Revenant by J. Thorn and Threefold Law
A mysterious Sultan appears at the campfire of a traveler in the middle of the desert. He brings a book, fresh tobacco and a choice. The lone traveler must make a decision which will have consequences for his life…and beyond.
Revenant is a 6200-word fantasy short story published in 2011 as part of a multimedia production featuring J. Thorn and his band, Threefold Law.
You can listen to the songs and read the short story right from this page. If you’d like to download the entire package (mp3 format audio files along with lyrics, liner notes, PLUS ebook files, both mobi and epub), click here for a “zipped” folder containing everything. If you’d like Bookfunnel to deliver only the short story to your electronic reading device, click here to go to the Bookfunnel page. However, it is not necessary to download anything as you can listen to and read Revenant right from this page.
Below is a 45-second “trailer” created for the release of the record in June of 2011.
Revenant – The Music
Revenant – The Story
Ah, make the most of what we may yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie,
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and—sans End!
The night crept forth, picking at the carcass of the day. The man bent low and dusted sand from his satchel. He felt a hollow pang in his stomach and turned to his camel while undoing the hemp drawstring on the pack.
“Roasted hump with cumin. You’d better hope we arrive at the next kingdom soon.”
The beast snorted and spit as the man bent low to start the night’s fire.
Flame leapt from the dried splinters of wood, the last pieces the man had left in his satchel. The first stars poked through the black canvas above.
He pried open the leather pouch that had protected the last of his dates during the trek across the desert. The man lifted one to his mouth and felt the rough edges scrape his cracked lips. He squeezed the last drop of water from his skin flask before fastening the top out of habit alone. The camel folded its legs with a sneer, shaking its humps in wicked ridicule.
“Even you will run out of water soon. Filthy beast.”
The man picked up the last date and chewed the dried fruit. He tried to swallow, but it felt as though thorny barbs lined his throat. The burning wood spread a heady scent through the evening, masking the camel’s stink and the man’s desperation. He tossed the empty satchel into the pyre in hopes that it would keep him warm for a little while longer.
“Custom dictates a song for a weary traveler.”
The man turned to look over his shoulder while grabbing the dagger on his hip.
“Who is there?”
The camel put its head to the sand and whined with indifference. The man squinted into the darkness in the direction of the voice. He laughed to himself, certain that the lack of food and water had begun to play with his mind. The man decided to answer anyway.
“Custom also dictates a proper greeting.”
“So be it,” said the voice.
The air on the other side of the fire shimmered while dancing flakes of ash sparkled before a man who seemed to materialize from the night. The stranger wore customary head coverings adorned with simple jewels and iron hasps. His robe reflected the light of the fire and his sandals stuck out from beneath the hem, exposing manicured toenails. The stranger’s beard rested on his chest in streaks of grays and blacks. He held a staff in his right hand and a golden plate in his left. On the plate sat two smokes, moist and pinched on both ends.
“Two souls meet on the edge of darkness. Two biris to ease the passage.” The stranger bowed slightly and met the man’s gaze.
The man squinted through the haze, shook his head and looked over a shoulder at his camel. The creature coughed and closed its eyes, paying no attention to the stranger.
“For the past few weeks, my only conversation has been with that miserable camel.”
“All the more reason to accept my smoke.”
The man nodded. He unfolded his right hand and gestured to the fire. The stranger nodded in return and sat down. He straightened his garb, stroked stray wisps of his beard and inhaled the fragrance of the burning wood.
“Camel dung will burn longer.”
“But it smells like camel dung.”
The stranger smiled, his teeth an alabaster glow.
“Surely you do not travel without a caravan?” asked the man.
The stranger did not reply. He held the golden plate towards the man, his eyes offering the smoke.
“It is my last biri. It could be your last. Smoke it.”
“And you bring counsel, too?” The man raised his eyebrows in feigned gratitude.
“I bring what I was ordained to bring.”
The man shook his head and reached for a biri sitting on the golden plate. He felt the cool moisture of the leaf as if it had just been harvested and rolled by the hands of a master. He placed the tip between his lips and tasted the bittersweet tang.
“You may not recognize the variety. It is a most uncommon plant.”
The man stared at the stranger. His lips stung and the herb tasted familiar but foreign—exotic. He bent toward the flame to light the smoke before the stranger could retract the offer. The man drew a long, even drag and then closed his eyes. The bottoms of his feet tingled and he heard the distant whisper of the desert wind.
