Showcasing creative writing by university students around the world.

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Published Tuesday, July 24th, 2012

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The Wastrel And The World’s Axle

This tale concerns a bandit. However, he was not of the same order as the bandits of former ages. Like wolves who shrink from firelight, those earlier scoff-laws skirted the margins of the desert cities, and preyed on the men and women whose business took them across the dark distances between them.

Guest Writer

Linda, Louise and Mike Carey are three writers living in North London. Sometimes they write together, sometimes alone. Louise wrote The Diary of a London Schoolgirl for the website of the London Metropolitan Archive. She also co-wrote the graphic novel Confessions of a Blabbermouth with Mike. Linda, writing as A.J. Lake, authored the Darkest Age fantasy trilogy. She has also written for TV, most notably for the German fantasy animation series Meadowlands. Mike has written extensively in the comics field, where his credits include Lucifer, Hellblazer, X-Men and The Unwritten (nominated for both the Eisner and Hugo awards). He is also the author of the Felix Castor novels, and of the X-Men Destiny console game for Activision. He is currently writing a movie screenplay, Silent War, for Slingshot Studios and Intrepid Pictures.


They share their crowded house with two other writer/artists and a cat. Recently, Linda, Mike and Louise collaborated to write The Steel Seraglio, a novel inspired by the Arabian Nights. Set in a fictionalised ancient Arabia, it tells the story of a seraglio of 365 concubines living in the city of Bessa. When Bessa’s sultan and royal family are murdered in a violent coup, the city’s new ascetic leader, Hakkim Mehdad, sends the seraglio out into the desert. Unbeknownst to him, however, they carry with them the crown prince, a young boy named Jamal. When Hakkim discovers that an heir to the Bessan thone has survived, he orders his guards to kill both Jamal, and the whores who sheltered him. Condemned first to exile and then to death, the concubines must rely on their wits, their wiles, and the scanty food and shelter the desert offers them in order to survive Hakkim’s pursuit. But they want more than mere survival. As they flee through the desert, champions emerge, both from within their midst, and from the people they encounter on their journey: There is the assassin, Zulieka, who lives as a concubine for mysterious reasons of her own. The wise Gursoon, the oldest of the concubines, and the former sultan’s canniest adviser. The seer, Rem, who cries tears of ink. The camel-thief, Anwar Das, who offers his lying tongue to the seraglio’s cause. Together, they must transform the women of the harem into an army, a seraglio of steel. Their goal: to return to Bessa, defeat the tyrant who rules it, and take it for their own. An Arabian Nights-style fantasy with a feminist twist, The Steel Seraglio takes the form of a series of self-contained stories which catalogue the fortunes of the concubines, their friends and enemies, and the people they encounter along their way.


Published by Chizine Press in the USA and Canada, and Gollancz in the UK, where it will appear under the title City of Silk and Steel, it can be ordered online from Amazon, and will be available in UK bookshops early next year. This issue of The Storygraph includes a piece written by Louise, ‘The Wastrel and the World’s Axle’. This dark fantasy story takes place in the same world as The Steel Seraglio, and was originally published in a limited edition chapbook written to promote the novel. Its inclusion in The Storygraph is the first time it has appeared in the UK.

The Wastrel And The World’s Axle

This tale concerns a bandit. However, he was not of the same order as the bandits of former ages. Like wolves who shrink from firelight, those earlier scoff-laws skirted the margins of the desert cities, and preyed on the men and women whose business took them across the dark distances between them. Sakhad, by contrast, made his home in the very city where he carried out most of his work, indeed the city where he had passed his childhood.


It may seem that he took a huge risk in so doing, but in Sakhad’s age the cities had grown, like cancers, to monstrous proportions, spreading across the land until they all but swallowed up the stretches of wilderness in between. There was no better place to hide than within their narrow alleys, their hulking buildings and squalid rooms.


