Short Story: Mr Merrick

Iran, 1971

The heat from the sun was intolerable. The blinding rays struck the arid landscape like the endless pounding of a heated waterfall, scorching everything in sight, turning the grainy surface of the undulating sand dunes into a beige sheet of burning grit. There was no wind. There was no sound. He could hear only his own staggering footfalls as the sand hissed under his feet with each step, spreading out around his ankle each time his foot sank beneath its scalding surface. Though he was covered head to toe in swathes of fabric, the sun’s reach seemed to enter past his skin and pierce into his flesh, cooking him alive. Sweat soaked him, droplets clinging to his eyebrows and stinging his dehydrated eyeballs. He had no idea how long he had been walking for or where he was heading; only the delirium of the last few nights prevented him from stopping. A mass of virulent fear lurking within his heart, streaked with guilt and self-hatred. The small bundle strapped to his torso beneath the protective covering of his cloak had long since stopped moving. He dared not touch it, afraid that he would pull back the folds of fabric and find it dead with flies crawling over its tragic facial features the way he had managed to crawl over the desert dunes since dawn. At first, it had seemed like a good idea to run away, but after several hours walking in the heat and spending the night shivering in the freezing cold, he was starting to think that perhaps there had been a better option than this. Maybe he would be fortunate and death would come gently.

The pale sky above the horizon rippled as though water flowed across its dazzling face. He could see a dark shape beyond, although the currents of heat that swept this desolate land made it difficult for him to determine just what it was. It looked like a temple. Perhaps he was hallucinating; the irony of what he saw only furthered his certainty that fate was mocking him. His parents and the wife he had murdered were horrified and disappointed by his lack of faith. Now he believed that his lack of faith was what had lead him to this very situation, that if he had only listened, this never would have happened. His mind had become disoriented, disillusioned and confused, leaving him lost in this wasteland of self-doubt and misery.

For an hour more, he walked, the ruin in the distance seeming further and further away, but finally its details became apparent through the mirage. He could make out the gigant shapes of two Lamassu statues either side of a doorless gateway, and beyond, a mostly roofless structure that looked as if it had been abandoned hundreds of years ago to be reclaimed by the desert. Raking his sore tongue over the cracked skin of his dessicated lips, he paused to take a breath. Something bright flashed from within the damaged walls. Was there someone down there amongst those ruins? It would be a good place to seek refuge from the sun.

Hysterical need took control, and somehow he summoned a final dredge of desperate energy from somewhere inside him, spurring him into hurrying across the flat stretch of sweltering ground towards the lone structure. His lungs, invaded by the burning air, felt as though they were being eaten away, making it hard to breathe as he ran. Though his steps were lethargic, it took only twenty minutes for him to make it, and as soon as he stepped into the shadow cast by the towering temple walls, the temperature dropped and a shudder ran through him. The human faces of the Lamassu were badly disfigured by the abrasive sand-filled winds, but somehow their eyes still regarded him with threatening mistrust. Their bull bodies were partially damaged, holes and pieces missing from their neatly folded wings. One of them was missing a front hoof. There was something unsettling about them, and silently he asked permission to pass through the doorway, half-expecting them to spring to life and prevent him from entering. He could see within what had flashed in the sun; a metal pan hanging over a dead fire-pit, its scratched surface reflecting beams of light through the gaps in the crumbling walls. Someone was here, he was sure of it.

“Hello?” he called as he stood in the gaping mouth of the open doorway.

There came no answer. He took a few more steps forward, reappearing once more into the blazing sun, which forced him to lift his hand and shield his eyes. His heart was thumping and if he was not so dehydrated, he might have shed tears, for there in front of him, beneath what remained of the stone structure’s roof, was a small canvas tent. Something didn’t seem right, though. There was a strange feeling about this place, and he did not feel completely alone; there was the sensation of eyes watching, as though many strangers were hidden within the walls, observing his every movement. The four dilapidated walls of the ruin enclosed a flat sand dune, the floor of this ancient holy place hidden beneath the ever shifting grains, and although all that remained were the remnants of some long lost religion, he still felt this temple was deserving of respect. He had no idea what gods to beseech, what gods had been appeased here. Breathing deeply, he began to walk across the flat space within, until his eyes picked up something odd. Several metres away, right in the very centre, was something pale within the sand, something partially buried.