“Many nights in this desert have I dreamt of such an indulgence.”
It was the stranger’s turn to nod. “I believe our palaver has begun.”
The man chuckled, feeling as though his exhausted limbs had been wrapped in soft cotton. He shook his head and waved one hand in the air.
“If you planned on using the smoke to rob me of my meager coin, do so now before the comfort of the burn departs my weary bones.”
“I have not come to hurt you.”
“Then who are you?” The man felt the herb softening his mind and it brought a smile to his face. “No. Wait. Let me guess.”
The stranger did not speak, waiting as the man had requested.
The stranger shook his head.
An affirmative nod.
The man chuckled, his mood lightened by the vapor in his lungs.
“Yes! Sultan. I would not cast insult upon you by associating you with the Macedonians.”
“My ancestry could not be insulted. It merely is.”
The fire drew low, the heat and light now coming more from the glowing coals than the flames. More stars appeared overhead, dancing beyond the smoke of the fire.
“And you? From what tribe does your lineage originate?”
The man smiled. His tongue slithered over blistered lips. “I am of the Earth, of which I will soon return.”
The Sultan sighed, drawing a long toke.
“But you are only the Sultan of my mind, the last vestige of my sanity blown across the desert like the fine grains that cover it. You don’t exist except in my head, in these final hours of my life. My body is nearly spent and has created you to keep me from insanity.”
“Did you not enjoy the biri I brought you? If I am nothing but a figment of your imagination, then how could I have offered you a smoke?”
The man waved a finger at the Sultan and took a deep breath before replying.
“The same can be said for dreams. Couldn’t one testify that they are real until one awakens?”
“I did not come here to debate with you. It does not matter whether you believe I am real or not.”
The man sprang forward with a dagger in his right hand. He grasped the stranger by the shoulder and placed the blade on his throat. He smelled jasmine and sage on the Sultan’s garments.
“I will spill your blood into the sand.”
The Sultan looked into the man’s eyes, his arms at his sides and the smoke dangling from the corner of his mouth. “Go on then. Do it.”
The man stood and tossed the dagger into the desert. He screamed and threw himself to the ground, sobbing into the harsh sands.
“I will be dead by morning and yet, I must suffer this mental anguish first. Why won’t the gods simply let me die?”
The Sultan guided the man back to his place by the fire. He brushed sand from the man’s robe and took another leaf off of the golden salver. The man looked at the plate that had replenished the biri as soon as it left the surface.
“I’m afraid your fear is legitimate. You will be dead by morning.” The Sultan snapped his fingers and new flames leapt up; the wood which had burned to ash reignited like seasoned fuel. “Come. Enjoy the comforts of my smoke while you can.”
“I will not sell my soul to the Dark Lord. I will not suffer eternal torture for a moment of fleeting relief at the end of my life.”
“I offer no such deal. Accept my gifts in your time of resolution.”
The man shuddered. “If you are not the Dark Lord, then you must be a servant of his, sent to entrap a man’s soul at its most vulnerable moment.”
The Sultan shook his head. “I am bound by a different contract, not to the wicked powers of which you speak. I must recruit others to fight the Dark Lord, not serve him. My salvation lies in your future.”
“My future?” The man gritted his teeth. “My future is nothing but a cold death alongside the foul beast I rode through the desert.”
The camel lifted its head and spit at the man’s feet.
“Your future exists whether or not you have the ability to see it.”
The Sultan waited.
The man clenched his fists and shook his head, mumbling to himself and to the barren desert beyond the camp.
The Sultan continued, “I fear I have failed at communicating my message to you. I had hoped my leaf might help to clarify things, but the smoke and the conversation did nothing but confuse you. What if you lay your head upon the bedroll and I show you what I have come here to offer?”
“Go on, then. If I shall die before daybreak, then it matters not whether you are real or imagined. Tell me a story and ease my passage from this life to the next.”
The Sultan stood up and shook the sands from his robe. The man lay upon the ground as close to the fire as he could and bunched a tattered garment underneath his head.
“I cannot continue to argue with delusions of my own demise. I will close my eyes and allow you to enter my thoughts. I will succumb to the powers of this desolation and will likely feed the vultures that have followed my path since I departed from the last kingdom. If I listen to you, will you let me die in peace?”