Sakhad’s life started badly. His mother, Nilah, suffered greatly while she carried him, and was convulsed by wracking pains for months before he was born. Once, she bled so profusely that she felt sure her child had died in her womb. When she finally did give birth it was her own life she nearly lost. Sakhad rushed into the world in a torrent of blood, screaming as if already horrified at the prospect of the existence before him.


It was a beginning borne out by the circumstances of his youth, which was lived in abject and miserable conditions. In many ways, the city that Sakhad grew up in seemed like a desert to him. His mother’s pitiful wage meant that food was always scarce in their home, and the sordid area of town where they had their lodgings was full of predators, though these were the predators of the city and not the desert, and so could not be known by either claws or fangs.


Sakhad was surrounded by the things he desired, but separated from them all by the thin veneer of poverty. Like a desert mirage, what he longed for was always in his sight, yet constantly retreating before him. And no matter how many people swarmed through the city’s streets and crowded its squares, he always felt that, aside from the comforting presence of his mother, he was completely alone there.


The more the boy considered it, the more it seemed to him that life in a real desert could only be an improvement on his current lot. After all, he reasoned, the desert was the home of his ancestors. Nilah was not a native of the land of slums and towers where her son had been born, but had travelled there from another, emptier country. As he grew from an infant to a young boy, Sakhad began to think that he had been displaced, that the reason he did not thrive in his current home was because he had been robbed of the home that was his birthright and his due.


Nilah observed the unhappiness and resentment that grew in her son, and resolved to alleviate it if she could. But they were too poor to travel – Sakhad had never even left the city where he was born – and the chance of finding work in the country of her birth was too slim for her to consider moving back there with a young child in tow.


In truth, she knew of only one way that her boy could see the desert which filled his dreams, and she had been cautioned while still a child herself never to resort to it lightly. Had her mother and grandfather been alive, they would have frowned upon what Nilah intended to do now, but she felt that she had no choice. Though her life in the city was safe, and she had work enough to live by, the joy had seeped from her days like water from a sponge. She could not resign herself to watching the same happiness wither in her son.


So she sought a brief, dearly won absence from her workplace, dug out her grandfather’s compass from the box under her bed, and prepared a large pack of provisions. The following week, she took the compass in one hand and Sakhad by the other.


“We are going on a holiday,” she told him, noticing with pleasure how his eyes brightened.


In the hour before sunset, mother and son set off towards the West. Sakhad did not understand why they departed for their holiday on foot, and with no more on their persons than the clothes they wore and the pack which Nilah carried on her back. At first he asked many questions, but she answered them all in the same way, telling him that he would understand when they arrived. Soon he gave up asking, and they continued in silence.


His mother led him on through the darkening streets, drawing him further and further away from all that he had known until the landmarks he saw became strange to him. They kept walking, and by the time the sky had grown dark they had left the inner city behind and entered the wide, leafy streets which marked the neighbourhoods of the rich.


Sakhad’s insides writhed with envy as they passed the immaculate gardens and sprawling houses, thinking perhaps of the single room which he and his mother shared. They walked until they could walk no more, then slept in the shadows of a large tree, waking at dawn to continue their journey.


At dusk on the second day, the hard road on which Sakhad walked shifted beneath his feet. He looked down in surprise, and saw that the grey track had petered out into sand. Behind him, the tree-lined street with its rows of bright houses went on. Before him, where the street had once been, a vast desert stretched towards the sky, where the burning orb of the sun fixed it in place, a draper’s pin on a swathe of golden silk.


Sakhad turned to stare at his mother in voiceless wonderment. She only smiled, and kept on walking. That night, they slept in a tent in the desert, surrounded by more space than Sakhad had ever seen in his life before. The following day, they came to a hill of rock topped by five spurs that thrust upwards into the air. From its base, a tiny spring bubbled, and it was here that Nilah stopped.