As he approached, he realised his hands were shaking. The closer he got, the more intense his fear became, the more intense the desire to run away became, and the fiercer the shaking that swept through his parched muscles. There, emerging from beneath the ground, was a face. Its oval shape was so perfect and immaculately white that the sun reflecting off its white surface became as dazzling as the prism shining through a diamond. It looked like a mask, carefully placed there in the middle of this abandoned temple, perhaps by whoever had occupied the small campsite nearby.

Cautiously, he moved closer, each step tentatively bringing him nearer to the strange object. The closer he got, the more apparent an uncomfortable prickling sensation in the air became, and soon he felt as though his entire body was covered in crawling insects, their tiny, scuttling legs like microscopic razors cutting through his flesh. His ears picked up on some unknowable sound, a bass humming with no apparent source. This place was cursed, he was sure of it, but where else could he go? If he walked into the desert again, death awaited him. When he had first spotted the ruin in the distance, his desire for death had quickly dissipated and been replaced with the determination for survival he thought he had long lost hold of. He looked around listlessly, deciding it would be a good idea to check out the contents of the tent first, before making any other decisions. As he was doing so, he felt the sand beneath him shift slightly as though a tremor in the earth had caused the tiny grains to slide, and he looked down at the object he towered over. Terror suddenly gripped him, his heart missing a single beat before it began to palpitate madly, pumping an influx of adrenaline that caused his trembling to escalate.

The face, the handsome Renaissance features of which were ambiguous in gender, had come alive. Its eyelids had parted, and two bright blue eyes stared up at him, the elongated, goatlike irises flexing as they adjusted to the bright daylight. Frozen with terror, he could only stand and stare back. The sand around the face began to slip, and slowly a head rose out of the ground, forcing him to stumble backwards with a shrieking cry. Torrents of sand streamed from the closely shaven scalp of a black skull, pouring down the jet-coloured form of a thickly muscled arm as it thrust through the pool of loose sand it had been buried in, a gnarled, taloned hand slapping down on the ground to enable enough leverage for the creature to pull itself free. Its head turned and it stared at him, its lips finally parting to reveal the moist tongue and gleaming blunt teeth within.

“What do you want!” it exclaimed. The voice was purring, smooth as silk and with an accent that was hard to determine. It spoke Farsi fluently, yet it sounded otherworldly.

“Please don’t hurt me!” the man cried back as he lay on his side, afraid that if he chose to run, the creature would chase after him.

The thing eyed him, looking him up and down. It was unlike anything he had seen before, its naked skin the colour of coal and covered in cracks like the scales of a lizard, yet its face was as delicate and beautiful as a virgin maiden. A covering of shorn hair was visible on its scalp, but there was no other hair on its body. It began to rise again, sliding out of the hole it had slept in, revealing its dense, muscular torso and a long, slithering tail that lifted out into the scorching sunshine.

“What is your name?” it questioned as it turned its body to face him. Its clawed hands lay flat either side of the pit, ready to hoist it free.

“Mirrikh! My name is Mirrikh!” the man gasped.

“You have done a foolish thing to wake me, Mr Mirrikh” it replied.

“I—I’m sorry, I will leave immediately, p—please allow me safe passage!” he pleaded, every fibre of his body urgent to flee, but he found himself paralysed on the spot.

The demon began to rise again, revealing a pair of powerful legs and large, humanlike genitalia. It did not care for its nudity, ignorant of Mirrikh’s frightened yet curious gaze as it climbed to its reptilian feet before him, its tail swaying either side of it.

“If you are here with the intention of robbery, I have nothing of value to you” it spoke, turning at the waist and gesturing towards the tent.

Mirrikh managed to scramble to his knees so that he could bend and prostrate himself before the demon, its shadow relieving him from the heat of the sun. “Please can you help me…Please, I am lost and…And…”

“And you are not alone, either” it looked down at him, its smooth face bearing an unimpressed expression. “What is it you carry there?”

He clutched the hidden bundle beneath his cloak tightly, afraid that the demon would take it from him and devour it. When he didn’t answer, he startled at the touch of clawed fingertips on his shoulder, flinching backwards to find the stranger was crouching before him.

