Harrison Peel counted the dead as more covered corpses rolled into the Marrakech morgue. They weren’t really humans, rather the dissected remains of their flesh, bloody in leaking body bags. The sharp, coppery smell of blood filled the room, reminding Peel of an abattoir.
Lounging next to Peel was Fabien Chemal, a spook with Morocco’s DST intelligence agency. Chemal mumbled something in Arabic about being inconvenienced by the gory spectacle. While he watched junior spooks and morgue attendants catalogue the grim remains, he offered Peel a cigarette. Peel refused, wishing instead for a good strong coffee.
“How many dead?” Peel wiped his sweaty hands on cotton pants. It should have been cold in this place. That’s how they would have done it back in the NSA. Cold to keep the body parts preserved for proper forensic analysis.
Chemal shrugged, lit his cigarette. “We don’t know yet. At least eighteen dead: five Americans, two Germans, one Spaniard. The rest were my people, but I guess your people won’t care about that.”
“I care.” Peel said as he stood. The smell of death and smoke felt constricting from his seat in a corner. “The NSA care, otherwise I wouldn’t be here.”
Chemal raised an eyebrow. “I get the impression, Mr. Peel, that you were a little eager to come in person, rather than send a subordinate?”
Peel didn’t know precisely what Chemal’s rank was in the murky hierarchy of the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire. He did know that any time he didn’t spend with Chemal he would spend being tailed. They were controlling him, and this would make his job here more difficult than it needed to be.
The morgue was in the basement of Marrakech DST offices. At least one more level existed beneath their feet, reserved for DST’s prisoners and interrogation cells. In this building, the dead warranted more respect than detainees.
“Some personal reason perhaps, Mr. Peel?”
Peel ignored Chemal’s question. The Moroccan’s tone sounded too inquisitive, as if Peel were under interrogation. “You said you don’t know how many died in the blast? How’s that? And secondly I’m not sure it really was a blast. To me the bodies look like they’ve been sliced to pieces. Thousands of pieces?”
“They were … They still will be?”
Peel’s stomach felt empty. He was confused, but then everything about yesterday’s terrorist bombing in Jemaa el-Fna square lacked any resemblance to sense. The blast had been invisible, soundless. People were shredded where they stood in the Marrakech market. Yet their clothes, wallets, purses, souvenirs and the pavement beneath them remained untouched. It was as if invisible demons had mutilated their victims with razor sharp teeth and claws.
“Do you know that some of the victims died before the blast occurred, hours, even days before?”
“I don’t understand?”
Chemal shrugged. “Neither do we … really.” His burned-down cigarette hung precariously from his lip as he reached for another. Perhaps his need to smoke was only a need not to smell death. “Of the eighteen dead, two were market vendors who would have been in the square at the time of the blast, had they not been shredded three days earlier. The German pair were found in their homes two mornings ago in the same mutilated state.”
Feeling anxious, Peel rubbed the back of his head where it itched. He saw a pattern now, and wished he didn’t. Yet he’d been right to come so far, these people needed to know what he knew, if only they would let him help. “There’s more, isn’t there Mr. Chemal?”
“Yes.” The Moroccan lit a new cigarette from the embers of the last one. “Three more have died in the twenty-four hours since. Same cause of death: spontaneous shredding.”
“And none were in the square at the time?”
“They were when the blast went off.” He caught Peel’s stare with a sardonic grin. “You came all this way Mr. Peel, all the way from Maryland, U.S.A. Can you tell me what it is that’s happened here?”
Peel wouldn’t catch his stare. “You said the bomber is still alive? I need to speak to her before I can give you definite answers … if I can do even that.”
The DST agent glared. “Be my guest,” he snorted, and waved to indicate that they should now leave.
He escorted Peel downstairs, past two Royal Moroccan Army privates, their Steyr AUG assault rifles and unblinking stares guarding the only entrance. Deeper in the smell was of shit and perspiration.
