it, he thought. It was that couple again. The man was now arguing fiercely. The woman had goaded him somehow. Deliberately hitting on a nerve. Bringing out something that should have remained hidden. And he was shooting back at her with venom.
The air around them glowed; the crimson stain that Antar knew signalled an imminent breach.
He braced himself as the wound opened into the sultry night air. A wrenching sound like the tearing of muscle and sinew tore through his head. How can they not hear it? he thought. Their world is ripping apart and they can never hear it.
A wind screamed out of the hole above the café table, and the couple’s chairs hurtled back, crashing the two to the ground.
But unlike any natural wind, it took form as it writhed just above the streetscape. Antar knew he was fortunate so far. Only one ghūl had made it through. One ghūl, unchecked, could do much damage, but he knew the real danger was the hordes of others that could follow.
The ghūl rapidly took human form, orientated itself, and ran to the breach.
Antar had to move fast. He vaulted over the tram stop railing towards where the couple lay stunned on the ground. The ghūl had righted the upended café table and was climbing on it to reach the wound.
Damn it, thought Antar, they rarely orientated so quickly so soon after breach. He lept at the table feet first and knocked the ghūl to the ground.
The ghūl hissed at him when it recovered its footing. Antar glanced up at the wound, and to his shock he saw a hand coming through. What was happening here? How could it be fully formed before it breached the membrane?
The ghūl came at him with lightning speed, and he sidestepped just in time. Was he losing his ability? The ghūl should have never gotten that close. He leant back in a defensive posture. Keep your head clear. Never turn your back. The instinct was there as always. Whatever you do, don’t let them near the seal. The ghūl came at him again and Antar threw a sharp kick to its ever-thickening chest. The contact shot a stab of pain through his foot, and Antar drew a breath.
The ghūl lunged a third time, and he sidestepped but tumbled over one of the chairs and fell to the ground.
Suddenly the ghūl was on top of him, pinning him to the ground. Antar grabbed its wrists so that it couldn’t touch the seal. The pain across his chest and arms was almost unbearable. He summoned all his strength to push the ghūl’s arms back.
Then to his horror, the ghūl slowly started lowering its face toward Antar’s.
“No,” he screamed as he looked into its eyes.
He knew there was something wrong. This was no ordinary ghūl. Its eyes. Its eyes. He could feel them locking on his own, drawing them in.
“You’re an i’frit,” he said, realising he had been fooled.
The i’frit smiled a dark smile.
No wonder it had orientated itself so quickly. This was not the minor advance infiltrator it had pretended to be.
Antar drew on all his resources. Somehow knowing what he was dealing with gave him strength. He pushed the i’frit’s gaze back with his eyes. Straightening his arms, he kicked himself free. The pain of contact coursed through his body now, however, and he lay stunned on the ground. Was the i’frit going to try to finish him now? No, instead it had gotten back on the table and now had both his hands deep inside the wound and was trying to widen it. A sickening ripping sound pierced the air.
Antar got to his feet. The waves of pain still flowed through him. He knew he didn’t have the strength — he needed some time to recover.
“Very clever – trying to disguise yourself as a ghūl.” Antar started walking toward him slowly. He had to time this just right. Too fast and his body wouldn’t have recovered sufficiently. Too slowly and the i’frit would have widened the breach to let the hordes of ghūls and who knows what else spill through.
“Do you know what it’s like for your kind to be stranded here?” said Antar, trying to sound calm, trying not to show the pain that was still wracking his body. “You’ll be completely on your own. Think about what that will feel like. I’m going to close that breach.” He forced a confident smile onto his lips. “I always close the breaches.”
The i’frit was still tearing away. Several hands were now visible through the wound, grasping out into mid-air with frantic clutching gestures.
“Perhaps I won’t be able to kill you,” said Antar, “but you will wish I had.”
The i’frit finally turned, obviously shaken by Antar’s confidence.
“See, you’re no ghūl. That’s the problem, isn’t it? A ghūl couldn’t comprehend the depth of loneliness.” Antar stopped. “You can taste it already, can’t you? Imagine that feeling magnified a thousand fold.” The pain was ebbing now, and he began tensing his muscles. “You can imagine what it’s like after I close the breach, can’t you?” He took a deep breath. “Why not just go back? You don’t want to risk it. Tell them another time, another breach where there is no vigilant.”
