This sixteen-chapter novel is a work of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series and the Lost City D&D module. I do not profit from it. It’s a story set prior to the events of the television seasons, before the boys met Eleven. If I learn that the Duffer Brothers or Wizards of the Coast do not appreciate fan fiction of their work, or if either of them order a cease-and-desist, I will pull the story down.
The Lost City — Chapter Thirteen:
The Jihad of Sayid al-Naji
Not bandits, who plagued the village’s environs like locusts, and who were filthy and less disciplined. These warriors were filthy too, in the way of unwashed, but they were uniformly dressed, in black pants and tunics, and they rode their camels in ordered formation. As they got clearer, Mike could make out the robed mullah riding in front, and the standard bearer to his left, bearing the image he didn’t like to see: a silhouette of a palm tree growing in the desert, with a rising moon on the background. The symbol of the Prophet.
Jihadists, no question.
“Stay inside and out of sight!” said Faizan, ready to go out and meet the visitors. His son Malik glared at Mike with the usual contempt. Then they both went outside.
Mike did as they instructed. His presence here put his hosts at extreme risk. He sat in a chair by the hut’s window, and angled himself so that he could watch what was happening without (hopefully) being seen in turn.
Faizan and Malik walked about twenty feet from the front door of their home, and waited as the mullah and warriors – about a score of them – came up to them.
“Peace be upon you,” said the mullah, his voice rasping with hate.
“And upon you as well,” said Faizan neutrally.
“I am Omar, mullah of the Tajha mosque in Sulba. Who are you?”
“I am Faizan Jalal. This is my son Malik. We’re tailors for Suqatra, the village you passed on your way here.”
“Who else lives in this house?” asked the mullah rudely.
“My daughter,” said Faizan. “Areesha.”
“No wives?” asked Omar.
Faizan shook his head. “My Ezma died two years ago. I’ve not remarried.”
“You should,” said the mullah bluntly. “A man needs wives to plow, and a full family keeps a household pure. Pure from blasphemy and hellish beliefs.”
Mike swore under his breath, staying hidden.
“How may I be of assistance, mullah?” asked Faizan in a barely controlled voice.
“It’s been reported that there is an infidel being given sanctuary outside the edge of the village. By you. The rumors say this filthy god-worshiper worships a whore, and he’s been living with you for months. And that he tells strange tales. Tales of a lost city – an abominable city – that was supposed to have been wiped out centuries ago.”
“I tend to ignore rumors,” said Faizan sourly.
“Be sure that our rightly guided Caliph does not ignore them,” said Omar. “When they hit the capital, His Excellency paid close attention. The jihad goes on. There is always unbelief to be rooted out – and pockets of that pestilence hidden where you least expect.”
“I believe in the Truth,” said Faizan proudly. “My family and I have lived by every word of the Raysh, even in the years of the Preceptors.”
“Praise the Prophet for their passing,” said the mullah. “Blaspheming heretics.”
“Yes,” said Faizan. “Praise the Jihad of Sayid al-Naji. My son here served in the war. Last year, when Makistan was taken.”
“And yet you are harboring a god-worshiper?”
Mike tensed by the window.
“I am,” declared Faizan.
“Explain yourself,” barked Omar.
“I am honor bound to provide for the man. He single-handedly rescued both of my daughters from bandits. The bandits had already raped my younger daughter but not Areesha. The unbeliever rescued them both and returned them to me. He slew all of the bandits – eight of them – but they came from a large nest. Many more of the scum tracked him down – here, to my home that afternoon, after they asked around and learned where my daughters lived. Almost twenty of them. The infidel protected my family and slew them all.”
The mullah scoffed. “One man against eight and then twenty? You’re lying. Or those bandits were a pack of cripples.”
“They were all able-bodied and armed,” said Faizan. “Vicious murderers.”
“Bandit scum don’t interest me,” said the mullah dismissively. “A whore worshiper does. An infidel is an infidel. I enforce Yshlimic Law. The Law of the Prophet.”
So it’s true, thought Mike. Clerics were the ultimate authority in these lands. Warriors answered to them. He tried to imagine Kanadius and Pandora being bossed around by priests and priestesses. They would have shouted their clerics down with little effort. Priests did of course have authority in the Cynidicean cults – they led the communities in the underground strongholds – but not in military matters.
