IN THE RIYADH AIRPORT, my turn at the luggage check came. I stepped toward the man sitting behind a desk next to a conveyor belt. “Howdy,” I said and put my weapon case, sorry, luggage, onto the belt. In a smooth move, I leaned against the desk and handed the man my plane ticket. “Lucas Johnson.”
The man behind the desk wore the airport uniform, had a wild beard around his dark face, and gave me a tired look. “That looks heavy.”
“No way,” I said while theatrically shaking my head. “Must be your imagination.”
He smiled and tapped something on his computer. “Two hundred and sixty-eight pounds? What do you have in that?”
A rocket launcher, a sniper rifle, a shotgun, my sword, some knives, a gun for every occasion, enough ammo to wipe out a platoon, an assortment of grenades, GPS trackers, and multiple EMP charges. “Bowling balls.”
He snorted. “Sorry, Sir, but the limit is fifty pounds.”
I pulled out a prepared hundred-dollar bill and slid it across his desk. “The bag weights forty pounds.”
The man swiped the banknote without blinking. “Two hundred and eighteen pounds are far past the limit. You will need to split that into multiple bags.”
Greedy bastard. I drew my wallet, fished out three more hundred-dollar bills. “Keep the change,” I said and put them on the desk.
“Forty-eight pounds,” he said as he grabbed the banknotes. “You’re lucky the bag is within the limit.” He struck a few keys on the keyboard, the printer hummed, and he soon marked the luggage.
I took the confirmation note and headed to my gate. On the way, I grabbed a lamb liver sandwich and wondered if my stomach would ever get used to local cuisine. With a bit of luck though, my stay in Saudi Arabia wouldn’t be long. People swarmed through the airport, but not enough to make the trip troublesome. In the obnoxiously over-decorated foyer in front of my gate, about twenty men already waited.
With the plane leaving in fifteen minutes, that wasn’t a long wait. A man standing by the gate, said something in Arabic—from which I didn’t understand a word—and people headed to the gate. I was still among the first men to enter. After the host checked my ticket, I tipped my cowboy hat to him and entered the boarding tunnel.
This plane was a lot smaller than the Boeing in which I flew to Riyadh. A thin row led through the center with only two seats in each row. I reached the eighth row, looking out of the window at the wing stretching beyond. While removing my hat to store it in the overhead containers, a frown crept onto my face.
Sure, the men streaming into the plane wore a wild mixture of clothing, from uniforms through casual wear, including the local-traditional thobe, all the way to business suits. But where were the women, children or elderly? The men barely spared me a look, slowly filling the seats inside the plane.
This was a local airline to Sharuhah Domestic Airport, which lay on the south near the Yemen border, so not the typical travel trip, but still. Someone on the plane should have been coming with a family.
I tensed and flooded my body with aether. The energy, which was the foundation of all magic, overwhelmed my senses, washing away all other sensations. I nearly screamed out from the intoxication and the world’s colors inverted. As white turned into black, marks of other people’s aether became visible.
Most men in the plane had no discernible aether, as would be expected, but about a third had some color dripping out of them. Aether-talent was present in about one person from ten thousand, so a third of the plane being aether-talented was beyond suspicious.
And, no surprise there, a man with developed magical powers stood next to me, motioning toward the seat next to where I was supposed to sit. He wore a business suit and gave me a courtesy nod.
I closed the container area above the seats, my hat still in hand, and sat down by the window. I placed the hat into my lap, arranged the seat belt to appear closed and moved my coat to cover the buckle. Yes, sitting in the coat was going to look strange and make me sweat, but I didn’t feel like taking it off. Then again, almost nobody took off their coat or jacket, so the plane most likely didn’t have any heating.
Not that I had any weapons inside the jacket, but the extra layer of protection would help if things went wrong. I relaxed into the seat but kept my aether defenses active. The flight attendants, all men, went through the usual drill of pre-flight instructions.
Once the attendants finished, warning shone on the displays and the plane rolled onto the runway. Moments later, we were in the air and Riyadh was disappearing in the distance, giving way for the desert. The landscape turned into sand, more sand, an extra crap-load of sand and nothing else. Great. I was going to love this country. I gave the man sitting next to me an extra glance. His suit was immaculate, arranged and closed as he sat. What an amateur.