A head was now emerging between the tangle of hands within the wound, and Antar knew he had to act.
The i’frit hesitated for a moment too long before it started to tear at the wound again.
It was then that Antar struck with a controlled fury. He flew at the i’frit with a flying kick to the chest, and it fell into the flailing limbs of the wound.
The hands inside pushed it back out, and it bounced off the table and onto the footpath. Antar seized his chance while the i’frit lay stunned and took the seal from around his neck and pushed it onto the i’frit’s forehead, turning it anti-clockwise.
A scream of agony wailed through the thick warmth of the night as the i’frit faded into a gust of dark wind. Antar’s temples throbbed as he held the seal in place, turning it into the night air one last time to make sure. Then he quickly climbed back onto the table, and taking care to avoid the grasping limbs, he pushed the hands back behind the membrane. Finally, he turned the seal and the breach slowly closed, leaving a dull crimson scar where the wound had been.
He raked in several deep breaths as he helped the disorientated couple back into their chairs. He had almost been fooled — he shuddered at what could have happened. Were his powers waning? Had he been here too long? He shook his head. That he was even thinking those thoughts alone suggested a problem.
Allowing his eyes to retreat to the half-focus that encouraged people not to look at him, Antar walked on and didn’t look back until he was a safe distance away. There was still a faint red glow above the couple’s head. They would obviously be a source of weakness in the future. They were both dazed, of course, as were all the onlookers, their minds clouded by the tear in the membrane that separated the worlds. Yet he knew that, as always, the wound had created an afterimage in their psyches and that something would linger in their minds, something of the dark horror would seep into their dreams and turn them into nightmares.
Stay away from here, he voiced in his head to the couple. Or sort out your problems. This world might not be able to stand your next conflict.
He sat down with his back against a building and surveyed Fitzroy Street. It would be unheard of for another breach to occur again tonight, but he wasn’t taking any chances. The couple who had been the cause of the breach finally left, and all that remained were the usual faint stains of the addicts and psychos that dotted the street.
It was well into the small hours of the morning when he decided it was safe to end his vigil. The last of the young ecstasy-heightened nightclubbers were still spilling out into the street, sipping from bottles of water, when he turned off Fitzroy Street.
As he approached his alley he saw Sasha walking toward him on her impossibly high heels. It was almost as if she had timed it to reach the corner with him.
“Find what you were looking for tonight, Andy?” she said.
Antar couldn’t help but jerk his head involuntarily.
“Hey, I got a reaction for once,” said Sasha. She touched Antar’s arm playfully.
He shrank back – the charge that went through him caused him to catch his breath.
“You okay?” she asked, walking with him, despite his attempts to change his pace. “You look a little strange even for you.”
“Please don’t touch me,” said Antar.
Sasha laughed. “I have a similar rule,” she said. “No kissing.” She fell silent for a moment. “You didn’t have a good night, did you Andy?”
Antar shook his head.
They walked several steps in silence, Sasha’s high heels resounding on the footpath.
“Do you want a coffee or something?” she asked finally, her voice had a faint tremor in it.
“No,” said Antar, adding a quick, “thank you.”
Sasha had reached the rusted gate of her house. “Last chance, Andy.”
Antar knew he should just walk on to his flat. Just shake your head and move on. Don’t look at her.
But he looked at her, and was suddenly transfixed as he saw a trickle of blood run from her nose.
“You haven’t had a good night either, have you?” he said.
Sasha wiped at the blood self-consciously. “How about . . . how about you come in for a coffee, and I’ll just talk at you for a while. I won’t ask you anything. You can just listen.”
Sasha’s eyes were pleading. “I just hate being alone after a shift.”
Antar nodded. “Me too,” he said, and he followed her in through the small paved yard towards the front door.
Suddenly he felt a wave of intense light hit him in the face and he stumbled back, clutching his eyes.
“Andy, are you okay — ”
He pulled away.
He focussed through the brightness, fighting the burning sensation in his forehead.
“It’s just my sensor light, Andy.” Sasha’s features were taking shape again. “Sorry. I know it’s a bit bright. Security . . . you know what it can be like around here.”
Antar nodded as the pain ebbed, and he followed her towards the door.
Once inside, Sasha indicated the armchair in the corner. “That’s the most comfortable seat in the house, Andy,” she said. “I won’t be too long. I need to have a bath after a shift. Turn the TV on if you want, or play some music.” She drew a breath. “Just please be here when I come back.”