“What do we know about her?” Peel asked as the corridor grew dark and confining. He didn’t look in any of the cell’s peep holes, afraid of what he’d see. Even the air felt more constrained down here.
“Her name is Souad Benhammou. She’s not talking, but we suspect she is a member of Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group. MICG, a terrorist organization as Wikipedia likes to label them. Our information suggests that someone from the West is funding them, in all likelihood someone in the United States.”
“You have evidence of this?”
“Nothing substantial. We do suspect she’s related to the wealthy Benhammou family, although they are denying it.”
“And who are they, exactly?”
Chemal laughed throatily. “The Benhammous? They’re ‘Arabized’ Berbers who made their fortunes long ago in phosphate mining. A rare breed–wealthy Berbers I mean.”
“Perhaps.” He stopped outside a cell, took a large metal key from his pocket. “You really want to talk to her? She hasn’t responded to any of our interrogation methods, any of them, and it’s been over twenty-four hours.”
Despite his misgivings, Peel nodded.
“Well good luck then.” Chemal’s tone was flat. He sounded like he wanted to be somewhere else.
The door was opened slowly, betraying its weight when Chemal pushed his whole body into it. Hesitantly Peel stepped inside.
In the tiny cell, a thin woman sat against a wall stained with trickles of dark water. Dressed in a black jellaba, only her face and cuffed hands showed. Dark eyes stared through Peel and the wall behind him. She looked like she’d been staring at nothing for a very long time. When Peel stepped closer he saw that her hands betrayed the usual third-world interrogation technique bruises, and several circular cigarette burns. It was Chemal’s crushed filters that littered the concrete floor. Peel cringed, wondered who was the enemy here.
“I’ll leave you to it.” Chemal locked Peel in.
Peel sat opposite the young woman on the only other chair, where she had to stare through him unless she wanted to break her gaze. She didn’t.
He spoke to her slowly in his disjointed Arabic. “My name is Harrison Peel. Once upon a time I used to be a Major with the Royal Australian Army, fighting terrorists like you. Now however, I work for America’s National Security Agency as a consultant. I still work in counter-terrorism, but these days we’re against a different breed of terrorist. Men and women who’ve made deals with dark gods, alien gods … You know what I’m talking about: the real gods.”
There was the briefest flicker of her eyes. Slight enough that if Peel hadn’t been paying attention, he would have missed it.
“I’m here because you have a weapon, an explosive device that works outside our perceptions of space and time. A weapon beyond the limitations that you and I and everyone on this world is trapped inside, called cause and effect.”
Her concentration broken, she looked at him through tired eyes. When she answered it was in English. “What would you know of these things?”
“A lot more than you could imagine,” Peel too switched to his native tongue because it was easier for him, “perhaps, or perhaps not?”
“The weapon was a gift, a gift from the Masked Messenger.”
Peel raised a questioning eyebrow. “Nyarlathotep?”
Her blood-shot eyes grew large, and she trembled. With that single word Peel had finally rattled her.
She spoke softly now, but there was no mistaking the venom in her tone. “It seems you are well versed in the shadowed world.”
Peel gave a tiny smile, remembering his own haunted past, and where he’d read the name Nyarlathotep before, words that had left him cold. “Yes, unfortunately.” He leaned forward, whispering. “Let’s start at the beginning shall we? I know you’re not Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group as you’d like everyone here to believe. From some reading I did in a very old book, I can see that you’re really a member of a secret sect which calls themselves the Sisterhood of the Masked Messenger.”
She went back to saying nothing again. Chemal was right, she would indeed be difficult to break. He wasn’t sure he had the will to break her, or if he really should.
“What I don’t understand, Souad Benhammou, is how you triggered the bomb without being killed.”
She permitted him one more flicker of her eyes, one more acknowledgment that he existed. “Who said I survived?”