“My son and I have been educating the infidel,” said Faizan. “Reading the Raysh. Explaining how everyone in our great Yshlimic nation will be governed only by the Raysh and Yshlimic law. How the Prophet, blessed be his name -”
“Where is he now?” interrupted the mullah. The height of bad manners.
Mike was sweating, not for fear of his own safety – he was nearly invincible – but for the safety of this family who was protecting him. The Raysh was quite clear: those who didn’t follow the Eternal Truth had three options: convert to Yshlim, pay the cordu, or die. Mike would never convert to the barbaric religion of Yshlim, and he had no intentions of paying the cordu either. The cordu was the special tax that unbelievers could pay and live in the Emirates as little better than slaves. The cordu had evolved as a matter of practicality, giving the Yshians their chief source of income as they waged jihad on the world, and it was the means of keeping unbelievers subjected and humiliated. Cordu infidels could not hold positions of authority over Yshians; they could have only menial jobs; they could not build any shrines or temples to their gods; they had to make way if an Yshian approached on the street, and wear the black-and-yellow insignia on their shoulder (it reminded Mike of the Jews in Nazi Germany). While nominally protected, cordu infidels would in practice often be abused or beaten by Yshians with impunity. The cordu tax was by no means a benign practice. It was a mafia racketeer form of “protection”. Mike would burn in the Hells before paying the cordu.
That meant the third option for him, a sentence of death – both on him and any Yshian believer who sheltered him. He wasn’t worried about himself. But he didn’t want this family coming to harm, even though he didn’t really like Faizan and loathed Malik with every fiber of his being. It was Areesha he cared about.
“He is inside the hut,” said Faizan.
“Bring him out,” ordered Omar.
“I will not do that,” said Faizan.
The mullah looked as if he’d been slapped. “What did you say?”
Shit. Mike tightened his grip on the sword hilt strapped at his side. He continued watching through the window.
“The unbeliever is under my protection,” said Faizan, “with full guest rights. I am honor bound to protect him for avenging the honor of my family. The laws of hospitality laid out in the zhariat provide for this.”
The mullah flushed. “Don’t you dare quote the Prophet’s Law to me! Honor debts do not extend to infidels! Especially whore worshipers!”
“I’m not a cleric,” said Faizan. “I don’t know how to debate the holy texts. All I know is that I am a devout Yshian. I believe in the Raysh. I believe that unbelievers should be slain or subjugated with humiliation, just as you do. But I also believe in the virtue of honor, and honor applies to anyone. The unbeliever inside is under my protection, and he will remain so until I deem my debt to him repaid. If this means you will kill me – then blessed be the Prophet – so be it. I am not afraid to die. Nor is my son. We will oppose you and your men if you try to get past us.”
“For now I just want to speak to him,” snapped the mullah.
Faizan considered. “What about?”
“I do not answer to you!”
“Then my answer is no,” said Faizan. “I will not bring him out here.”
Mike sighed, knowing what he would have to do. He left his spot at the window and opened the front door of the hut.
As soon as he stepped outside, the jihadists drew their long bows.
Mike knew that Faizan had meant every word he said to the mullah. He and Malik weren’t afraid to die. They weren’t being cocky just because they knew Mike could have killed these jihadists in his sleep. Even if their guest had been infirm, they would have defended that guest as they were defending Mike now. They were devout Yshians, but they were honorable to a fault.
Yet it was more than honor: Faizan truly didn’t want this matter to escalate. If Mike killed these holy warriors – which he most certainly could have – then the repercussions on the Jalal family, and indeed the entire village of Suqatra, would be devastating. An army of jihadists would return, burn the village to the ground, execute the Falal family, and hunt Mike down. Mike was “nearly invincible”, but the Hand had its limits; its sorcery could be exhausted. His body couldn’t keep absorbing damage non-stop in a small time frame. Twenty men were no problem. Over fifty, he had to start worrying. Over a hundred, he could well be killed.
Mike put his hands in the air. Killing the mullah and these men was definitely out of the question. And he had made promises to himself in any case, when he left the Lost City. He was through with killing – unless it absolutely couldn’t be avoided.
“Keep your hands up, infidel, and come out here slowly,” said Omar.