I spent a lot of time around New York’s financial sector, and there one quickly learned how to tell a professional from the newbie. Those who wore suits daily treated them like a random sweatshirts, so no matter how expensive the suits were, they were often crumpled, worn-off and often lightly stained. Never immaculate. Newbies, on the other hand, wore the suit once upon a blue moon, so they looked perfect. And this man didn’t even know that he should unbutton the suit before sitting down.
He realized I was studying him and put on a forced smile. “What brings you to the Middle East?” His English was perfect as well.
“Business.” I gazed out through the window but ensured my shields were at peak power. Him talking was dangerous since that could be hiding another sound I would have wanted to hear, like someone loading a shotgun. Sure, my aether shields made me difficult to kill, but they couldn’t stop a shotgun slug shot.
Hmph, he was testing me and I had nothing prepared for such questions. Not that it mattered now. “That’s none of your business.” I withdrew my phone and typed in a word Zawba’a. I showed him the screen. “What exactly does this word mean?”
He froze, staring at the screen.
“Google translate told me it could mean storm, cyclone, hurricane, or something like that. But I’d like to know the precise meaning and you look like you could tell me.”
Sweat flowed down his face, drenching his beard. Oh, he knew what I meant. “The translation is correct as it indeed means Storm.”
“Thanks.” I took the phone back. From what I knew, Zawba’a was one of the local Secret Societies. Few months ago, they financed a madman who wanted to turn half of New York into demons. I ended his life, but not before I lost a few friends. Though I wasn’t in the Saudi Arabia for revenge, at least not primarily.
My lover, Evelyn, was missing. Before she disappeared, she left me an amulet with a fragment of her soul. Thanks to that, I knew she was somewhere in the southern desert named Empty Quarter. At the thought, the cross hanging on my necklace felt cold against my chest and I felt a pull toward the south. Yes, her being in the same country from which Zawba’a originated may have been a coincidence, but I didn’t believe in those. In the supernatural underworld, coincidences were mere symptoms of larger plans of the supernatural world’s rulers.
I found a picture of Evelyn in my phone. Her orange eyes shone brightly on her youthful face, framed with crimson hair. I showed the screen to the man. “Have you ever seen her?”
Yes, he did. That was all I wanted to know. “Thanks.” I locked the screen, slid the phone into my pocket, put on my hat, and tied its strap under my jaw.
The man’s eyes widened and he shouted something in Arabic.
Too late. I aimed my hand below the window and funneled my aether into my palm. While the process wasn’t simple, my main combat spell was fast. Within a second, I formed a rotating sphere of compressed aether in my hand and released the energy. The blast shook the plane, drilling a hole into the wall, tearing apart the wing.
The wind’s draft threw me out of the plane. Cold wreathed me and I started falling. The plane spiraled down as well. Yes, there may have been some innocents on the plane, but I doubted that. And, admittedly, I didn’t care much. They kidnapped Evelyn and for that, all who crossed my path were going to die.
Though as much as I would have loved to watch the plane crash, I had to control my fall. I turned my body, stabilized in horizontal position and spread my arms and legs. That would slow my fall, also thanks to my coat.
My eyes watered from the icy air and I formed two rotating aether spheres in my palms. Shielded or not, I had to slow down my descent before landing, else the impact would kill me.
When the ground approached, I released the two blasts of energy. They hit the ground and ricocheted. A cloud of sand flew into the air, including some of my spell’s power. That felt like a truck hitting me, but also slowed my fall.
I turned my body and landed on my feet. Pain shot through me, but I withstood the impact. Sand blinded me momentarily.
With a smirk, I waited for the sand to fall. Afterward, I dusted myself, and cleaned my hat.
Aside from the endless sea of sand, I saw the plane smolder by the horizon. After digging my feet from the sand, I walked in the direction.
Despite falling at the same time, the plane crashed three miles away from me. Due to the damn sand, that took me almost an hour. Okay, that I wore business-casual leather shoes didn’t help. I walked past a corpse from time to time, which became more common as I approached the smoldering wreck. No one moved. The plane fell nose-first, so the first third was smashed to smithereens. The remaining wing smoldered as the gas stored within caught on fire, but the flames didn’t spread to the plane’s remainder. What interested me was luggage area, in particular, my weapon case.
I made my way through the wreckage, using my aether imbued strength. Since I could tear apart steel without breaking sweat, I soon gazed at the luggage section. Most luggage was utterly destroyed. But my weapon case, made to withstand a rocket, was fine. A bit more work allowed me to free the case from the wreckage.
Painful grunting caught my ear. I threw the weapon case over my shoulder and walked toward the sound.