The Sultan bowed. “I have no dominion over your passing. I have come to fulfill my duty. But you should not carry such heaviness in your heart. You have committed sins that have troubled you for years. If you listen to me, you shall be redeemed and no longer tortured by those memories.”
The man shot upright with the last of his energy. He shook his head and dropped a single tear into the bitter sand.
“Now I know who you are. A wandering spirit. A Revenant. I have read the myths, the ancient stories from the holy books. I know you will give me a choice.”
The Sultan spread his arms wide. “Our time draws short. Take comfort in your bedroll and welcome sleep. The night shall reveal your choice before the dawn breaks.”
The man closed his eyes. He heard the ragged breathing of the camel and thought that it might yet die first. He listened as the Sultan recited a quatrain:
“‘If my coming were up to me, I’d never be born.
And if my going were on my accord, I’d go with scorn.
Isn’t it better that in this world, so old and worn.
Never to be born, neither stay, nor be away torn?’”
“What does that mean?”
The Sultan smiled and gazed upon the man.
“It means that you can find redemption for the evil deeds you have done. I cannot spare your earthly life, but I can give you a new one to fight the gathering evil. However, you should know that the risk is great and should you fail, your soul will belong to the Dark Lord for all eternity.”
The man’s eyes flickered and he nestled his head into the makeshift pillow. “Tell me, Sultan. Is that really a choice?”
“Are you certain?”
The man looked into the sky, the stars now shining within a veil of light like a cosmic waterfall. “I understand. Only a fool would turn his back on a chance at redemption. I accept. Tell me more.”
The Sultan nodded and turned to fetch his pack. He pulled at the drawstrings and removed a worn, faded manuscript. Delicate fingers drew the pages open and tilted the top towards the light of the campfire.
“This book is known as the Avesta. It chronicles man’s fate.”
The man closed his eyes and listened. The Sultan’s voice came in waves of milk and honey.
“When a man dies, he must walk the Chinvat Bridge which separates the world of the living from the world of the dead. The appearance of the bridge changes depending on the righteousness of the man about to walk it. For those who deserve passage, the bridge will be wide and comfortable like a stroll through an orchard during harvest. Daena will lead the man’s soul to the House of Song where they will reunite with Ahura Mazdā.
“But for the wicked, the Chinvat Bridge shall appear as a razor’s edge. Ahriman shrinks it so that the wicked will fall headlong into the eternal abyss. The demon Vizaresh stands guard and will attempt to drag the soul into the House of Lies, a place of eternal punishment and suffering.”
“I am familiar with the Chinvat Bridge.” The man pulled the frayed bedroll to his chin.
“Then perhaps I should begin with the origin story of Ahura Mazdā and the struggle of light over dark?”
The Sultan turned several pages of the Avesta.
“In the days before our fathers, Ahura Mazdā broke the darkness with light, truth and all that was good. He extended his magnificent hand, and with a sweep towards the horizon, he brought forth the Way of the Light. However, his twin would not allow Ahura Mazdā’s forces to exist unchallenged. Ahriman bore the harbingers of destruction. He coaxed lies, vermin, disease and demons from the Forgotten Place to do battle with Ahura Mazdā’s agents of compassion. The two brothers bickered and fought like brothers in our world, using earthly kingdoms as their battlefields. In ages lost to history, Ahura Mazdā and Ahriman fought without either gaining permanent advantage. However, Ahura Mazdā knew the fate of his brother. He had acquired knowledge that Ahriman had not, although we don’t know how he did so. Ahura Mazdā discovered that the forces of light would eventually destroy the forces of darkness. Good would triumph over evil. But it would come at a cost.
“As the ages passed, the twin brothers found the task of eternal conflict to be consuming and tiresome. They recruited others to fight for them. Hosts of angels known as the Yazatas fought on Ahura Mazdā’s side, determined to overpower the forces of darkness. Ahriman spawned an army of demons and devas known as dregvants who waged war on Ahura Mazdā’s sentries. The demon spawn also gorged on the flesh of unborn children, sent plague and pestilence to the land—poisoning humankind through catastrophe, known and unknown. Mortals have been forced to follow the truth or the lie, the light or the dark, the forces of good or the forces of evil.”