It took Peel several seconds to notice his whole body had gone cold. He toppled out of his chair, stumbled backwards against the cell door, to smash his fists against its coarse metal.
“Chemal!” he cried. “Chemal!” he screamed.
He looked back to her.
She smiled for him, briefly. Then her face lined with a dozen crimson lacerations. Her shape seemed to fold, crumpled into her falling jellaba. Her heart, before it collapsed into a dozen slices with the rest of her meat, pumped one final time, spraying Peel with the last of her living blood.
A fist slammed into Udad Benhammou’s mouth with a meaty thunk, nearly knocking him out of his chair. Only the handcuffs that fastened him to the steel table saved him from a fall. Fabian Chemal looked around the small, dingy cell, as if seeking answers from anywhere but his silent prisoner.
“Your sister is a terrorist, Udad, and so are you. When is the next planned attack? Who is the target?”
Udad looked down at the American football Chemal had placed in his lap. Earlier the interrogator had put on gloves and rubbed the unclean pigskin over Udad’s bloody face. The man was a disgrace to everything holy, nothing but a Western puppet. Udad did not let his hatred show. He did not speak, allowing the interrogator to read what he wanted from Udad’s silence.
There would be a reckoning, and this dog would receive his reward.
Chemal lit another foul cigarette, and waved the cherry-red tip threateningly close to Udad’s eye.
“In the old days, we would have sewn filth like you into a pigskin and dropped you in the river. You are nothing but an Al-Qaieda puppet, a fool who wants to murder women and children for some ignorant interpretation of Al-Qur’an.”
Udad did not react. He merely stared into a corner of the room. The red glow of the cigarette moved away from his eye.
“Unfortunately, we have a squeamish Westerner who seems to think he can walk into another country’s affairs. Typical cowboy.” He punctuated his annoyance by putting out his cigarette on Udad’s forearm. Udad heard the sizzle of his burning flesh, but the pain was less to him than the itch of a mosquito bite.
Vaguely, Udad heard a scream, and then another. Chemal took no notice of it until a thickset man came through the cell door to whisper something in Chemal’s ear. With a look of annoyance, they both left, and Udad was alone in the dirty concrete cell.
He’d barely had time to think before Chemal was back. He placed a boot on Udad’s chest and shoved. The chair would have tipped over but for the cuffs that locked Udad’s wrists to the steel table. Chemal leaned his weight onto his prisoner, and the joints in the Udad’s arms protested.
“Seems our American got a little excited. I hope you weren’t too attached to your sister.”
“Souad?” Udad had thought himself immune to pain. Chemal’s face became a mask of triumph, and Udad realized he had spoken aloud.
“She’s a bit of a mess–you probably wouldn’t recognize her anymore.” He searched Udad’s face before going on. “I don’t know what he did, but the blood he got on the lightbulb makes the whole place stink.”
Udad closed his eyes and tried not to imagine what the cursed mongrel had done to Souad, but the reek of burned flesh suggested too many things. She was in Paradise with the martyrs, but the assurance only brought him scraps of comfort.
Chemal gave Udad a spiteful shove that nearly dislocated his shoulders.
“Unfortunately, our enthusiastic but careless American has managed break what could have been a valuable source of information.” He shrugged, then moved his weight. “You are, therefore, free to go.” Chemal kicked the chair out from under Udad, slamming his face against the sharp edge of the table. Udad could feel blood slowly oozing down his forehead, and wondered how badly he had been cut.
Chemal stalked out of the cell. Some time passed before a hard-faced officer unlocked Udad’s cuffed wrists. Less than five minutes later, the prisoner found himself outside police headquarters, back among the familiar busy streets of Marrakesh.
Udad stumbled down the road, his mind in turmoil, his body aching. He could not risk contacting the Group. Not even through one of the anonymous mail-drops at an Internet Café. Chemal must have thought him truly stupid if he believed that Udad would lead the DST to his comrades.