“If it is a child, I must see it at once” it told him coolly.

It leaned closer, pulling back the folds of fabric that shielded the lifeless body he had carried, revealing the unconscious face of a dark-haired baby. Its mouth was open, a yellowish scum covering its tongue and its eyes encrusted with dried tears. Finally witnessing what he had done to his son, Mirrikh began to weep uncontrollably, a gasping sob escaping through clenched teeth as he allowed the stranger to pull the child’s body free from his sling, and he watched helplessly as the demon got up and turned to head towards the tent.

“Please don’t hurt him!” he suddenly cried, struggling to his feet and chasing after the demon as it walked away. The stranger didn’t answer, it only ignored him as he caught up and stumbled alongside it, panting and manic with shameful tears.

“How long since the child stopped crying?” it eventually questioned as they reached the shade created by the holey temple roof.

“I—I don’t know” Mirrikh stammered. “I thought—I thought he was sleeping. I didn’t pay any attention…”

The demon made a hissing sound and glanced at him with a glowering scowl. “Did you want it to die! What kind of moron could pay no attention to the silence of a dying child! You deserve to die out here! You fool!”

“I’m sorry!” he whimpered. He knew he was a fool. He hadn’t been thinking straight at all since the catastrophe. Everything he had ever held dear was gone, except for his six month old son, and yet he had brought him out here, to the middle of nowhere, where both were headed towards their doom.

“Sorry does not undo what is” the demon muttered.

Mirrikh stared fixated at the limp body of his baby, his arms and legs dangling and head lolling from side to side as the scaly-skinned creature carried him. It bent and dragged a cushion out from within the tent, placing it down on the cool sand before gently laying the baby upon it and carefully unbuttoning his poppered pyjama suit.

“Who—who are you?” he asked after a moment of silence.

“You will know my name when you are trusted” the demon replied in a murmur as he pulled the clothing from the motionless child and chucked it on the ground. “Go into my tent and fetch a flagon of water. Hurry now.”

Still physically shaking, Mirrikh did as he was told. With the nappy also removed, the demon then poured water into a tin bowl and using a tattered hand towel, soaked it through and laid it over the baby’s naked body.

“Why have you taken such a small child from his mother?” it eventually questioned, its luminous eyes glancing up at the terrified father who knelt before him.

“His mother is dead…” he whispered, his face screwing up as he began to weep. He bent forward, clutching his head as the sobs shook through him.

A glimmer of what might have been sympathy appeared in the demon’s eyes as it watched the man crying. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

“I am a useless father…”

“Yes, but there is time to reverse that” it told him encouragingly.

“No…I cannot reverse it. It’s a part of me now and I can’t undo it…” he insisted as he rubbed at his sore eyes with the palms of his hands. “I killed his mother, and I killed my parents too. I ran away because I have become a monster…”

The demon looked at him silently as its clawed hands continued to wet the cloth that clung to the child before it, keeping a close observation on the shallow rise and fall of the infant’s chest.

“I am a monster. Perhaps more than you are. I can’t go back now; there is no way to reverse what has happened. I ran away without a single thought. A part of me thought that my son had already died in my arms, and yet I was too afraid to look, because if I found that he was still living, I knew I would have to face that he would soon die…I am a useless father…I can’t care for my own son…”

The stranger did not speak a word. Mirrikh pulled his dust-stained keffiyeh down from his face and pushed it back from his head, allowing the greasy tails of his thick black hair to fall about his deeply lined face. The demon was better able to see the man’s shockingly lime-green eyes, and was surprised that he appeared much older than it had first thought, a man in his late thirties perhaps and not in his twenties as the demon has assumed. There was some sparse grey smattering at Mirrikh’s temples, and the wrinkles on his face told the demon he had lived a harsh life. Somehow, his weeping had managed to summon several gemlike tears to Mirrikh’s vividly coloured eyes, and they twinkled as he attempted to blink them away.

“You are afflicted” the stranger answered as it took up a battered tin mug and poured some water into it. Mirrikh expected it to feed the water to his child, but it instead offered the cup to him.

“Thankyou…” he breathed as he accepted it, and as he brought the cup to his split lips, he remembered how agonisingly thirsty he was. In one go, he drank the contents of the cup, before lowering it once more and sighing. “Yes, I am afflicted by a curse.”