The man felt sleep coming for him and so he fought through the haze of his own exhaustion, unsure whether it was sleep or death that stalked him.
“Being forced to choose is not a choice. What of those that did not wish to fight?”
“According to the Avesta, even the trees and the lichen must choose to align with Ahura Mazdā or Ahriman. No living creature has the luxury of abstention. The universe exists in two states, and two states only—good and evil.”
The man nodded and motioned for the Sultan to continue.
“The warrior, known as Traetaona, swore loyalty to Ahura Mazdā and came to be the most competent demon slayer of the kingdom. Ahura Mazdā trusted Traetaona with the task of confronting the three-headed demon known as Azhi Dahaka. Azhi Dahaka was the most wicked supplicant of the evil god, Ahriman. The beast feasted on human brains with an insatiable lust. Dahaka, as the demon had been called in ancient times, had three heads that represented pain, anguish and death. Its wings were so vast and dark that they hid the stars from the heavens. Ahura Mazdā knew that if he did not contain Dahaka, it would devour what remained of the righteous.”
“What weapons did Ahura Mazdā provide to Traetaona for the battle with Dahaka?”
The Sultan held up one finger before continuing.
“As Dahaka’s minions brought sacrificial victims to their demon lord, Traetaona realized that the three-headed dragon could not be killed—only subdued. He devised a plan to neutralize the powerful force of evil.
“Traetaona approached Dahaka’s lair with his sword in his scabbard. The weeping walls of the cave guided him down into the bowels of the mountain. Painted scenes of incest, bestiality and murder covered the walls of the tunnel while vermin burrowed through piles of human remains. Traetaona saw oily torches burning deep within the mountain. The tunnel dumped him into the beast’s cavern, at the foot of the heinous throne.
“‘Surely you come to offer me your brains,’ said Dahaka as he saw Traetaona approach. ‘No creature would dare enter my lair for any other reason.’
“‘I wish to pose a challenge to you, three-headed sentry of the Kingdom of Ahriman.’
“Traetaona came with the divine knowledge of Ahura Mazdā. He had been told that good would eventually prevail, although he had no way of knowing if he would survive the apocalyptic battle to destroy the powers of darkness. Dahaka smiled a grin of fire at the visitor and decided to toy with his guest before smiting him.
“‘Speak your challenge before I tire of the frivolity and consume your flesh.’
“Traetaona stepped forth and spoke.
“‘I shall pose a riddle to each head. If all three are solved, I will surrender and offer you my soul. However, if all three riddles are not solved, you agree to be bound underneath this mountain where you will remain until the End Time, no longer free to hunt the followers of Ahura Mazdā.’
“The demon grinned and cackled with the power of rumbling thunder.
“‘I accept your challenge.’
“Traetaona drew a deep breath, put his shoulders back and posed the riddle to the first head of Dahaka.
“‘What is that which travels without feet, head or hands?’
“The demon head shuffled and a black tongue slithered over fanged teeth.
“‘I will eat brains from your skull,’ said the beast. ‘The answer is water, wind and a worm.’
“Dahaka’s minions bustled, crawling from the crevices and surrounding Traetaona.
“‘You are correct. And now for the second,’ said Traetaona, aware that his hope for victory had been diminished by one third. ‘It travels to the sky ahead of the eye, but no one has ever seen it.’
“The second head of Dahaka let out a horrific cry that shook the cavern and raised a cloud of dust.
“‘Sight,’ it mumbled without elaboration.
“‘Correct.’ Traetaona put a hand to his brow and struggled to think above the chatter of the minor deva that now gathered around Dahaka in hopes of scavenging a piece of discarded flesh from the devouring.
“‘What is that, which, from head to foot, is all tongue?’
“The third head of the demon roared and its talons scratched the stone floor of the lair like the sharpening of knives before the slaughter. ‘The answer is the serpent.’
“Traetaona stiffened and his hand grasped the hilt of his sword. He turned to face the three-headed dragon as it lowered its jaws to him.
“Dahaka froze and the minions scurried from his impending wrath.
“‘The answer is fire, the substance ejected from your snout.’
“Dahaka let out such a deafening blast of despair that many of the lizards fell dead at his feet. The dragon thrashed and blew fire to the arched ceiling before facing the foe that had bested him with words.
“‘I will devour you when I am released at the End Time.’