Through tired eyes Peel watched the red sun rise over the High Atlas range. He muffled a yawn behind his hand, yet felt invigorated by the clean air outside the ramparts of Marrakech, so different to the stifling medinas. “Where are we going?” he asked Fabien Chemal, who lit another cigarette from his perpetually-full packet. He too was red-eyed.
“Tamegroute, near Algeria.”
Peel nodded, recalling that the town was situated on the edge of the Sahara not far from the Algerian border. Its location was about as remote as one could get in Morocco.
“We’ve captured another Combat Group terrorist.”
“Oh.” He hadn’t expected news like this, and wasn’t certain if he should feel positive or cautious. He wondered why he hesitated, he’d heard the name Tamegroute before, but couldn’t remember where.
He looked at the truck that was to be their transport, hired to a production company shooting a film in Ouarzazate. In the enclosed tray were stage lights, power boards and other electrical goods that Peel couldn’t identify.
“The truck belongs to a cousin,” was all that Chemal offered in explanation. “He needs it to go to Ouarzazate, and so do we. From there we can arrange further transport to Tamegroute.”
When the two spooks were sealed inside the tray, the truck set off east into the High Atlas. Chemal was soon snoring. With no windows to enjoy the scenery, Peel opened his copy of The Masked Messenger to jog his memory concerning Tamegroute. He felt certain that the answer lay in the book.
Peel had bought this first English edition in Marrakech many years ago. At the time he’d used it to aid him with another similarly peculiar investigation in the Congo. Obtained from a scholar named Jamal Alhazred, this copy was a rare edition. Printed by Colombia University Press in 1930, it had been translated by the Professor Samuel Colbridge and then edited and compiled by Professor Rudolph Pearson. If the signature and bookplate were authentic, this had been Pearson’s personal copy.
As Peel flipped through the pages, he unconsciously removed his bookmark, a photograph of Nicola Mulvany and himself relaxing on a pristine beach in tropical Queensland. They looked happy, and this brought a tear to his eye. Not a day went by when Peel didn’t yearn to have Nicola again, to share more moments like the moment in the photo, for the rest of their lives together.
“She’s very pretty.”
Peel snapped the book shut, hiding the picture within the yellowed pages. It was a woman who had spoken to him, from the shadows towards the back. When Peel saw her clearly, he saw that she had long dark hair, deep grey eyes, and a smile that was seemingly both sardonic and understanding. Peel couldn’t guess her age, but there was no doubt she was the most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes upon. And yet he could not find it in him to feel attracted to her, as if there was an element in her chemistry that he recoiled from.
“I’m sorry I gave you a start Mr. Peel. I thought you were aware I was here.”
“Who are you?” He blinked at her.
“My name is Ms. Rope.” Her English was perfect. Her accent he couldn’t place. “But most people know me by my first name, Lathanty. I work with Fabien Chemal in the DST. Didn’t he tell you about me?”
Peel felt stunned, like he’d just walked away from a major road accident. “I … ?”
“What, Mr. Peel?”
“I didn’t know you were there. You just startled me–that’s all.”
She smiled thinly.
“What do you do Ms. Rope, I mean with the DST?”
“Let’s just say I’m an intelligence analyst.”
“Specifically, I advise on the obscurities in human relationships that are too subtle or too arcane for the average DST agent.” She nodded to Chemal who still snored. “When dealing with suicidal terrorists, often they prove to be fanatical experts on their religious texts. Understanding them and their sources becomes an important tool in determining their motives, and to find them before they strike.”
Peel nodded in agreement, even though he didn’t believe her. Women in Morocco fared better than in most Islamic countries, but few women were employed in the Moroccan secret service. And yet Chemal must have known about her, because from where he sat he could not have failed to notice her before he drifted off.
“That photograph, is that your wife?”
“My fiancée,” Peel explained. He slipped the picture from the book so Lathanty could look at it. Then he took the engagement ring from his pocket where he could touch it whenever he felt alone and lost. He showed her the ring, but didn’t let it go.