Antar looked around as the sensor light’s after image flickered in his vision. The room was a strange mixture — both tawdry and expensive. A huge flat screen television sat against the wall next to a state-of-the-art entertainment centre. Ancient wallpaper hung in sad shreds in places as if something had been clawing at it.
He heard the bath water running and remembered the fountains and hammām bathhouses of his youth. An intricate eight-pointed star mosaic seemed to superimpose itself on the wallpaper and he could feel a soft caress on his skin.
He cleared his head. If only he could slough the dead skin and grime of the centuries from his mind with water. What was he doing here? He knew no good could come of it. Distractions were always bad. What if she touched him again? What if . . .
Antar had made up his mind to walk out when Sasha returned wearing jeans and a large grey T-shirt. She had pinned her dark curly hair up in a messy bundle on the top of her head and had removed all the makeup that had layered her face. Traces of bubble bath remained on one ear.
“Thanks for staying. Andy.”
She opened up the curtains although it was still semi-dark outside and sat down on a chair on the other side of the room. Good, he thought, there was no way she was going to touch him.
“I like this time of the night . . . or day or whatever it is,” she said. “Too late for night owls and too early for mundanes. It’s in between everything — a good place to be, don’t you think?” She coughed. “Sorry, Andy, that counts as a question, doesn’t it? You don’t have to answer it.”
She looked at her hands for a long time as if she was examining them for something. Antar felt himself starting to relax a little in the silence. Maybe for once he could afford to not have every fibre of his being on guard.
“You look different,” he said finally.
“So do you,” said Sasha and half-smiled. “It must be the light.”
She fell silent again.
Antar looked at the last traces of the bubble bath on her ear. If only he could confide in her. He could tell her about the myriad worlds that were like the bubbles she had been immersed in. How the the membranes could merge at the borders and threaten to create a new combined world. How some worlds were toxic and would destroy any other world they combined with. And what it was like to carry the eternal burden of stopping the breach.
But he knew he couldn’t.
“I thought you were going to talk,” said Antar finally, leaning back into the chair.
Sasha looked up at him and he averted his gaze. “Yeah, well . . . I guess I’m not used to having anyone here for conversation. I think I’ve forgotten how.” She got up quickly. “I’d better get you that coffee.”
“No, it’s all right. Maybe later.”
She sat down again examining her hands.
Antar cleared his throat into the silence. “Why do you wear so much makeup?”
“Hey, there’s a great conversation starter.”
“Do you mean just me or all us whores?”
“Just you. You’re young, aren’t you? You don’t need anything.”
“I was right about you, Andy. I thought you were a bit of a charmer.”
She looked at him and smiled. “It’s protection. Like the way you don’t look at people, the way you want to be invisible.”
“How do you know what I want to be?”
“Because I’m the same as you. We’re both not what we seem.”
Antar’s back stiffened. What was happening here? He’d already been fooled once on his vigil tonight. Deception. If an i’frit could appear to him as a ghūl, what could a street prostitute really be?
“Are you all right, Andy?”
“What are you?” he said, clutching at the arms of the chair.
“I’m not a whore, you know,” said Sasha. “I reckon if you’re not one in your mind, then that’s real.” She got up and started filling the kettle.
Antar relaxed a little again. Perhaps he was being foolish. “How did you get the corner?”
“Boy, you’re talkative tonight, aren’t you?”
“What happened to the others? They all just disappeared.”
Sasha spooned in the instant coffee into two floral mugs. “You think I’m going to just disappear too?” She turned to him with a frown. “I don’t take anything . . . you know, not even sugar in my coffee. I . . . like to know what I’m doing.”
Sasha didn’t seem surprised. “I’m not going to just disappear.”
“I was hoping . . . the others maybe just stopped . . . went home . . . or . . . ” Antar trailed off.
“So you do care, Andy. I knew you were a softie under there somewhere.”
She handed Antar his mug and sat down again. “So, you want to hear about why I’m not going to disappear?”
“What I do is a job. That’s all. What you do isn’t what you are, is it? I’m here because of bad luck, you know.” She smiled. “Do you know about salt?”
Antar furrowed his brow.
“No, Andy? That means you don’t mix with superstitious eastern Europeans much.”