The man in business suit who sat next to me lay on the ground, his body’s bottom half crushed under a piece of the plane’s rudder. Blood tickled from his mouth and he was trying to free himself.
I towered above him. “Going somewhere?”
He grunted and looked up at me, one eye bloodshot. “I always heard death finds us without a warning.” He coughed out blood. “Yet I always thought I would know my killer’s name.”
“The crimson-haired girl I showed you on the phone, where is she?”
“In Ubar.” He put on a smile. “But she belongs to Sultan. She is gone to you forever.”
Ubar, the Atlantis of the Sands. My intel was right. He gave me what I wanted, so I was going to honor the implicit deal and tell him my name. “I am Lucifer.” I stomped on his chest. My boot crushed his ribs, smashing the heart hidden beneath.
The man spat out blood and died.
I turned and headed into the desert, aiming at the direction in which my cross amulet tugged me.
Traveling through the desert was not fun. Luckily, there was internet signal thanks to satellites, so I could google how to get water. On the plus side, the desert sloped in my direction, so I walked slightly downhill. On the down side, the longitudinal dunes weren’t great. They reached up to three hundred feet in height and extended in long, parallel formation. Climbing up and down the dunes exhausted me even when I dripped aether through my body to keep myself going. The absolute lack of food wasn’t helping either.
But the worst thing was the boredom. The desert was endless. And everything looked the same since it featured sand, only sand. The second day was terrible. During the fourth day, I wished they would send some more assassins to hunt me down. That would be fun.
On the sixth day, I walked up a dune. Parked beneath were two unmanned, black Toyota Land Cruisers. What the hell?
I opened my case. The weapons were a complete mess since the fall tore them from their bindings. With a sigh, I rummaged through the grenades to find my gun belt. After a moment, I fixed the belt around my waist, tied the holsters to my thighs, checked I could draw the guns easily, and stuffed ammo—moon clips loaded with .44 hollow-tip bullets—into my pockets.
Afterward, I sealed the weapon case, grabbed its handle with my left hand, and descended the dune. The only sound was the wind’s howling.
I reached the cars. Their engines were turned off and keys weren’t left in the ignition. I tried the door but found them locked. The sand finally proved useful, keeping the car’s tracks. Both cars came together from the southeast. Nothing lay in that direction, at least as far as I knew. What seemed more interesting were the sets of footsteps leading west by the dune’s base. In a calm pace, I followed the trail, my right hand near my Colt’s grip.
After half a minute of walk, the tracks led me to a tunnel entrance in the dune’s base. Given it was two times two feet large, I would have to crawl through and leave my case behind. I opened the weapon case, found one small GPS tracker and turned it on. If someone would steal my case, I would at least be able to track the person.
Once the case was re-locked, I got on the ground and crawled into the tunnel. The shaft led far. The walls were made of dried clay and rocks, irregular and thus apparently hand-carved. I crawled for over a hundred feet before I reached the exit. Lit by an oil lamp lying on the ground, a room built similarly to the tunnel lay in front of me. Inside were two corpses, which filled the air with the pungent stench of blood.
I got out of the tunnel and straightened. The bodies, originally belonging to two women, bled from multiple puncture wounds and the room’s walls bore dozens small holes. A part of the ground was scorched, which was where I guessed a fragmentation grenade exploded. The women wore niqabs, robe-like garments, but had the hoods cut off, and so their long, black hair was free. One exit led from the room and I walked through. The hallway was narrow, but tall enough for me to walk upright even with my six feet and three inches of height.
A door on the side showed me a bedroom with four beds. The bedding was well-arranged, so no one slept when the attack happened. I continued through the hallway and reached a dome. Tall, glass ceiling allowed in sun’s gaze. In the middle lay a well surrounded by a field. Potatoes, tomatoes, wheat, and other plants were growing from the dirt. Among them lay six corpses, all female. By the bleeding wounds in their torsos and the small bullet shells on the ground under me, they were killed by rifles. The shooter stood exactly where I did now.
To the sides were storages and a single hallway led from the dome toward the other side. I descended the stairs to my right, crossed the dome and entered that hallway. More door rimmed the walls. The first one led into a bedroom with eight beds. No one was inside.
The second one offered another bedroom. This one was worse. Out of the eight beds, six had a dead woman inside. All of them were shot before they got out of the bed. These tunnels apparently blocked sound far too well.