“She died before I could give it to her, just over a year ago, so she’s not really my fiancée.” Peel explained quickly not wanting the unasked question to linger. “It was my fault. I got her messed up in this world of secrets and deceit, and it cost her.” He didn’t add that Nicola had been torn to shreds by an alien monster born in another dimension. A death all too similar to Souad Benhammou’s passing. His trip to Morocco was stirring old feelings.
“You must miss her?” She handed back the photograph.
“What would you do to bring her back?”
“Anything,” blurted Peel. Then he looked to Lathanty, intrigued by her peculiar question. “But she’s dead. I just have to accept that, don’t I? Move on. She’d want me to do that, not wallow in self pity.”
Lathanty looked to The Masked Messenger which Peel held tight in his sweating hands, as he slipped the photograph back inside. “That’s an interesting book you’re reading Mr. Peel.”
“You’ve read it?”
“Let’s just say I’m well acquainted with its content.”
Peel didn’t want to ask, but suspected she was implying knowledge of the original. That version had been written in Arabic in the early Eighteenth Century by a woman called Sharinza, the same woman who was supposed to have founded the Sisterhood of the Masked Messenger. A more chilling thought; Lathanty might have even read the even more ancient tome that had influenced the original Masked Messenger, a tome known in obscure academic circles as Al-Azif. That book would later inspire many translations and become famous as the most comprehensive and terrifying guide to cosmic horrors this world had ever seen, the Necronomicon. Not that Peel had ever laid eyes on any of these manuscripts; he knew them only by their fearsome reputation.
“It’s an interesting book Mr. Peel. Five hundred fables, most of them concerning a dark god called the Masked Messenger, Nyarlathotep, and how she offers power and salvation to those who ask for it. There is, of course, always a price.”
“I thought most of the protagonists died horrible deaths.”
That thin, almost nonexistent smile again. “That’s because most of them bargained poorly. Did you ever read the tale of Sharinza herself, how she walked into the deep Algerian desert in search of the Temple of the Masked Messenger, forgotten for eons, buried under the Saharan sands?”
Peel remembered. It was the very story that mentioned Tamegroute, the town which had been playing on his mind since their departure. It was also the first story in the book, a prologue of sorts. Sharinza had found the temple, met with a god, then returned to her homelands. She brought untold horrors back with her, horrors that unfolded into four-hundred-and-ninety-nine more tales of death, madness and destruction. Some of those horrors were not too dissimilar to the weapon Souad had used in Marrakech.
“You should read it again. Sharinza bargained for the life of her lover.”
Peel felt his heart flutter. “And did she get him back?”
Lathanty looked away. “Read it again Mr. Peel, find out for yourself.”
Udad wandered the streets of Marrakech seeking some surcease of his pain, finding none. He considered assaulting the Westerner, gunning him down like a dog in the street. But the police retaliation would be swift and certain. He would be a martyr, all his sins forgotten, but how would he know for certain that the man was dead? It occurred to him that he didn’t even know the name of the butcher who had laid hands on Souad. Frustration welled up in him. What could he do?
Defeated, he returned to his small, sparsely-furnished apartment.
On his small cot was a cardboard box. There was no address, no note, simply the box, held closed with tape. Listless and sore from a day of volatile emotions and physical abuse, Udad opened the box without interest.
The book inside was old and beautiful. He ran his fingers over the raised, flowing script on the leather cover. The Masked Messenger. He had never heard of it. A small scrap of paper stuck out of the thick sheaf of pages. Udad opened to it. It was a note, unsigned, but in Souad’s careful, well-practiced hand.
If you have the courage to avenge my dishonor at the hands of the Westerner, this is the key.
A cold thrill moved through him. She had known. She had known what would happen to her. Emotions warred in him. He had never been more proud of her, and yet his anger quickly resurfaced–he could not tell her how brave she had been.