“Traetaona stepped forth and bound Dahaka to the wall. However, the dragon had yet to finish with the slayer. Dahaka pulled at the shackles, attempting an escape from his bonds. To weaken the three-headed beast, Traetaona stabbed the demon in the chest. An avalanche of snakes and lizards poured from the wound and escaped into the world. To this day, these creatures go forth and recruit the wicked for the powers of darkness.
“Ahriman bellowed when Traetaona stabbed Dahaka and shackled him to the underside of the mountain. The evil god cursed his twin and challenged him to bring the End Time and release Dahaka for the final battle.”
The man sat up, still like a stone monument. His face twitched as he spoke to the Sultan in a low, gravelly voice, reciting a passage from a story he had long since forgotten.
“The End Time commences with the final battle between good and evil—the followers of Ahura Mazdā shall march on Ahriman’s evildoers and bring an everlasting peace to all kingdoms.”
The Sultan closed the Avesta and nodded to the man. “I see you know how the end has been prophesied.”
“The wicked will perish.”
“As will many of the righteous,” said the Sultan. “Good will prevail, but some shall sacrifice their soul in the battle.”
The man rubbed the night from his eyes. A hint of the sun’s glow appeared on the eastern horizon, the birth of the day just beyond the reach of the land.
“Is this Ahura Mazdā’s will?”
“Ahura Mazdā is but one deity. His twin brother, Ahriman, will not submit willfully.”
The man tilted back his head and gazed at Polaris upon its celestial throne. His words came with a sarcastic bite.
“You share this knowledge with me because I need it to survive the trek between the two kingdoms?”
The Sultan smiled and shook his head. He relit a leaf and exhaled over the coals pulsing on the molten sands.
“The universe holds many of its secrets beyond our grasp. We choose to align with Ahura Mazdā or Ahriman, but we seldom understand the design of their plans.”
“What if I change my mind and choose to side with the malevolent forces? Would you murder me?”
The Sultan shrugged. “I would not.”
“Then I must come to the conclusion that you came to me with a purpose, and that you have not yet fulfilled your obligation.”
“You would be correct. There is more you must know before the End Time is upon us. I gave my sacred word to Ahura Mazdā, promising that I would visit you and make a proposal.”
The Sultan folded his hands and stared at the man for several moments before speaking again.
“You desire to know the nature of my responsibility, the reason that I came to you?”
The man stared at the Sultan, waiting.
“I see that you do. Now, hear of my journey and of the circumstances that brought us together.”
“I presided over the greatest kingdom on Earth. My lands stretched from the rising of the sun in the east, to its setting in the west. I took wives from the most influential and powerful tribes that have ever lived.
“In the twelfth year of my reign during a prosperous time, a visitor appeared. He arrived at the gates and begged to be brought to me. My sentries had been well trained and knew that admittance to the royal quarters did not happen simply because one asked for it. The man brought forth a gift, one that could not be forged or pried from the clutches of the Earth. He brought an omen.
“The guards could not decipher the visitor’s message, so they made sure he was not a threat before bringing him to my court. The man had sagging skin and yellow eyes. White streaks ran through his hair like lightning in a stormy sky, and his beard grew long and straight like an elder’s should. He hunched over a cane with layered robes covering his frail body. The stench coming from him smelled like camel dung. When he looked into my eyes, I realized his soul occupied a frail shell that had but a few days left on this plane.
“‘Your time draws near,’ he said without so much as a salutation or reverence.
“I chuckled and looked at my sentries with their gilded armor and sharpened blades.
“‘Are you drawing it for me?’ I said with a mocking question.
“The man shook his head and limped closer to my throne. Each step twisted his face into agony. I had to glance at the stone floor to make sure it had not been covered with razors.
“‘Ahura Mazdā needs you and that is not a matter of jest.’
“I motioned for the servant girls to bring the silken pillows and they helped guide the old man onto them. The girls wrinkled their noses and gagged as if they could taste the filth wafting from his robe.
“‘Would you like smoke or drink, old man? You may not have much time left to enjoy it.’
“The cruel joke brought smiles and snickers from my court, but the visitor sat as still as stone.
“‘Very well. We will not fake pleasantries or exchange salutations as custom might dictate. Speak your business before I depart for more important matters.’