“I . . .”
“Yeah, I know, Andy — you don’t mix with too many people at all, do you?” She sipped her coffee. “It’s bad luck you know, for someone to pour salt near your house.”
Sasha looked into her mug. “Let me give you a bit of advice, Andy. Never have an affair with your next door neighbour — especially if he’s married.” She chewed her lips. “He was going to leave her, you know. That’s what he told me anyway. In the end the only telling he did was to his wife — about me. I got the blame, of course. My father blamed me — I would have expected that. They can’t think any other way. But, my mother . . . well I expected her to be different. I don’t know . . .”
Sasha looked across at Antar. “Hey, what’s wrong with my coffee?”
Antar shift uneasily. “What about the salt?”
“Ah, the salt. I opened the front door to go to work one morning, and there it was. Like it had been snowing all night. Our front yard was covered in salt a metre thick. I don’t know where she had gotten it all from. Hell, did she put a curse on me.”
“You don’t believe in curses. I don’t suppose I blame you. I never did – probably still don’t. My family does, though. That was the day my father threw me out of the house. Made sure I lost my job too — that’s the problem with close-knit ethnic communities.”
“You could have gotten another one.”
“What? Family, ethnic community or job? It’s not that simple. I lost more than you can imagine that day.”
“I can imagine a lot.”
“Can you?” She put her mug down on the floor. “Hey, if you’re not going to drink my coffee, I don’t think you can stay.”
Antar looked her in the eyes and felt a jolt. What was he doing here? He put his mug down and started to get up.
“I was joking, Andy. If we’re going to get on, you’ll have to work out when I’m joking.”
“I’ve got to go,” said Antar.
“Hey, your mother won’t find out.”
Antar was at the door. “Sorry, I have to go.”
“Okay, Andy, no-one’s twisting your arm. If I’m boring you.”
“You’re not boring me.”
“Hey, that was a joke too.” Sasha sighed.
Antar had his hand on the knob and pushed the door open.
Then something black wrapped itself around him and yanked him out into the yard.
He fell to his knees and instinctively rolled away. Grabbing his seal he squinted through the hole in the top.
“Ah, now I can see you,” he said to the black figure, which was getting to its feet. “A shaitīn. Who would have thought? Not a ghūl. Not an i’frit. A disguise within a disguise.”
“Your vigil is over, Antar. You can’t keep us out any more. We’re coming.” The voice coursed out from the back of its throat.
In a blur the shaitīn leapt at Antar, howling in pain as it grabbed at the chain. Antar threw an elbow at it and tried to twist away. As he did, the chain dug savagely into the back of his neck and he screamed.
Antar trembled as he looked around. He needed to recover. The shaitīn was stunned but was slowly standing.
Think. You’ve only got a few seconds.
The shaitīn had almost assumed its attack position again. Antar’s eyes darted, desperately searching for a way out. The door to Sasha’s house was still ajar. That was his only hope.
His legs were shaking, but he forced a confident smile to his lips. He held the seal up as if offering it to him. Please let this work.
“You think you’re just going to take this and open the wounds for the attack?”
There wasn’t much time. The shaitīn was starting to blur.
“You’ve been clever, haven’t you? So clever. To trap me like this.” He took the chain from around his neck and closed his fist around it so that the seal protruded like a small knife.
He surged at the shaitīn just as it blurred in preparation for the impact.
Antar changed direction mid-charge and lunged for the open door. He landed on the floor and kicked the door shut in one motion.
“What happened?” Sasha rushed to where he lay. “Look at your neck. You’re bleeding.”
He winced as she touched him. “Go away.”
There was a knock at the door.
“Antar.” The voice rasped like a desert storm.
“Don’t open it,” cried Antar. “Whatever you do, don’t open it.”
“But it’s not locked. Do you want me to lock it?”
“No. It can’t come in unless the owner opens the door.”
“Antar.” The knocking on the door became more insistent.
“Look, Andy, you’ve got to tell me. What is out there?”
“You said no questions.”
“That was before you dived through my front door covered in blood.”
Just then there was a knock on the front window and they both froze.
Sasha stared into Antar’s eyes. “What am I going to see if I look towards the window?”
“Why? Will that mean it can come in?”
“Worse. It will try to take your mind.”
“Can I close the curtains?”
“That would be a good idea. Can you do it without looking through the window?”