He spent a sleepless night reading–starting with the page Souad had marked. Udad quickly realized that the forces of Hell were contained in the book. The Masked Messenger was clearly the work of the Great Deceiver, but the resources of the enemy could be used against him by a clever and righteous man. His comrades at the Combat Group viewed him as useful because of his money, but Udad knew he was destined for more than just providing funds for the revolution.
It was nearly dawn when Udad, his head spinning from the things he had read, collapsed on his cot and fell into a dark, dreamless sleep.
He was awakened some time later by a sense of motion in his room. Instantly, Udad was out of his cot, machete in his hand.
It was not a policeman that stood before him, but a woman. She held no weapon.
“Who are you?” He demanded with a strong, harsh voice.
“I cannot tell you who I am, but our aims are similar. We both knew Souad, and we both seek justice.” Her voice was soft and mellifluous, like honey on the tongue.
He lowered his weapon, but did not put it away. In his small, dull room, he could make out that one of her eyes was covered with a white film. She was properly and modestly veiled, even though it was inappropriate for her to be in the company of a strange man unescorted.
“I don’t trust you. You are probably a spy.”
“I knew your sister, and I helped fulfill her last wish by getting you that book.” She gestured toward the tome that was lost somewhere in the shadows.
Udad was torn. He’d heard strange rumors of a sisterhood of devil-worshipers but he refused to believe that Souad would have done anything so blasphemous. Whoever this woman was, he would have to be on his guard. If he kept his head about him, he should be able to use this woman even as she attempted to use him.
“I doubt that you ever knew Souad. I should kill you simply for sullying her name with your tongue.” He made a half-hearted gesture with his machete.
“Souad spoke many times of her younger brother Udad, the brave boy who would stand up to his father when he was only fourteen. How she used to chase you round the yard after you snatched the book she was reading. And how you became serious and studious after a chance meeting with an Afghan mujahid.”
“Enough.” There was nothing unmanly about tears, but now was not the time. “Say what you have to say, then leave.”
“Come with me.” She beckoned him to the doorway. “And we will talk.”
Naked and bloody, bathed in cubes of sunlight dissected by the windows of wrought-iron grills, Peel screamed from the highest tower in the Tamegroute Kasbah. Every muscle in his body flexed and burned as another jolt from the car battery sizzled his flesh. In his time in the Australian Army he’d been trained to resist interrogation, but not torture. Fabien Chemal wanted information Peel didn’t have, and he was determined to use any extreme to obtain it.
Peel’s pain had hardly begun. To remind him that his current torture was nothing, a bucket of petrol wafted its acrid odors just out of reach, but just within eyesight. And Chemal liked to smoke cigarettes.
“Please, I told you,” Peel sweated, gritted his teeth. “I don’t know anything about the Combat Group.”
Rope sat quietly next to Chemal, a delicate finger poised at her mouth as if she were watching nothing more than an engrossing film. Chemal wouldn’t look at her, but Peel had little choice. She asked the questions while he administered the pain. Despite their roles, she was colder than he. Together they were formidable interrogators, and Peel was afraid he was not far from breaking, telling them all the lies they wanted to hear. And when he had branded himself a traitor, they would wipe their hands of him, a cheap and nasty death as his reward. They would abandon his body to the Sahara, never to be seen again.
“You were talking to me in the truck yesterday,” she asked firmly, “discussing the terrorist organization, the Sisterhood of the Masked Messenger?”
“You were there, that is what we did.”
Her eyes looked to Chemal, who was hot and bothered, then to Peel again. Her mouth hinted a smile, as if she knew a secret that neither man did. “You’ve heard of the Temple of the Masked Messenger, haven’t you, Peel?”
“Yes,” he tensed, hoping that his answer would not bring him another electric shock. Thankfully it did not. “You know this, so why do you keep asking me?”
“Do you know where this Temple of the Masked Messenger is? Is that where the Sisterhood is to be found?”