“You were bitten” the demon spoke again. It did not ask questions; it instead said the words as though giving a statement.

“I was. How did you know?”

“I smell blood on you. And from your story. And from the dark shadow that now lives inside of you” it responded emotionlessly.

“A dark shadow inside me?” Mirrikh mumbled.

The demon nodded.

“How do you know? How can you see it?” he whimpered, wondering if it would be wise to ever look at his own reflection again.

“Go and rest. I will speak with you later. You are exhausted and hysterical, and your son is my priority at present” it dismissed him irritably as it pointed a talon towards the tent.

The stern authoritative tone of the stranger’s voice prevented him from protesting. Mirrikh looked down at his baby, alarmed to see that his tiny hands were twitching and his toothless mouth was opening and closing. Even though he was scared that the stranger might hurt the child, he decided it would be better to obey, and so slothfully, he crawled to his feet and went to the doorway of the tent. Inside, it was cool and dim, and in the middle of the narrow floorspace was a camping cot, a folded blanket and pitifully thin pillow placed at one end. A hiking pack lay on the ground beside it, along with a heap of folded clothes and a lidded crate. There was a second flagon of water tucked in the corner where he had found the first one. Shedding layers of dirty fabric, Mirrikh collapsed on the creaking bed in a sweat-soaked t-shirt and y-fronts, his feet throbbing angrily after having their socks unceremoniously torn off. It felt like a century he had been walking through the sand, leaving behind the modern comforts of civilisation and the crime scene he had made of his family home. Closing his eyes, Mirrikh fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

For several hours, he moved not a single muscle, soothed by the silence of the desert, until finally there came a familiar sound through the blackness of his sleeping mind.

A child crying.

Groaning, he sat up and rubbed at his eyes. The harsh daylight had grown duller and shadows were creeping into the chill atmosphere of the tent. His joints ached as he got up and shuffled outside, discovering the stranger from before sitting nearby; it had put the cushion against the ruin wall and was leaning against it, a wrapped shape cradled in its muscled arms. Sensing that he had awoken, its head turned towards him.

“Is he…Is he alright?” Mirrikh whispered.

“He’s doing fine now” the demon replied quietly. He turned, lifting the baby’s head so that his large green eyes could meet with his father’s. Mirrikh rushed forward, kneeling before them so that he could bend and kiss his son’s cheeks, fresh tears of joy spilling down his own.

“Thankyou! Thankyou so much!” he gasped, gazing up at the pale face of the creature.

“You are very fortunate, indeed. The child was close to death” it replied.

Mirrikh nodded gravely and sank down to the ground, his hands limp in his lap as he contemplated; before sleep had taken him, many terrible thoughts had circulated in his mind and only sheer exhaustion had banished them. He wanted to ask this demon, this thing who despite being ghastly in appearance, was both knowledgeable and kind, if it would consider taking his son from him. Mirrikh knew that at some point he would have to leave this place. His child had already come close to death once more, and he knew that if they left here together, he would surely die next time. Besides, as the demon had said, a shadow lived inside him now. He was cursed to transform again, to turn into a violent beast bent on slaughter, and if that happened while in the desert, he was certain that he would turn on the defenceless baby and potentially eat him.

“Will…Will you take him…? I know I will kill him if he stays with me…” he eventually answered. The words were hard to speak aloud but he knew he must say them.

“You wish for me to keep your child?” the demon sounded astonished.

Mirrikh nodded his head and lifted it, wiping his messy hair from his teary eyes. “I don’t know when I might change again.”

“Sit. I will make you some tea” it changed subject as it rose to its feet and offered the infant to him. Mirrikh was surprised by how delicately the stranger’s taloned hands handled the precious bundle, precise and sure as the baby was passed into his arms.

The demon stepped around him, kneeling before the fire-pit and beginning to rake the ashes out to clear a space for some fresh lumps of coal. After striking a flint on a scrap of material, a fire was set to burning and it placed a kettle filled with water over the flames, leaving it to bring to boil.

“Now, you listen to me. It is on the nights when the moon waxes full that you shall transform, for that is the rule of the curse. The only way to remove the curse you bear is to kill the beast that bit you and caused the affliction. My recommendation to you is to return to the city and find it” the demon eventually began to speak after he had seated himself comfortably on the sand. “I will have your child as my own. As my son, he will be well cared for and highly educated, but you may never see him again.”