Mike walked up and stood next to Faizan and Malik. The mullah regarded him hostilely. Mike glared up at him on his camel, coldly.
“You are the unbeliever who has been living here?” asked the cleric. “For months now?”
“Yes,” said Mike. “My name is Mike Wheeler. Mr. Jalal and I have an arrangement and I am not bothering anyone. Those in the nearby village almost never see me.”
“Your presence is bothersome,” said the mullah trenchantly. “It is poison. You are a god-worshiper. Yes?”
“Yes,” said Mike.
“You worship a whore?”
Mike bristled. “I worship Madarua. She’s not a whore.”
“The Whore indeed,” said the mullah. “That name hasn’t been heard in the Emirates for centuries. Since the fall of Cynidicea. And you say you come from Cynidicea? From a city beneath the ruins there?”
Mike cursed Malik for his loose lips. Faizan’s son talked to many friends in the village, and it could only be his gossip that started the rumor chain that eventually, over months, made its way back to the capital. “It’s not much of a city, really,” he lied, “but there are some descendants of the old kingdom down there.”
“Maybe two hundred.”
“Liar,” said the mullah.
Mike flushed, wanting to disembowel the cleric.
“No one has heard of the Prophet in this city?” asked Omar.
“No one,” said Mike.
“Everyone is a god-worshiper?”
“Yes. Most worship Zargon the Devourer. His priests are evil and practice blood sacrifice, which keeps the population controlled. But there are some followers of the old Cynidicean gods: Gorm – god of war, storms, and justice. Madarua – goddess of birth, death, and the seasons. Usamigaras – god of magic, messengers, and thieves.”
“Ah yes,” the mullah’s lips curled in a sneer. “The Brute, the Whore, and the Sneak. The other one is just as false. They are all false. As are you, Mike Wheeler.”
The Brute? Mike almost laughed. He had served in the Brotherhood for three months. Gorm was a teddy bear compared to al-Kalim. The Yshian Prophet had left a trail of more brutality in the past 230 years than any other religion in five times the amount of time. Including probably the Zargonites, who were thoroughly vile, but not expansionist like the Yshians. The demands of Yshlim were clear: the entire world must be brought under the Eternal Truth. It was the Yshian dream – the Dream of the Desert Garden – to wipe out the worship of all deities, so that only the Truth remained; and so that all people everywhere lived under zhariat law. Mike couldn’t imagine a more oppressive vision.
“And there are two entrances to the city?” asked Omar. “The pyramid and the underground tunnels?”
Mike was seething. He should have never revealed so much to his new family. At the time he’d been in the desert only a month, in this backwater region where the greatest threats appeared to be lawless unorganized bandits. He had been clueless then about the land’s politics, the expansionist Yshlimic religion, and the eternal mandate of holy war to which every able-bodied Yshian male was subject. Anyone could be drafted by the mullahs at a moment’s notice. If Caliph al-Naji intended to send huge numbers of jihadists to Cynidicea, things could get ugly. The pyramid entrance was a death trap; it was designed to hold off large numbers of intruders. But if the jihadists found the two hidden entrances outside the ruins, they would have easy access to the undercity. It would be a bloodbath. Unless Will could be triggered to unleash the Eye… but that could spell disaster for everyone.
“There’s only one entrance,” said Mike. “The pyramid. I don’t know -”
“Liar,” said the mullah. “Where exactly are the hidden tunnels?”
“I said I don’t know,” lied Mike.
“We’re going to find them anyway.”
“I said there’s only one -”
“What happened to your hand?” asked the mullah.
“What?” said Mike, caught off guard.
“Your hand. Why is it black, unlike the rest of you?”
“It’s… nothing. Just a birth defect.”
“Liar,” said the mullah. “It’s the mark of a sorcerer, isn’t it? It’s how you killed all the bandits that your host speaks of.”
“I’m not a sorcerer,” said Mike.
The mullah smiled. “Do you think you could kill me and my men? Single-handedly?”
I could send you all to Hell barely lifting a finger. “I’m not interested in starting a fight.”
“Do you think I fear you?” taunted the mullah.
I think you’re too stupid to be scared. Though that wasn’t true; Mike knew better by now. Stupidity had nothing to do with it. To die while killing – or trying to kill – infidels was the greatest glory for any Yshian. It guaranteed a believer everlasting life in the Eternal Garden.