“I don’t know exactly,” his voice sounded hysterical even to his own ears. With every second he was expecting the next burning jolt of electricity. “All I know is that the temple is located somewhere in the Algerian Sahara, somewhere south of Tamegroute. Please, that’s where you’ll find the people you’re after.”
In a hurry to get to his feet, Chemal toppled his chair. He punched Peel in the gut, hard, and then again, harder still. Despite his bindings, Peel doubled over, grunting as air was expelled from his lungs.
When he could breath again he sobbed. He didn’t want to die, not like this, not upon a misunderstanding. “Why are you doing this to me?” He looked to Lathanty hoping that she might offer some compassion, but all she would do was smile thinly. He hated that smile now. “Please?”
“You bastard!” Chemal lifted Peel by his bloody chin. “You’ve confessed. There is no salvation for you. All I can do is put a stop to the pain, but only if you first tell me what I want to know.”
“But I’ve answered all her questions.”
“Her questions?” Chemal eyebrows crunched into a frown. “What are you talking about Peel? It’s just you and me.” The DST agent looked about the darkened stone room. He looked right through Lathanty Rope.
Peel became confused. Rope was standing right next to Chemal. Couldn’t he see her?
“I’ve confessed to nothing. I’ve done nothing wrong. I’m trying to help you both!”
“Both?” Chemal stepped from Peel, took three deep breaths as he wiped his sweaty brow. He lifted the tape recorder still spinning on the cell’s only desk, rewound it for a few seconds, and then pressed play.
Peel listened through bloody ears, and couldn’t believe what he heard.
CHEMAL: When you thought I was sleeping in the movie truck, you risked a telephone call to your contact with the Combat Group? Don’t lie now Peel, I heard every word.
PEEL: You were there, that is what we did.
CHEMAL: You’re the western spy who’s funding the Combat Group. You sold them the weapon.
PEEL: Yes. You know this, so why do you keep asking me?
CHEMAL: So how do you fund them exactly? I want names, places, accounts, and dates. Especially places.
PEEL: I don’t know exactly. All I know is that the temple is located somewhere in the Algerian Sahara, somewhere south of Tamegroute. Please, that’s where you’ll find the people you’re after.
The tape was stopped. Wiping sweat from his face Chemal drew a cigarette from his pack. His first smoke since the interrogation commenced. “That a confession Peel, if I’ve ever heard one.”
Peel felt his gut blacken and knot. It was Chemal on the tape, not Lathanty Rope. How could they both be asking him questions, but he could only hear one of them, the single voice that wasn’t recorded?
Then Peel understood.
An anagram of Nyarlathotep.
When he caught her eye, the smile she gave had grown large, and was nothing less than evil.
“You don’t exist, do you?
She said nothing.
“You don’t exist outside of my own mind, do you … Nyarlathotep?”
“I exist Mr. Peel, even if only you can see me. But that’s how I wanted it. That’s how I always wanted it.”
“Who are you talking to?” Chemal’s eyes glanced to the room’s dark corners, his eyes frantic.
Peel ignored him. “What do you want with me?”
“What do I want? What do you want, Major Harrison Peel?”
Peel didn’t see Chemal splash him with the bucket of petrol. The combustible fluids burnt his eyes, clawed at his nostrils and lips. His whole body convulsed. Fabien had his cigarette in his mouth. He lit it, drew upon its smoke. Now he had it in his hands, ready to flick it away. “Names Peel, I want names.”
Lathanty slid close to him, whispered in his ear. “You want to escape this place, don’t you?”
“Yes,” Peel sobbed.
“Give me the names,” roared the DST agent.
“You’ll agree to do something for me,” Lathanty spoke over Chemal, “just like the Sisterhood promised to deliver something to me after I gave them that weapon. In return I’ll save your life, and perhaps I’ll bring your fiancée back.”
“Anything,” Peel sobbed again, “anything.”