“This is the Hill of the Hand,” she told Sakhad, “and beyond it is the cave where the djinni live”. She pointed ahead to where the mouth of a ravine loomed in the distance, still visible in the evening light. As Sakhad looked at it, it seemed to grow in size as if it were moving towards him. Its black entrance yawned and stretched like the impossible jaws of a snake. He blinked, and the ravine was still and distant again, as it had been before. He turned away, dismissing what he had seen as a vision brought on by his tiredness and the failing day.


“This is the desert of the seven djinni, the axle on which the world turns,” Nilah said, her voice solemn. “I have brought you here, as my mother brought me, and her father brought her. Wherever you are in the world, you may reach it, now that you have the skill of it.”


Sakhad listened attentively to her speech, knowing that the words he heard were centuries old. She told him the rules of the place. “First, you must never speak to the others who come here. They are from a different age. Second, you must never visit the djinni themselves. They are said to grant wishes, but they are demons, and will give you what you ask for, not what you seek.”


Sakhad was but a child of eight, and he did not fully understand his mother’s words. But he nodded dutifully, eager for her to release his hand and give him free run of this new place. He spent the evening making sandcastles, a tiny figure on an infinite beach. They pitched their tent by the Hill of the Hand that night, and the next morning they made the three-day journey home.


Now, when the city-desert filled him with more loathing and loneliness than he could stand, Sakhad had another desert to turn to for comfort. After that day, he and his mother came to the Hill of the Hand whenever Nilah could spare the time from her work. Sakhad would pack some food and a tent, and when Nilah got home in the evening they would set off.


Once they arrived, they could stay as long as they wanted; time did not seem to function in the desert of the djinni, so that their sojourns there were only limited by the amount of provisions they could carry. They had picnics, bathed in the little spring, and gazed at the stars, so much brighter than the stars of the city.


It takes a strange child to love a desert, but Sakhad did, more than any place he had ever been. He loved it because it was empty, and it was his. He had found the home of his birthright, and it was everything that he had hoped for.


The only disquieting things about it were those that he had been warned against. He had distrusted the ravine where the djinni lived since his experience the first time he saw it, and so far from visiting it he even avoided looking in its direction. It was swathed in shadow even at noon, when the sun stared down from the centre of the sky and all other shadows fled, and its cavernous mouth seemed sometimes to be an eye, which stared out at the desert in unblinking vigil.


The others who visited the ravine, who Nilah had told him not to speak to, were grey, shadowy people, silhouettes of men and women who passed Sakhad by as if he were no more than a shade himself. They came at odd moments from the desert beyond, presumably to ask some boon of the djinni, and he shuddered with horror when he caught sight of them, ceasing whatever game he was currently employed in until they had entered the ravine and disappeared.


As Sakhad got older, he began to travel to the desert of the djinni on his own. Nilah’s work became more demanding, and she seldom now had time to go herself. Many evenings she would return home to find food missing from the shelves and her son vanished.  Sometimes whole weeks would pass without her seeing him at all.


Nilah reproached her son for his long absences, hinting gently that perhaps he, too, should be working to support them. But Sakhad was a wayward youth, and preferred being his own master in the desert to serving another in the crowded streets of his home. He spent his days alone in the wasteland, cursing the fate that had made him poor in a world full of wealth, and as he grew into adolescence, the resentment he had felt as a child curdled into rage. As a boy, Sakhad had built sandcastles by the Hill of the Hand. When slightly older, he used to retire there for a couple of illicit cigarettes and a chance to pleasure himself uninterrupted. As a young man, he used it to hide the plunder from his many thefts.


Sakhad would not have called himself a bandit; he framed his profession in the language of his age, but though the terms associated with the profession had changed, the essentials had not. Over the years which separate childhood from maturity, Sakhad made enormous progress in his chosen career. He went from petty theft to armed robbery, accosting passers-by on dark nights for the contents of their pockets. His first and only legitimate employer, a shopkeeper, dismissed him from his service for embezzlement. The following night, he broke into the man’s home and stole all his silverware. He burgled other houses, stealing money, and even furniture when he could enlist the help of accomplices.