Once Mike had finally grasped that idea – in one of his long evening conversations with Faizan – he’d realized how terrifying Yshian society was. It was one thing to esteem dying in a good battle. Gorm and Madarua – hell, any warrior deity – took that view. But to reward the murder of innocent people, for the crime of unbelief (belonging to a different religion) – and to reward dying for that cause as the highest act of righteousness – that took the guardrails off civilization. Jihadists couldn’t be reasoned with; they welcomed death with open arms.
“No,” said Mike, answering honestly for a change. “I don’t think you fear me at all.”
The mullah laughed. “You’re going to die, infidel. Not today, perhaps, but when Faizan Jalal decides that his debt to you is repaid, I will be sure to have more than enough men ready to act. Try your sorcery against hundreds of Yshians waiting to take your head. Faizan!”
“Yes, mullah?” Faizan looked like he was swallowing bile.
“For how long do you consider yourself in the infidel’s debt?”
“For a year, mullah,” said Faizan. “Considering all he did for us. He has been with us for three months. So nine more months.”
“The Caliph may have something to say about your honor debt.”
“I will do as His Excellency commands, if it comes to that,” said Faizan. “But short of a command from Sayid al-Naji himself, I will not revoke Mike Wheeler’s guest rights. I repeat: I am a loyal Yshian and I follow the Prophet. I reject god-worshiping as an abomination. I believe in the Raysh and its commands to kill unbelievers like Mike Wheeler. But I am also civilized. I know what honor demands. And I believe that Truth can reveal itself to an infidel in mysterious ways.”
“Save your hot air for your prayers. You’ll need them.” The mullah looked back to Mike. “Seeing you has confirmed the rumors for me, despite your obvious lies. I got what I came for. We’ll be leaving now.” He turned to go.
“Wait,” said Mike. “What do you intend to do about Cynidicea? The people who live there are no threat to you at all. They just want to be left alone.” He already knew the answer. The Caliphate didn’t wage wars for defensive purposes, but to fulfill the Raysh’s command to spread Yshlim to every corner of the world, and slay or convert people accordingly.
The mullah replied: “The people there are every threat – to the Truth and to themselves. We will bring the jihad to Cynidicea, put an end to god-worship, and slay those who refuse to heed the Prophet’s words. Those who accept Yshlim will be brought out onto the surface and assimilated into the desert, as true Yshians.” He spat on the ground. “In the meantime, Faizan Jalal, think carefully for how long you wish to associate with this man. He’s a liar, a whore lover, and a sorcerer.”
The mullah and his warriors turned their camels and left.
“Father!” yelled Malik. “That was a disgraceful interview!”
“You question my judgment?” yelled Faizan. “Are you a man of honor or not?”
They had returned inside as soon as the mullah and his jihadists were gone. Areesha had emerged from her bedroom, having heard the entire altercation outside through her window. She sat next to Mike, who held her hand, while Faizan and Malik stood shouting.
“Well, are you?” repeated Faizan. “A man of honor? Or an uncivilized barbarian?”
“I am honorable!” yelled Malik. “And I am not afraid to die! But father, think of the shame this brings on our name – our village! The jihadists will likely come back and burn Suqatra to the ground! If they’re not doing it right now.” He glared at Mike.
Mike squeezed Areesha’s hand softly and put his arms around her, just to infuriate her brother.
“If they come to burn us, then daja is daja,” said Faizan.
Daja was a concept found in the Raysh. To Mike it seemed self-contradictory, meaning luck and fate; something given to chance but also destined.
“Daja is daja,” agreed Malik, “and the purity of this household is under our control!”
“We live as we should,” said Faizan simply, “and let daja take care of itself.”
“And are we really to be in Mike’s debt for nine more months?” asked Malik.
“I’m right here, Malik,” said Mike. You piece of shit.
“Oh yes,” sneered Malik. “You’re always here. Eating our food, devouring our hospitality, feasting your lecher’s eyes on my sister. By the Prophet, you will never marry her!”
Mike took abuse from Malik all the time, but there were limits to what he would tolerate. “I treat Areesha with respect. Which is more than I can say for you.” He regretted it as soon as he said it.