“I do not remember when I surrendered my fate to the old man, but I do recall the look on his face. Whether he was Ahura Mazdā or whether Ahura Mazdā spoke through him, I cannot determine. But what he said next changed me forever.
“‘Ahriman is about to release the demon, Azhi Dahaka. Once the shackles are cut, the final battle will begin. If the Army of the Righteous is not summoned, Ahriman’s followers will subdue the corners of the world and plunge all into an age of calamity.’
“He stared into my eyes waiting for me to respond. I thought about the ancient myths before speaking, recalling the story of the demon slayer sent to keep the demon subdued.
“‘No Sultan is a match for Dahaka. Why would you place an impossible task at my feet? Ahura Mazdā’s warrior could do no better than shackling him underneath the mountain and yet, you think I will somehow best the beast.’
“The old man did not reply to my objection. Instead, he spoke words that must have been meant for ears beyond my own.
“‘I have fulfilled my duty. The crucible sits at the foot of the throne. But know this, O High and Holy Sultan. Your heart will stop in three days. And then, you will no longer be able to choose. Leave here before it is too late.’
“After mumbling those final words, a thick, gray smoke curled up from the feet of the old man and filled the court so quickly that each of us in the chamber felt isolated from the rest of the world. When it cleared, nothing remained of the visitor, and no one in the chamber remembered his visit except me.
“I lived the next two days trying to anesthetize myself with smoke, drink and concubines. I indulged, and yet, I could not remove the thoughts from my mind. The old man’s words rang through my head and threatened to split my skull. He had told me I would die in three days and that I had a decision to make.
“‘The crucible sits at the foot of the throne.’ I had mumbled that phrase countless times during those long days.
“My wives could not shake me from this obsession. My sons pleaded for an enemy, an army upon which to release my anger.
“Finally, I knew what had to be done. I gathered meager rations and a skin filled with water before bidding farewell to my kingdom. I could not answer the questions they asked me. I could not explain to my wives where I was going or when I might return. I could not promise my sons that I would retain the throne or that it would pass to them, as it had for generations. I knew only that I must heed the words of the visitor.
“I can see from your face that you think me to be a foolish and narcissistic ruler. I consider that to be a fair observation. It was not until I left my kingdom that I realized how far I had drifted from a true life. It was there, in the wastes of the desert, where the old man returned.
“I was at the fire and smoking the last of my leaf when he shuffled into my camp. He looked the same as he had that day in my court, except his eyes seemed different. They looked welcoming, relieved, yet anxious. The old man clutched the Avesta to his chest.
“‘Ahura Mazdā had no doubts. He knew you would come.’
“I rubbed my eyes and chased the smoke of the campfire away with one arm.
“‘You have been following me?’
“He shook his head before sitting in the sand next to me.
“‘Ahriman plots the rescue of Dahaka. He is already sending minor devae from the mountain to form an alliance of hate.’
“I sat there and waited, sensing the old man had more to say before he expected me to speak.
“‘He needs you.’
“I threw another piece of dry wood into the fire and took a swig of water from my skin.
“‘First, tell me how we have come face to face again.’
“‘We do not have the luxury of time to—’
“‘Tell me,’ I interrupted him, feeling as though I deserved at least an explanation of his arrival.
“The old man heaved and looked skyward while mumbling under his breath.
“‘I did my duty to Ahura Mazdā and what I needed to do to prepare the righteous for the End Time. I know not of the particulars of which you ask.’
“I pressed him, demanding an answer to my most burning question.
“‘My men found your body in the desert.’
“‘Then I guess you already have the information you so desperately crave. I have died and it is my soul that visits you now.’
“‘Then what is your role, old man? Are you a revenant? Why did Ahura Mazdā send your spirit to me? I rule on this plane, not his.’
“The old man motioned for a toke of my leaf and I obliged. He blew the smoke into the fire before speaking again.
“‘Those who have chosen to follow Ahura Mazdā and align with the righteous get a reprieve before making their final voyage across the Chinvat Bridge. In order to broaden the bridge and to make the trip more comfortable, souls are drawn into service to prove their worthiness to Ahura Mazdā. These are the once-living who pledged to fight for the light but did not always live up to that standard. The service provided to Ahura Mazdā leads to the path of redemption and across the Chinvat Bridge.’