One bed was empty, and in the last bed, a dead man lay on a dead woman. I walked to them. The woman had a nightgown, torn and pulled up, clearly by the man. He wore a traditional local outfit made of a white thobe covering his body and a white-red ghutrah on his head. He had a gun tucked by his belt next to ammo magazines.
The magazines clearly belonged to a rifle and I didn’t see one. By the clean-edged wounds in his and her body, the holes in the wall behind them, and the missing rifle, he was killed with his own weapon from borderline point-blank range. I glanced at the empty bed at the other side, the open wardrobe by the wall, and got an idea how this happened.
One of the women hid in the wardrobe and when the man came to rape this one, she snuck out, took the weapon he dropped and shot him. But she didn’t have the strength to hold the weapon straight, so she hit the woman by accident. Tough luck.
I returned to the hallway and advanced. Another dome welcomed me. Light shone through the glass ceiling onto a simple altar with a cross hanging above. Inside was an absolute massacre. Five girls, one old woman, and three men were dead on the ground.
The killing weapon, an AK-12, lay next to a girl. She was about ten years old, lay on her back, and was still bleeding. I frowned. That meant her heart was beating.
I ducked above her. She had medium-length blonde hair, pale face, wore a semblance of a nun-habit and a cross on her amulet. She apparently shot the men, but took a few hits in return. She bled from her lower abdomen, thigh, arm, and calf, all on the right hand side. That was too many wounds to survive.
My eyes rested on her ankle. The bones were broken sideways, mangled. No blood oozed through, so she was hobbled for a long time. Still, even crippled, she killed the attackers. She couldn’t save her friends, but she did achieve revenge.
I didn’t want her to die.
To heal someone with magic was nearly impossible. But not completely since I witnessed one such event. The moment I became a fallen angel, when Lucifer’s soul merged into mine, the act of his aether forcing its way into my body healed me from otherwise lethal wounds.
I didn’t have a soul crystal containing a fallen angel’s soul to give to her, so I went for the next best thing. I placed my hat on the ground, and grabbed her ankle. If this worked, she would need a healthy leg. I broke the ankle and straightened the bones. Not even that woke her up.
Well, that wasn’t a good sign. I fixed my palms on the cross pendant lying on her chest, and focused.
Back in the day, I tried healing others by pushing my aether into them. That delayed their deaths but never sealed the wounds. But I was always conservative with the amount of power I used for that. I focused, drawing strength from my heart, and my eyes turned into pools of darkness, a crown of horns sprouted from my head, and a tail slid out behind me.
Releasing the inner barrier through which I held back most of my power intoxicated my mind. I gathered all I could into my hands, and then pushed the power into her heart. Her body shook, but nothing else happened.
I wasn’t going to quit half-way. I forced more power into her body, so much her circulatory system couldn’t handle the inflow.
I pushed in more. And then some more of my power. I started feeling cold, a signal I was overusing aether, but I didn’t care and increased the push.
The girl’s back arched and wings of light burst out.
What? I lost concentration, my horns and tail disappearing with my eyes turning to normal. A halo of light blinked above her head and the wings disappeared. She fell back down.
I stared at her, wordless. What the hell was that?
She opened her eyes, gaze darting around before it fixed on my hands. She said something in Arabic.
“English?” I asked and removed my palms from her chest, confirming with a swift glance that her wounds weren’t bleeding anymore.
“No, I don’t speak English…” her eyes widened. “I just said something in English, didn’t I? How did I do that? I don’t remember ever learning English!”
Well, fuck. She learned English the same way I learned Latin. The angels that existed in this world weren’t really angels, but humans who received a real angel’s blessing. That blessing taught the person the language the angel spoke.
Except that I wasn’t an angel, so I couldn’t have turned her into one. Okay, sure, I was a fallen angel and have merged with the soul of the actual Lucifer, but I wasn’t supposed to be able to give an angel-making blessing. Though I had to ponder this later, and now, I had to tell her something. “Heavens give many blessings. What do you remember?”
She looked at me as if I was an idiot, but her expression turned into a puzzlement. “I… I… I don’t know. I remember Ubar, my owner, the woman who released me… but no names.” Her voice heated up. “I don’t remember anyone’s name. Not even mine! Who am I?”
Right, angelic blessing wiped out all memories of the person’s name and of everyone she knew. No name popped into my mind. But I couldn’t exactly whip out a phone and go search the most popular baby names. I put on my hat and rose, towering above her. I decided to go with something biblical. “I name you Lillith.”