The night was dark and empty, no moon floating over the ragged desert hills, not even stars; no bird calls, no crickets, no wind. The traveler’s lantern was a lonely bastion of light against the blackness that towered around him, and his steps made the only sound for miles.
Under the traveler’s sandaled feet, the ground felt smooth and polished, as if he followed some ancient road – but when he looked down, the lantern only revealed sand and rocks. Five days since his caravan had been attacked; five days since he last saw a living soul.
The traveler stopped when he heard something, a slithering sound, as if some snake or lizard was approaching him in the dark. He held out his light, and his heart almost stopped when he found the origin of the sound: a half-naked man cowering on a big stone formation, eyes gleaming, his smile unveiling sharp jackal-teeth.
“A traveler so late at night, so late … it’s dangerous to wander this desert alone.” The stranger’s tongue moved between his lips like a fat, glistening worm that feared the lantern light. “I can guide you to safety, to my city, if you want. Come, come, it isn’t far.”
The man jumped down from his seat and hobbled away, and the traveler had no choice but to follow.
“Here, here, you see?”
There were lights ahead, but strangely sparse and weak for a city this size. Monumental walls and statue-topped battlements stretched to both sides of a huge gateway, and almost without sound, the traveler and his guide passed between them.
“This, you know, it’s a place for you to stay, to rest, to relax.” The worm-like tongue appeared again and left trails of saliva that dried on the man’s chin.
They had reached a building with curtained windows, through which red light shone onto the street. The stranger knocked on the heavy wooden door, and almost immediately, a shrouded woman opened.
“Ah, you brought us a guest. Please, come in: You can eat and drink with us, and there are always empty beds under our roof.”
Weary, the traveler followed them inside, and they led him to a dim living room lined with thick carpets and tapestries. A table in the middle held food of all sorts, bread, soup, spiced meat and exotic fruits as well as steaming pots of tea. The man and the woman patiently observed the traveler, and after his five days of loneliness, he was too hungry and thirsty to resist the temptation. Soon after, all three of them were eating and drinking, joking and telling stories; and all in all, they didn’t seem to be bad people.
“You have eaten well, very well.” The man moistened his thin lips, licked over his sharp teeth and pointed to one of the doors. “If you want to sleep, there is a room now for you, upstairs.”
They climbed up through a wooden stairwell, and the traveler was shown to a clean, tidy room with a bed, a washing trough and not much else.
“Sleep now, and we will talk in the morning. Be glad that you found me out there, for the desert is unforgiving.”
The traveler thanked him, laid down, and closed his eyes. It wasn’t long before he fell asleep; and when he woke up again, he faced the horror.
The ceiling above him was not the same as it had been in the night: the sunlight exposed crags and fissures, whole stones that had fallen down and left gaping holes in the masonry. When the traveler tried to get up, the bed crumbled under his touch, fossilized wood turning into clouds of ash that made him cough.
He stumbled through the room, over rotten floorboards and the colorless remains of rugs, then out of the door and down the stairs. The entire building seemed to have decomposed over night, and it was now ripe with a stench of ancient death, of flesh that had long been mummified by the sun and withered away in the heat.
The traveler reached the basement and fled out to the streets, into the dune-covered remains of a fallen city. The once great walls had been turned into fields of rubble, the towers collapsed under their own weight, the streets ruled by drifting sand and dust devils.
The traveler wanted to open his mouth and cry for help, but his tongue felt suddenly strange and foreign; and the words that came out between his lips were in a language that he had never heard before, and couldn’t understand.
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