Mirrikh recognised the severity of what it was saying. His son would be as good as dead to him. But at least he would know he was safe.

“Okay” he replied, although the desire to refuse was overwhelming. “But won’t you at least tell me who you are?”

“I am Morcant” the demon told him.

“That’s a strange name. Where are you from?”

“I’m an Englishman” Morcant explained, drawing his legs towards himself so that he could cross them. “I am on an esoteric journey.”

“An Englishman?” Mirrikh made an incredulous chuckle. “You look like no Englishman I’ve ever seen. I thought you were a demon, or that I was hallucinating.”

Morcant chuckled too and glanced down at the bumpy paws he clasped in his lap. “I’m no demon. I was human, once. I still consider myself to be human. Looks are deceiving. I will return to my homeland eventually, and in which case, your son will accompany me there.”

Mirrikh looked down at the baby in his arms, at the child’s eyes that so matched his own. “If…If I can break this curse…Could I come and see him again?”

“No” Morcant answered simply.

“Oh…Okay” he mumbled. It was becoming harder and harder to agree to this deal, but he knew he had to do it, for his son’s sake.

A tense silence fell over them and Mirrikh could only gaze at the baby in his arms, wondering how he had ever come to this terrible situation. How his life had been so easy over the years, how he had studied and ultimately failed to achieve his grades, how his wealthy parents had funded his lifestyle, and how, eventually, the kindness of his wife had guided him away from alcoholism and towards finding a meaningful career as an accounting clerk. His father believed he could have become a genius mathematician, that his son was a prodigy, but Mirrikh had always found his intelligence bordered on insanity, and some days it was a struggle even to get out of bed. He spent so much time contemplating his purpose in life and trundling through an ongoing existential crisis that he had never found the time to put any of his plans into action. When his son was born, he thought his life had been finally organised into a series of predictable mathematical equations, that he could figure out what was to happen next, that he could now predict the future. But what he hadn’t predicted was the attack that came by a prowling monster late one night. It made him doubt that life was more than a series of numbered events. It made him realise that Mother Nature was the embodiment of coincidental randomness, not the precisely planned imaginings of a creator god.

Morcant brewed a kettle of herbal tea and they sat together around the smouldering embers of the fire-pit as the night began to draw in. He recalled that this strange man had said he was on a spiritual journey, but the sight and shape of him made him reluctant to question him about it. Would he induct his son on this same spirital journey, thereby transforming him into a pale-faced demon, too? Mirrikh swallowed a mouthful of lukewarm tea, shivering in the plummeting coolness of the desert air as he watched the flames flicking in the stranger’s caprine eyes.

“I have work to do here. Please do not disrupt me or try to speak with me after I have begun. It is my last night here, and I intend to travel before dawn. My work must be completed by then” he whispered, his flattened irises lifting to make eye contact, sending a small shudder to prickle up Mirrikh’s spine.

“I won’t interrupt you” he shook his head quickly.

Morcant observed him wordlessly for a moment, before rising from his place by the fire. He went into the tent and brought out his rucksack and the wooden crate, opening them up and taking out the contents onto the sandy ground. Mirrikh sat by passively as he carefully spooned tea into the mouth of his fidgeting child, suddenly and unbearably aware that this stranger would be leaving him soon and that his son would go with him. He watched as Morcant took up a steel tin and using a plain silver knife, he pierced a hole in the bottom of it. Walking to the centre of the open space within the temple, he tipped the tin over and a dark red powder began to seep through the hole he had made, allowing him to draw a large circle upon the sand. He then removed the lid of the tin, and with handfuls of the fragrant powder, he bent to sprinkle four small symbols at equally spread points around the outside of the circle. Another tin was opened and glittering salt crystals were spread around the red lines. Candles were placed upon the sand, and with the strike of a match, their wicks were lit, casting a yellowish glow in the centre of the ruin, sharpening the shadows that blossomed in the cracks and holes amongst the tumbled stonework. In the sky above, the moon came into view, her luminous shape a sliver away from true fullness as she was early in her waning stage, on her journey to becoming the crone.