“What did you say to me?” yelled Malik. He towered over Mike in his seat. “You dare challenge me in my own house?”
I’d kill you, you flaming bigot, but your sister would never forgive me. Mike was in love with Areesha, and thus the whole problem.
“Malik,” said Faizan. “Go outside and clean up the barn.”
“He dares insult me!” Malik was livid.
“It’s been a hard day for us all,” said his father. “I’m sure Mike didn’t mean what he said just now.” He looked at Mike expectantly.
You’re right. I meant far worse. Mike cleared his throat. “I apologize, Malik. You are an honorable man and an honorable brother. And I am ignorant. Still. Please forgive me. I am grateful for the life you and your family have provided me here.”
Malik scowled. Then he stalked outside to finish chores.
“Father, please may I ask,” said Areesha, when her brother was gone, “the mullah has the information he needs, correct? He said as much to Mike. He came looking for confirmation about Cynidicea. So he will leave us alone, yes?”
“No, you may not ask,” said Faizan. “You ask far too many questions. A woman should hold her tongue and listen. You may leave this room, is what you may do. Now.”
“Yes, Father,” she said. “I’m sorry.” She got up and left obediently, heading into the kitchen.
Mike got up to follow her, but Faizan stopped him. “I haven’t dismissed you. Sit down.”
Mike sat, simmering.
Faizan looked at him. “Malik can be difficult. And Areesha is a pest.”
Malik is a wad of fifty hemorrhoids. And Areesha is pure grace.
“You have nothing to say to me?” snapped Faizan.
Mike flushed. “I feel like I’m a burden to you most of the time. And I put your lives at risk today. I’m sorry for it.”
“Our lives were put at risk the first day you came here. Your filthy god-worshiping presence. Our lives were put at risk a week later, when my stupid idiot son shot off his mouth about you down in the village. Daja, and gossip, took care of it from those points.”
“Should I have killed them?” asked Mike.
Faizan raised an eyebrow. “What do you think?”
I don’t know. I wanted to kill them. Anything to stop or delay the jihad being sent against Cynidicea. “I think if I had killed them, your whole village area would suffer.”
Faizan laughed. “If you’d killed them, every one of us in ten square miles would be crucified. But I’m asking about you. You’re concerned for your friends.” He wasn’t asking, he was stating.
“Yes,” said Mike. “I mean, Will can see everything, so I guess he knows what’s coming. I guess. But I don’t know. I don’t know how everything is there.” Or if Will is even okay. For all I know, he’s catatonic again and can’t share information with anyone.
Faizan grunted and shifted in his chair. “I’ll remember your friends in my prayers. I pray with all my heart that this Lost City you come from is demolished and laid waste, and that survivors embrace the Eternal Truth. But I hope your friends are spared the slaughter.”
“Thank you,” said Mike.
“Are you leaving us?” the old man asked bluntly.
“What? No, of course not.” The wounds there were still too fresh. He’d killed his best friend. There was no coming home after that. Or to she who betrayed him.
“Liar,” said Faizan, without any malice. “I believe you’ll go back. You’ve been away from your friends for four months now. Can’t avoid your problems forever. You’re welcome to stay here for another nine months, as I’ve said. But this home has become a crutch for you, in a land that clearly isn’t for you. And I think you know that.”
Later, Mike went outside to use the latrine. It was far down from the hut and past the barn. When he got to the latrine, he heard someone behind him. He stopped and turned around. It was Malik, raw with rage.
“Malik, I’m sorry for -”
The sword came out of nowhere, fast and unexpected. It buried itself into Mike’s neck, and Mike staggered a bit. Anyone else would have been fountaining red, but only a few specks of blood flew from Mike. Anyone else would have been killed, but Mike’s gash was already healing as Malik drew back for another swing.
Furious and fed up – Malik had never assaulted him before – Mike seized the sword blade and yanked it from Malik’s grip. His hand barely bled from the slice he gave himself. He flipped it so that he held the hilt and then with the speed of a ninja swung the blade at Malik’s neck. He stopped it less than an inch away. Barely in time.
Malik didn’t flinch at all. His eyes poured venom as the blade hovered by his neck.
Mike threw the sword on the ground. “So much for your fucking honor, asshole.”