“I think so.”
Sasha backed her way towards the curtain as the knocking on the window continued. She reached back for the curtain cord.
“How am I going?” she asked.
“Is whatever is out there looking at me?”
“It sees you, yes, but if you don’t look at it, there’s not much it can do to you.”
“Okay … are they closed now?”
“No gap in the middle?”
“No, no gap in the middle.”
By the time she had walked back to where Antar lay, the knocking on the glass had stopped.
She looked down at Antar’s hand. “Was that what this is about?”
He glanced down to see that his fist was white from clutching the seal. “Yes.”
He put the chain around his neck again. As the metal touched the open wound, he felt a biting stab of pain and darkness enveloped him…
The next thing he knew he was opening his eyes to see Sasha with the chain and seal in her hand.
“What are … ” A wave of panic whipped through him, but his limbs wouldn’t respond to his command and he realised he was paralysed.
“Hey, take it easy, Andy. I didn’t want to take it off you. I had no choice. You were hardly breathing and I couldn’t wake you.”
Antar glanced at the curtains still drawn across the window to see shards of sunlight creeping through a thin gap. “How long have I been like this?”
“About twenty minutes.”
Antar was suddenly aware that the knocking had started again on the window. This time it was more like pounding.
“That’s what really spooked me — that thing’s going to break the window,” said Sasha. “Can you move?”
Antar grunted as he tried to move an arm. “No.”
“Look, Andy, with the way you are and the situation we’re in, you’re going to have to tell me more about what’s happening here.”
Antar closed his eyes. He could see no way out of the dilemma.
“I can’t tell you everything,” he said. “You have to believe me that I can’t.”
“Then tell me only what I need to know. How can we get out of this otherwise?”
Antar drew a deep breath. “I’m . . . I’m a vigilant.”
“No . . . no a vigilant . . . I’ve never done this before. I don’t really know where to begin.”
“Just tell me what a vigilant is.”
Antar hesitated, gathering his thoughts. “We . . . patrol places. We’re like guards.”
“And your place is St Kilda?”
“Sort of. Mainly Fitzroy Street and some of the area surrounding it.”
“So there are others? Other . . . vigilants.”
Antar closed his eyes again.
“Andy, are you all right?”
“Yes . . . I can’t do this. I can’t tell you these things.”
The knocking echoed through the room.
“At least tell me what you’re guarding against. Is that thing one of them?”
“Yes and no. My vigil is looking for . . . wounds in . . . I can’t explain it . . . there is a threat that only vigilants are aware of. I can see weaknesses in the membrane. I . . . stop the hordes from getting through.”
“Hordes?” Sasha shuddered. “So there are many like that thing outside?”
“You wouldn’t believe how many.”
“What are they?”
“Elementals . . . we call them djinn in my world.”
“What’s your world, Andy?”
“It doesn’t matter. Telling you isn’t going to help us.”
“Arābayya. My world’s called Arābayya.”
“No, they’re not the same.” Antar drew a breath. “You had a bath before, right? A bubble bath?”
Sasha eyed him in confusion. “Yes, why? What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Imagine a desert where each grain of sand is a bubble, a countless number forming and dying and merging every second. Then try to picture each bubble containing a universe the size we’re in now. If you can, you’ll start to get an idea of what I’m talking about.”
“And that thing, that djinn out there, comes from another bubble?”
“Yes, one that shares a membrane with this world. A membrane that’s stretching and thinning, and could be close to breaking so that the two universes become one.”
“And these djinn are trying to break the membrane and get into our . . . bubble . . . like that thing’s trying to get into my house?”
“Yes, but the djinn don’t want to just enter this world. They want to force the new larger bubble into existence so that they can control a larger universe — and then gather their strength to subsume yet another world.”
“Try moving again.”
Antar grunted. “I can’t.”
“All right, Andy, I need to know more. You only ever do your patrols at night, don’t you? Don’t the wounds happen during the day?”
“But it’s daylight out there now and that djinn’s still there. Do they hate daylight?”
“No, far from it. They just don’t attempt a breach during the day because sunlight heals the wounds too quickly. It’s too difficult to tear through the membrane when the sun is shining. Djinn were created from a smokeless fire. They thrive on heat and sun. What they don’t like is artificial light. It shocks them. Even a truly powerful shaitīn like the one outside.”
“What does it want?”