The rich scent of Sandalwood began to seep through the chalky dustiness of the air, cutting through the comfortable woodsmoke from the fire-pit as Morcant crouched to light the incense inside a large silver censor. The curls of smoke streamed through the matrix of holes punched in its surface. It was as though he was creating a holy space, consecrating this ground for some alien purpose. Mirrikh was a man of science and logic, but since his affliction began, his mind had opened up, bit by bit, to the possibility of another world where monsters dwelled, and as he watched Morcant daubing his scaly body in shimmering oils, he began to feel afraid again. He had heard about dark magic, fairy stories, rituals conducted in the dead of night. Tools to summon devils to this earthly plane. He huddled closer to the fire as though it would provide him with protection. Morcant was approaching and he watched his black shape through the shifting heat above the fire, the tin in his lizard’s paw glinting in the firelight. Without a word, he began to draw a circle in red dust around where Mirrikh was sitting.

“Do not, under any circumstance, leave the circle” he whispered to him as he bent and set the empty tin down by the pit.

Mirrikh nodded his head assuringly, but it was fear, not respect, that would keep him in the circle. Morcant eyed him for several seconds, before deciding he was satisfied and stalking off towards the candle-lit circle he had created for himself. The silver knife and the smoking censor awaited him. As he stepped over the threshold of the red line he had drawn in the sand, a cloud that had been passing over the moon cleared away and the moonlight flashed over the ruin like the powerful beam of a stadium lamp, drowning out the meagre glow from the candles. For the first time, Mirrikh felt a gust of desert wind sweeping across the sand, a twisting breeze like the movement of an invisible serpent, causing smoke to billow from the orange coals before him. Morcant lifted the knife, pointing it towards the moon.

The baby gazed up at Mirrikh as he drank some of the liquid his father had tipped into his open mouth, seemingly unaware of what was happening, and for that Mirrikh was thankful. Morcant’s voice dominated the empty dune that separated them, his words an indistinguishably puzzle, and suddenly, the candle flames blazed and spluttered, ejecting gouts of black smoke. The air began to pull at Mirrikh’s skin, as though magnetised, as though drawing energy from his flesh and sucking him down towards the ground, causing him to clutch his son tightly and bow forward with a grimace of discomfort. The sensation changed to one of static and every hair on his body began to rise as the metal pan above the fire started to tick loudly as though warmed by a great heat. The spoon in his hand began to feel too hot to handle, and with a startled cry, he threw it down as a spark of electricity shot through it into his palm. Even despite this, the infant seemed unaffected.

The wind seemed to be spiralling towards the circle in which Morcant was standing, yet it didn’t lift a single grain of sand, never touching or distorting the symbols he had placed. He lowered the knife, drawing the points of a star in the air, before turning clockwise to the second point in his circle and drawing it again, each time speaking aloud a stream of words that Mirrikh did not understand. At first he thought it was Greek or maybe Latin, but now he wasn’t so sure. When at last he had repeated this at all four points of his circle, he lifted the knife towards the moon. His voice was like the cry of a howling wolf, plaintive, beseeching, echoing in the eaves of the ancient rooftop. The tension and the sparking of electric was increasing at a steady rate and Mirrikh could think only of escaping, running away from this frightening sight before him and the irritating prickling caused by the energy that was seething all around. The wind was picking up, tossing his hair around his face. He wrapped his son up in the blanket draped over his bare body, concealing his precious face from the whipping gales. Suddenly, a tremorous rumble emanated through the ground on which he was sitting. The noise was so deep that he barely heard it, yet his ear drums were left ringing as it washed past him and caused the walls of the temple to tremble, shedding bits of grit and dust in small showers.

The gales began to tear up wisps of sand, and as it fell, he could make out shapes through the smokelike veils. The grains washed over shoulders and arms, the tops of heads and the bridges of noses. Figures were massing, formless shapes shuffling, skirting the edge of Morcant’s circle. Only the sand blown up by the wind enabled Mirrikh to see them. He looked down in awe as the coals in the pit burst alight, the fast-burning flames at first tongues of orange and yellow, then they cooled to blue. Their cores were so dark that for brief, flickering seconds they appeared almost black. Mirrikh thought he heard the sound of many voices and the tumult of banging drums, the choral cries blustering in the turning breezes becoming fragmented. As he peered into the shifting mass that surrounded—and nearly blocked his view of—Morcant, he realised the figures were becoming more visible within the twister. Wings exploded from their naked backs, feathers splaying wide.