The city had held nothing but torment for the boy; he repaid it in its own coin. He fenced what he could, bringing the money home to his mother. She wept to see it, tears both of sorrow and relief; for while she deplored the business that her son had fallen to, she lived now on a pension barely sufficient to support herself, and desperately needed the income he brought her, however shameful its source.


What Sakhad could not fence, he took to the desert of the djinni, storing it in a chest behind the Hill of the Hand. The key to this chest he kept around his neck at all times, guarding it jealously even from Nilah.


He cut purses. He forced merchants to hand over their goods and profits at knife-point. One night, he broke into a jeweller’s, and made off with chains and rings of such precious make, and in such quantity, that should he manage to sell them all he could live quite comfortably on the profits for the rest of his natural life. Undoubtedly it was the heist of his career, but it was here that Sakhad’s problems began, for while there was certainly a market for the goods he had acquired, they had provenance, and the jeweller had already put out descriptions of the items he had lost. No fence in the country would risk buying them now, and if Sakhad tried to sell them on himself, he would surely be caught, and punished to the utmost extent of the law.


It was this in this predicament that Sakhad decided to do what he had promised his mother he would never do. Accordingly he packed some food, and the jewels which he had stolen, and set out to seek the help of the seven djinni.


He walked quickly, his hat pulled low over his face. A warrant had been issued for his arrest, and he needed the sanctuary of the djinni’s desert as much as the advice of the djinni themselves. When the street he walked on turned to sand on the second day, he breathed a sigh of relief.


He reached the entrance to the ravine the following day at dusk, and paused there, filled with a deep unease. Reminding himself that his need was great, he took a deep breath to steady himself and plunged into the darkness.


The path was short. The djinni were waiting for him at the end of it. Sakhad found that he could only look at them with difficulty; they seemed simultaneously too close and too far away to see clearly, wavering in and out of focus and producing a dull, nagging pain behind his eyes whenever he tried too hard to concentrate on them. At times he thought he could see them perfectly: they were a troop of beautiful women, a rabble of demons, a herd of fierce animals. As soon as one image clarified, another took its place, the first dissolving as if it had never been. Eventually Sakhad turned his head away from them in pain and frustration, and addressed his plea to the ground.


“Great djinni, I come before you in supplication,” he began, speaking with as much formality as he could muster. “There are goods which I must sell, but I cannot do so in my home country. I humbly beg that you send me to a far off place, where I might engage in trade without danger to myself. I would be most – – ” He was cut off by a sound like the taste of burnt metal. The forms of the djinni began to warp, as if reflected in a convex mirror. Sakhad shrank back in fear.


We are the axle on which the world turns. Take your trinkets and depart.


The words seemed to enter his mind without passing through his ears. He did not dare argue, and began the return journey at once. Sakhad assumed that he had been dismissed, the djinni scorning to grant the trivial request that he had brought before them. Perhaps, he thought, he should have asked them for a gift better befitting their great powers, such as the ability to go where he would unseen, or even to produce money from the air.


But he had misunderstood the import of their words, which were an explanation rather than an expression of contempt. Nilah had told him that he could reach the djinni’s cave from anywhere, once he had the skill of it. The djinni had merely indicated that such an arrangement could work both ways, if they willed it. On the second day of his journey, the sand beneath Sakhad’s feet gave way not to the hard roads of his city, but to somewhere else entirely. He found himself in an unfamiliar place, a city filled with domes of glass and towers of steel.


Once he had overcome his astonishment, Sakhad turned to the task in hand. Though the city was in a far country, and he did not speak the language there, with a thief’s unerring instinct he made a string of shady acquaintances, who eventually led him to one who was willing to buy his goods. He concluded his business to everyone’s satisfaction, and set off again to the West, and the desert of the djinni.