“To kill me — and take that.” Antar pointed to the seal. “Then open up the wounds and let the others in.”
“Hey, you must be recovering.” She touched his hand.
Antar wiggled his fingers with difficulty. “Yes, but I still can’t feel anything below my waist.”
“All right — so artificial light shocks them?”
“Are you thinking of that sensor light at the front?”
“That would stun it for a moment, then make it a little sluggish — but how does that help us?”
“I was hoping you could tell me.”
“The sensor doesn’t come on in full daylight anyway, does it?”
“And it only stays on for a few seconds, so I don’t see . . . ”
“Look, Andy.” Sasha grabbed his arm. “That sensor light jams on every time we have a power cut.”
“So, all we need to hope for is a power cut.”
“No, Andy. Switching the mains off and then on again quickly has the same effect.”
“All right where is the mains switch?”
“In the metre box just outside the front door.”
The pounding on the window was getting louder. The temperature was increasing as the sun started to beat down outside. Antar saw sweat beads across Sasha’s top lip.
“It’s going to break the glass,” said Sasha. “Isn’t it?”
“What happens then?”
“If there’s no physical barrier then it will just walk in.”
Sasha shuddered as she looked up at the drawn curtains.
“The sensor light will stun that thing, won’t it?”
“Yes, but I still can’t move more than my arm. I won’t be able to use the advantage.”
Sasha fell silent for a moment, then said, “No, but I could.”
Antar stared at her incredulously, as he could see she was looking at the seal.
“You don’t know what’s involved here,” he said.
The knocking seemed to bounce backwards and forwards across the walls like a racing heartbeat.
“Just tell me what to do,” said Sasha.
Antar felt the heat swirl around him. He tried desperately to move his legs, but they still wouldn’t respond. “There has to be another way.”
“Come on, Andy, tell me what I have to do.”
“No — it’s foolish. You’ll die.”
The two stared at each other unmoving. Until they heard the shattering of glass.
“Shit, Andy, we’re out of time.”
“All right. You’ll need to push the seal into its forehead. Turn anti-clockwise. Remember that. Anti-clockwise.”
“How long do I turn it for?”
“As long as you can. Don’t look into it’s eyes and keep turning — ”
The sound of more breaking glass shattered the room.
Sasha’s face was suddenly covered in a film of sweat. She raced to the door.
“You think you’re going to get me.” Antar’s voice rang through the hothouse air. “You haven’t got the power. You’ll never have the power.”
The shaitīn punched at the glass with even greater fury at the taunt; and large shards fell through the curtains.
Sasha pushed the front door open. Swinging open the metre box, she pulled out the power point for the front of the house. She prayed her timing would be right . . . waited for a split second . . . and then pushed it back in again.
For a moment nothing happened.
Then the sensor light came on.
The shaitīn let out a pained cry, and covered its eyes with bloodied hands that had been torn by the glass shards.
And the light stayed on.
Sasha ran at the djinn, concealing the seal inside her palm until the last possible moment. In a final lunge, she opened her palm, flew at the shaitīn and pressed the seal into its forehead.
A wail tore through the dense air as the shaitīn overbalanced and sprawled to the ground.
Sasha hung on, flailing as if in a sandstorm, leering faces and blood-red eyes enveloping her. A thousand screams scrambled for escape from inside her head, raging against the unspeakable horror. Then a pair of hands pulled at her. Something tugged at the chain . . . She didn’t have the strength to resist . . .
As her eyes focussed from the blackness, she saw Antar dragging his still limp lower body so that he lay on top of the shaitīn and then pushing the seal deep into its increasingly wavering head.
The shaitīn’s wail thinned to a blade’s edge as it began to die.
Its skin rippled like the desert heat.
Then its body became as insubstantial as a mirage.
And finally it dissolved into the air.
Sasha drew in thick, humid breaths as she lay there. As she got to her feet, Antar’s head turned.
“You’re alive,” she said looking into his eyes.
“In a way.”
“Please tell me that . . . thing . . . is dead now.”
Sasha looked out into the narrow St Kilda backstreet. A car was driving slowly past.
“Come on, Andy, let me help you back inside.” She reached down for him. “And don’t worry, that’s the last time I ask you in for coffee.”
Antar felt the pleasant tingle of her touch as her fingers made contact with his arm.
He closed his eyes. The vigil was never over.
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