Malik was unfazed. “If you had continued the blow, you would have decapitated me. Yes?”
“Of course,” said Mike.
“Then why did you stop? You hate me, yes?”
“I don’t like killing.” And I don’t want your sister to hate me. Or be on difficult terms with your father, who is more than enough difficult as it is.
“I have killed many, doing the Prophet’s work,” said Malik. “In the jihad last year, when Makistan was still in rebellion. And I will kill many more – enemies of Yshlim, infidels like yourself. ” He picked his sword up off the ground. “It was daja that stopped your blow, nothing more. Not your womanish feelings. And I am a man of honor. I wasn’t trying to kill you, because I know it takes an army to harm you. I was seeing if you were man enough to kill me. You are not.” He turned to go back in the barn, and then stopped to look again at Mike. “If those jihadists come back here, it’s on you.” Then he stalked off.
He’s a devil, thought Mike. There’s naught in him that makes him a worthy human being.
It was getting harder to control his animosity towards Malik. He couldn’t believe he’d lasted three months under the same roof with him. He had wanted to kill Malik the first day he met him. That horrible day, and a crucial turning point for Mike, when he rescued Areesha and her younger sister.
He replayed that monstrous event whenever he looked at Malik. He saw a demon in that face, but it was really just the face of Yshlim.
He’d been riding his horse Legba around the outskirts of the village when he saw the bandits. Eight of them, assaulting two girls on their walk home. They were already raping one of them. Immediately Mike charged, astonishing the ruffians who couldn’t believe that a single man was willing to take them on. Mike leaped off his horse and slaughtered every one of them in due course. The older girl identified herself as Areesha Jalal. She was grateful, but the younger one, Haniya, had been violated by three of the men. Areesha told Mike where they lived, and Mike had put them both on Legba and walked them home.
When they got there, Faizan and Malik flew out the front door, appalled. Mike introduced himself and explained what happened, as Haniya stood wailing in her sister’s arms. At first the men thought Mike was lying. An infidel who defended the honor of two girls by killing eight men all by himself? Areesha swore by the Prophet that everything Mike said was true.
Hearing her oath, Faizan and Malik thanked Mike for avenging the family honor. Then Malik drew his sword, grabbed Haniya, and thrust his blade through the girl’s stomach and out her back. Mike exploded and drew his sword.
“No!” yelled Areesha, grabbing Mike’s arm. “Do not!”
Mike whirled on her. “Are you insane?”
“Please don’t interfere!” said Areesha. “Haniya brought shame on our family. Malik has restored our honor.”
Mike gaped at her. “What do you mean? What on earth did she do?” What could a fourteen-year old girl do to deserve being raped and killed?
“She did nothing,” cried Areesha. “She was defiled.”
Mike stood shell shocked as Areesha continued weeping, Malik carried away his sister’s corpse, and Faizan came up to Mike and took the sword from his hand. He was unable to process what he had just witnessed. A brother had just murdered his sister in cold blood, for being an innocent victim of the worst crime. It made no sense at all.
And it was in that moment – of his twenty-second day in the desert – that Mike Wheeler had seen Yshian culture for what it was. Not just “radically different”, but objectively inhumane, and not remotely comparable to what he’d left behind. Cynidicean culture was medieval, to be sure, but Mike had adapted to it. He had looked on it, dealt with it, and found reasonable answers for it in his philosophy. So had his friends. But the hurts he had seen on the desert surface went beyond that, and the sight of an honor-killing shattered him completely. His hatred for Yshlim would be reinforced over the next few months, as he learned about jihad and other demands of the Raysh. Mike was neither naive nor pacifistic. He’d been a Brother of Gorm, for Christ’s sake, and now a Maiden of Madarua. But those war cults didn’t endorse systematic murder. They didn’t punish women who were raped; they didn’t execute homosexuals as criminals; and they didn’t kill people for simply having different religious beliefs. The Zargonites were evil, but if you could avoid the sacrificial knife, you could find a measure of happiness in the Cynidicean underworld – retreat into imagination and party your life away. Hell, the Zargonites encouraged it. Yshian life was innately cruel, and an open reminder of that cruelty. Mike saw all of this at once, in the moment Haniya was cut open by her brother.
It was also in that moment he had fallen hard in love with Areesha.