When he came into their presence for a second time, they took the form of seven pillars, which writhed and boiled in the air. Faces, contorted in agony or demoniac glee, surfaced constantly from the seething mass, grimacing at Sakhad for a moment and then vanishing. He felt his breath come quick in his lungs and his heart pound in his ears, but the djinni had granted his first request, so he spoke boldly to them.


“I thank you for your help,” he said. “Now I would ask a further boon of you. I need to get back.”


The forms before him twisted into one, which whirled like a hurricane pierced with jags of light. The swirling mass towered over him, yawning wide so that he could see into its centre. It was red inside, and lined with teeth, like the gullet of some monstrous predator. Back? it seemed to ask him.


Sakhad was terrified into audacity. “Yes, back,” he retorted. “You’ve done it before. Send me back to where I started from.” The djinni howled with unearthly laughter, or perhaps it was only the howling of the wind that Sakhad heard. The whirlwind beast seemed to tear itself apart in the air, the fragments transforming into a thousand chittering insects, with vicious claws and stingers dripping poison. They flew at Sakhad’s face, and he stifled a scream lest he choke on them. It is done, the insects whined, leave this place.


Sakhad needed no further encouragement. He turned and fled through the ravine and back out into the desert, slowing only when he had passed the Hill of the Hand and entered the featureless desert beyond. There he slackened his pace, reflecting that this time, too, the djinni had given him his wish. They had seemed angry at his intrusion, however. He resolved not to visit them again if he could avoid it.


As Sakhad walked, the air began to darken around him, until he could no longer see the sand his feet trod upon. At first, he took the darkness merely for the early onset of night, and kept walking. But when he looked up at the sky, he saw no stars there, nor the hulking masses of the clouds that might hide the stars – nothing, in fact, to distinguish the black of the earth from the black of the heavens. He blinked, and there was no difference between the darkness which surrounded him and that which lay behind his closed eyelids.


Panic seized him. He started to run, but immediately he did so the sand turned spongy and soft beneath his feet, the sudden yielding of the ground causing him to trip and drop the pack which held his money. He felt around for it, slowly patting the area where he had fallen. The surface which met his hands was slick and warm. It moved, heaving gently beneath his questing fingers.


Jerking away in a convulsive movement of horror, Sakhad tried to rise, but the surface was too slippery. So he began to crawl through the blackness, recoiling from the slimy warmth. The ground rose and fell gently beneath him as he went.


He seemed to crawl for centuries, and as he crawled, he seemed to shrink. He crawled out of his trousers and then his shirt. The key on its piece of string around his neck slipped over his shoulders, down to his waist, and eventually fell off. He ground it beneath him as he crawled. The key’s edge was sharp, and though Sakhad did not know it, it caught and tore at the soft substance of the ground, leaving a tear from which blood flowed as from a wound.


Meanwhile, the heaving of the earth grew stronger. It was accompanied now by a rhythmic, thumping sound. Still he crawled on, the sound filling his consciousness until he was aware of nothing else. In time he came to the point where his strength was spent, and he could crawl no longer. The warm wetness surrounded him, pressing in on all sides. He kicked at it feebly, flailing his arms, but his fears had ebbed away as does the tide, taking with them his memory of how he had arrived at this place, or where he had come from.


The djinni are the axle on which the world turns, but they are not only this. They govern the motion not just of the compass, but of the clock also: you may set forth to reach them from any point in time or space, but there is no guarantee that they will suffer you to return along the angle of your approach. “Send me back to where I started from,” Sakhad had asked them, and they had granted what he asked for, not, as his mother had warned him, what he sought.


The darkness was moist and warm. Sakhad rested there, too small now to be discerned by the human eye. He no longer remembered the reason for his visit to the djiinni. He was not yet aware of his own name. There would be time for that, time to hold his mother’s hand and build sandcastles in the desert, time to smoke quiet cigarettes and smuggle diamonds. For now, he rested, back at his starting point, until the time should come for him to run the cycle of his life once again.

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