“If the visitor had spoken this in my court, when I was surrounded by my advisors, I would have laughed him from that place. However, the words he spoke now weighed more than the mountains sitting atop Dahaka.
“‘So, you are Ahura Mazdā’s celestial messenger, recruiting other souls seeking redemption and safe passage across the Chinvat Bridge. And it is these souls who will ultimately be called forth into the final battle at the End Time.’
“The old man nodded.
“I sat for a while in silence and the old man gave me license to do so. I looked up at the stars and they reminded me of diamonds strewn atop the naked, glistening bodies of my wives. The hazy path of cosmic gods flowed across the western sky like the bountiful wine served in my dining hall.
“‘My indulgence is my crucible. Now, I understand. Tell me how to gain redemption. I do not want to be devoured by Dahaka.’
Faint auras spread from the eastern horizon as the sun blurred the line between night and day. The Sultan used his staff to push the dying embers around the pit.
“My eldest son discovered my body.”
The man cocked his head sideways, awaiting elaboration.
“I know this because Ahura Mazdā gave me a window into my immediate past. I was able to soar over my kingdom like a bird and I could see through the eagle’s eye. The priests had given me the full funerary rights of a Sultan. The court spent days filling my burial chamber with earthly goods meant to comfort me in the Great Beyond, a stash of bribes believed to widen the Chinvat Bridge. On the day of the ritual, my wives and personal servants marched into the crypt. The masons sealed the stone, my earthly form and all of my possessions—both living and inanimate.”
The man’s arm creaked as he moved it across his lap, the first movement he had made in a long while.
“What happened to the old man—the one who returned to your fire? Was he Ahura Mazdā? Did he saddle you with an oath?”
The Sultan ignored the questions and continued with the recollection, as much for the man as for himself.
“I listened to my sons speak of my passing. It did not bring me comfort. They discussed my dominions and how they would be parceled accordingly. Some recalled my excesses in smoke and women, while others told stories of glorious battles won against foes of rival kingdoms. None spoke of compassion, kindness, understanding or beneficent rule. My legacy was one of selfish indulgence and personal gain. It was in that moment that I realized my redemption would rest with the deeds done beyond my mortal reign. Finding other messengers to help summon the Army of the Righteous would help me cross the Chinvat Bridge and ensure victory for Ahura Mazdā.”
A whispering wind floated up from the desert and began to toss the flame from side to side.
“My visit draws to a close.”
“But I have more questions.”
“I cannot answer them.”
The man stood as if to stop the rising sandstorm from claiming the Sultan.
“What of my redemption?”
The wind swirled around the Sultan, masking his form in a hazy cloud. He lifted both arms and turned his head skyward.
“You must finalize your choice. Ahriman plots the release of the demon from underneath the mountain. Ahura Mazdā needs the righteous to be summoned for victory in the End Time.”
Before the man could reply, the Sultan’s form dissolved into smoke and the wind whisked it away. The air settled, dropping dust back to the desert floor and enveloping the land with silence, yet again.
The man felt a warm glow originate in his chest. He closed his eyes. A vision came to him and unfolded in his mind.
The eye of the mountain opened as Dahaka awoke in shackles. The beast bellowed and cursed while pulling at the iron bound over its talons. The jaws snapped at each other in a desperate attempt to feed.
He opened his eyes and the image of Dahaka faded.
The man noticed that his lips no longer burned from the dry cracks split by the desert air. The blisters on his feet had dried and healed. The hunger pangs had disappeared. The man turned to face the spot where the Sultan had stood moments earlier. He saw an object wedged under a rock. The man bent down and brushed sand from it until he gazed upon the leather-clad book the Sultan had held, the Avesta. He wrapped it in the cleanest linen he could find. A sack full of leaf and a skin renewed with fresh water sat next to his dead camel.
The sun blazed upward in a motion that was ten times faster than its natural pace. Clouds sped by as if pulled by Ahura Mazdā’s hand. The man’s shadow spun and circled until it reappeared on the other side of his body. The sun transformed from searing white to a golden burn and then, into a fuzzy bulb of flaming orange. It dropped behind the western horizon until the last vestiges of its rays retreated from the advance of nightfall.
Pinpoints of light appeared in the sky, taking their eternal positions above all. The man looked outward, spotted a flicker on the distant horizon and marched towards the campfire. The night crept forth, picking at the carcass of the day.