Were those angels? Mirrikh wiped the dust from his face and stared intently. They looked like angels. But he couldn’t make out whether they wore clothes or whether their faces were human. None of them seemed to notice his presence. The light from the moon was intensifying, making it difficult for him to see at all, and though he shielded his eyes from it, the milky glow washed over everything, silvering every colour in sight. Even Morcant’s black figure had turned a luminous shade of pale grey. His back was turned, the shining sliver of silver in his hand pointed heavenward. The voices had become clearer but he couldn’t make out what they were singing.

And then at last, Morcant became enveloped in light. He vanished within it, then the figures vanished too and Mirrikh could barely see beyond his own nose, finding himself gazing into what looked like sheer emptiness all around him. Neither the fire-pit nor the red line in the sand was visible. All he could hear were the singing voices and the drums.

He closed his eyes and clutched his son closer, silently begging for this to be over. He should never have left the city. He should never have come into the desert. There was a reason no one ventured here anymore, and it wasn’t just the threat of starvation and dehydration. Only spirits walked here. Perhaps Morcant was one of them.

Another bass rumble shuddered through the ground beneath Mirrikh’s body. He thought he heard the sound of his son giggling, but with the distorted noise that deafened his ears, he might have imagined it. The cold night air that had been banished by the heat from the fire-pit began to swirl around his shoulders, a chill trailing down his spine like a frozen water droplet, and when he opened his eyes, he had to blink several times into the darkness. Before him, he saw the orange glow of the hot coals. He realised he had curled up into a ball, and as he slowly sat upright, he found that the winds had died back and the figures had vanished. Morcant was standing in the circle, but he had lowered his arms. The knife lay on the ground at his feet as the censor continued to eject plumes of white smoke around the flame-less stalks of the burnt out candles. He groaned and buckled forward, a gasping cry emitting from his hidden face.

“Are you alright!” Mirrikh called to him as he got up and knelt at the edge of the circle. He wasn’t prepared to try stepping out of it just yet.

“Stay where you are!” Morcant’s rasping voice shouted back.

He shook violently, his tail lashing this way and that as his hands and knees sank in the sand. There came a wet, splitting sound and Mirrikh watched with equal measures of disgust and fascination as the demon’s scaly skin began to slip free from his body, sagging loose from the underside of his tail and sliding down his limbs as though he was shedding a wetsuit. The hair on his scalp rustled and hissed as it grew before his very eyes. Morcant knelt upright and shook the scaly skin free, strands of oozing liquid clinging to the folds of leathery hide as he de-gloved it from the smooth, black flesh beneath. It hit the ground with a moist slap and he stepped out of it, his glistening form twinkling with droplets of liquid in the reaching aura of the fire. His ebony hair hung over his shoulders in shining waves, tangled around the whiteness of his face, which remained unchanged. There was a smoking crackle and the hide he had left behind on the sand began to disintegrate. He bent to pick up his knife again, and as before, he drew stars in the air, only this time he turned anti-clockwise, and the words he murmured were gentle whispers under his breath. Eventually, he turned and Mirrikh stared in awe as he approached; the reptilian skin that had covered him before was gone, and instead he was head to toe in the smoothest, most silken skin he had ever seen. Morcant kicked a gap in the dusty circle and walked through it, coming to sit beside the fire-pit where he raked his hair from his face and shivered.

“What just happened here? What are you?” Mirrikh questioned, his voice trembling.

“I’m a witch” he murmured as he licked at his pink lips and glanced up at the anxious man sitting across from him. “My goddess renewed my body for me. That is what I came here for. Now I may live another fifty years.”

Mirrikh’s natural instinct was to be afraid, but after the kindness this stranger had shown him, he felt conflicted. Morcant simply smiled at him and lifted the tea kettle, checking the stale contents before tipping them out into the sand.

“I do believe another pot of tea is required. In six hours, I will be leaving this place. You may sleep if you so wish. I will wake you before I go” he answered as he poured more water into the kettle. “After that, you are on your own.”