He was allowed to hold and kiss her, but only indoors. Sex was off the board, and he was not permitted in her bedroom. Her sexual honor was the family’s honor, and Mike had to accept that, or he could say good-bye and never see her again. He couldn’t possibly not see her again.
He had held her for a long time after his turning moment. He’d only just met her, but he was at once in love and fiercely territorial. He would be her guardian, lest she too fall prey to the obscene demands of honor. Faizan and Malik agreed to his request. They owed him a colossal debt. He had killed Haniya’s attackers, and then many more of the scum when they came calling for blood. Faizan offered Mike a place in his home: food, a place on the floor to sleep, and the guardianship of Areesha. In effect this made Mike the bodyguard for the Jalal family, whenever the men were at home. Areesha seldom walked outside beyond the house anymore, and never without Mike’s protection.
Malik had choked on some of this. He didn’t like his father’s concessions with Areesha. Mike had done the Jalals great honor, yes, but he was still an infidel, and Areesha was Malik’s sister. He didn’t like Mike touching her at all. Faizan silenced him, his voice slashing the air. This was his house, and he set the rules. He declared his terms reasonable and weighed proportionately to what Mike had done. Malik would abide by these terms, or he would be lashed by his father for disobedience.
Because of this arrangement, Mike had been able to carve out some joy in a joyless land. For three months he and Areesha had laughed with each other, held each other, and occasionally kissed each other. They talked about their lives, and marveled at the other’s values. Mike told her about America, and she didn’t believe most of what he was describing. The United States sounded like a fairy tale. But she believed what he said about Cynidicea. She told him about the Yshian way of life in the Emirates; there was virtually nothing redeemable about it. He told her as much many times.
“You’re a nation of murderers,” he said one morning, as he held her on the couch. The men had gone to the village.
“No, Mike,” she said, always patient with him. “We are not murderers. Life and death are the same in the Eternal Truth. And for those who reject the Truth, better that they die and not spread their false beliefs like a contagion.”
“I don’t accept the Eternal Truth,” said Mike. “I reject your Prophet. So you think I should die?”
“I don’t know everything,” said Areesha. “I believe there is hope for you, otherwise why would daja have made you part of this family?”
My fucking Hand made me part of this family. “I’m here because I love you.”
She kissed his cheek. “I love you too. But you misjudge us.”
Misjudge, my ass. He tried to imagine his sister Nancy getting raped, and then being honor-bound to kill her for bringing “dishonor” upon herself and her family. He smoldered with fury that any society could operate that way.
Aliens and worlds apart. It was no obstacle to how they felt for each other. They enjoyed their talks, and their disagreements. And during this time – his exile, as he came to think of it – Mike rarely thought of the Lost City. Opening those wounds was too much. He dreamt of Lucas some nights, and woke in a sweat, hating himself. The way he saw it, he deserved to be exiled in this terrible land. He dreamt of Jilanka other nights, and woke in a fever, wanting to barge into Areesha’s bedroom and take her with fury. He never did; he respected his host’s terms. Sex would have trivialized their relationship anyway – diminished it, even. They shared something better than that.
But on the day after the jihadists came, there was a change in the air between them. The threat of holy war forced questions about Mike’s self-imposed exile. He didn’t want to talk about it but Areesha refused him the convenience of denial.
“You need to go back, Mike.”
“You’re hiding here.”
“Areesha, I love you,” he said.
“I love you, Mike. But there’s no future for us. You know this. You will never be Yshian. Our time together has been so wonderful for me. But we’ve been playing, like kids – that’s all.”
“No… we haven’t,” he protested. Don’t do this.
“We have,” she said. “You might stay another nine months, but to what end? Your friends need you. The people in the pyramid need you.”
“I thought you wanted a chance to convert me,” he said.
“I know you abhor Yshlim,” she said. “There’s no path for you here in the Emirates.”
“So you want me to go back to help my people against a jihad that you hope will defeat them.”
“I want you where you belong,” said Areesha. “Life and death are the same, Mike. Be at peace with that. Always remember me. I’ll never forget you.”
They both cried then as they held each other, knowing he would be off the next day.
Next Chapter: Torn Asunder
(Previous Chapter: Warriors of the Eternal Truth)