Mirrikh laid down beside the fire and cradled his sleeping son in his arms. The emotions inside him were dominated by misery and regret; this could be the last night he spent with his only child, and yet he was so tired that his body began to shut down against his will. With his eyes closed, he listened to Morcant’s movements close by, the bubbling of the water in the kettle and the distant winds of the desert. How he would find his way back to civilisation, he had no idea. He drifted in and out of sleep, waking to the sensation of his child being lifted out of his arms, then came the smooth, low whisper of an English lullaby. Time stretched on.

Suddenly, a hand was shaking him by the shoulder and his eyelids flicked open. Morcant was standing over him; his shape was a black silhouette against the starry sky. Mirrikh sat up, finding that the fire-pit had been buried and the tent had been packed up. The only thing Morcant had left was a flagon of water, which he had placed beside Mirrikh’s shoes and the rest of his folded clothing. He saw that the baby had been tucked into his sling and secured against Morcant’s chest, only the top of his fluffy head visibly through a gap in the cloak he wore. Underneath, his legs were clad in black trousers and his feet hidden inside polished leather shoes. With his hood pulled up, he might have looked entirely human.

“There are three hours until dawn. I am going now” he spoke to him. “I cannot wait a moment longer; I must be off. Goodbye, Mr Merrick.”

“It’s Mirrikh—no, wait a second—please, don’t go just yet” Mirrikh struggled to his feet as the witch turned and began to walk away. “Please, wait for me!”

“I cannot! Goodbye, Mr Merrick!” Morcant called over his shoulder.

Mirrikh whimpered as he wriggled into his clothes and fought to pull on his boots, repeatedly turning his head to try and keep an eye on the disappearing stranger, but by the time he had managed to do up his laces, Morcant had vanished from sight. He pulled on his cloak and keffiyeh, kicking out a spray of sand as he ran across the dune towards the doorway through which he had entered, where at last he spotted the dark figure in the distance, walking soundlessly across the empty stretch of land. It was bitterly cold and steam puffed from his open mouth as he ran after him, clutching the flagon of water in his arms as if to simulate the sensation of his child there.

“Morcant! Please wait for me!” he cried, but the figure did not stop or turn to look.

Finally, he was able to catch up, staggering alongside him as he panted noisily. Morcant did not regard him, his eyes only staring forward in the direction he was heading.

“Please, let me come with you. For my son’s sake” he pleaded but he dared not reach out and take hold of his arm.

“You are of no use to either of us. An orphaned werewolf with no occult knowledge” Morcant eventually responded.

“W—where are you going?” Mirrikh asked.

“To the city.”

“Can I come too?” he breathed, hoping the answer would be ‘yes’.

“Well, if you intend to break the curse that grips you, I should expect it would be wise for you to return to the city” Morcant responded plainly.

Mirrikh closed his mouth, unsure of what to say. He wasn’t certain if that meant that Morcant wanted his company, or if it was coincidental that they were travelling in the same direction. He decided to follow him, whether that was the case or not.

“What will you do when you get there?” he inquired after a moment of quiet.

“I will board a plane to Britain” Morcant answered.

“Can I come with you to Britain?” Mirrikh risked glancing at him, but he didn’t look back. “There’s nothing here for me anymore…And if my son is in Britain, then there’s more for me there than here.”

“He’s not your son. He’s mine.”

Tears began to swell in Mirrikh’s eyes and he aggressively wiped them away with his sleeve. He tried to stay focused on the knowledge that his curse could result in the death of his son, but at the same time he feared letting him go. At least if he followed this strange man to Britain, he could be close to him, but not so close that he might be killed. He was torn between staying and searching for his attacker, and leaving this place to follow Morcant.

“If I come to Britain, can I still see him?” he whispered, swallowing back another wave of tears that threatened to burst free.

He startled when Morcant stopped abruptly, turning to look at him. “Now you listen to me, Merrick. We came to an agreement. If you must follow me, then by all means do so, but your existence is not a priority to me. If you must come to Britain, then come, but it is not a duty of mine to see to your welfare. I have told you what you must do to break your curse.”

He waited for Mirrikh to say something, but when he didn’t, he huffed and turned once more, leaving him standing there. Mirrikh hurried after him until they were side by side again.

“Then I’ll come to Britain” he declared.

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