He didn’t want to die like this, not to be burnt alive in some forgotten North African town in a country where no one would miss him, where no one would even acknowledge his passing. And the pain, he couldn’t even begin to imagine what it would feel like, to wail as his skin and flesh melted from his bones.
Chemal puffed his cigarette, allowed the flaming embers to grow. “I won’t ask again Peel.”
Lathanty’s face lost all its beauty, ran with streams of acid, burning away her coarse grey flesh and dark hair. Her clothes smoldered. When her eyes widened, they reflected the entirety of the cosmos itself. With a flick of her hand acid splashed across the Moroccan’s face.
Chemal screamed, held his hands to his melting eyes only to have his fingers dissolve to the bone. Sockets without lids smoked upon a skull without skin. Blood and caustic fluids mixed and boiled, and Fabien Chemal screamed louder than Peel ever had.
His lit cigarette fell from his bone tips as he crumpled upon his knees, and fell towards Peel.
Nyarlathotep caught the red ember mere centimeters from ignition.
In the shadows, Chemal’s skull cracked and dissolved exposing his brain, and finally the DST agent died.
All the while the dark god held the captured cigarette close to Peel’s face. “We have a deal Harrison Peel.” It wasn’t a question.
Peel looked into the grey face, burning with the same acid that had killed Chemal, but caused her no pain. “We have a deal,” he sobbed. In the shadows Chemal’s corpse was nothing more than black smoldering bones and bubbling corruption. It could have just as easily been him.
The Masked Messenger extinguished the cigarette between her index finger and thumb. Then she touched the ropes binding Peel’s hands and feet, dissolving them effortlessly. Too weak to stand, Peel collapsed on the floor.
She threw a bucket of water over him, invigorating him with its cold. “Get dressed,” she pointed to his clothes, “the desert awaits.”
Udad found the mysteries contained within The Masked Messenger profound and difficult. For all that they appeared simple, the book’s stories unfolded before the educated man, revealing disturbing possibilities. The power of it made Udad’s head spin. Surely he had lost his job by now. He had not left his apartment for days, and could not tell if his lightheadedness came from the dizzying insights of the book, or because he could not remember the last time he had eaten. But just as prayer was better than sleep, The Masked Messenger was more nourishing than food.
He stood, and the floor spun treacherously under his feet. He understood the dangerous and unreliable nature of reality now, the fundamental betrayal with which Shaitan had deceived nearly all of creation. Udad had mastered those esoteric truths, understood that the web of lies had holes in it, and knew that acts supposed impossible could be accomplished if one perceived both the deceit and the truth.
He ran a rough hand through his sweat-soaked hair. His apartment was stuffy, smothering. In the days since his interrogation, the pain in his shoulders had eased, but the burn-scars on his forearms still bothered him.
“Udad?” The call was a harsh whisper, and he looked around, unable to locate the voice. Had he imagined it?
“Udad are you there?” Her voice drifted faintly through the door.
He jerked the door open to find the same women who had given him the book. She looked at him with a boldness that was unbecoming to her sex. And still, he moved aside and allowed her into his small, shabby apartment.
She looked him up and down, her good, brown eye seeing merely him, but the milky orb was piercing. “You have read the book. And now you see the world with new eyes.”
Udad could only grunt in response, his voice dry and cracked from disuse. Again, he wondered at her temerity, not only willing to speak with him alone, but to address him as if he were her student. She stood, back to him, looking over his barren apartment, betraying no signs of apprehension. She was unlike any other woman Udad had ever known, with the possible exception of Souad.
The memory of his sister was still a hot dagger in his heart.
“You do not know the risk I have taken in giving you that book.” The woman–whose name he did not know–was looking at him now. “Souad said that you were trustworthy, that you were the sort of man who could get things done.”
“Get them done, yes,” he echoed her distantly. His mind felt disconnected, jumbled, as if it were sand that had once been stone. “Is it true what the book says about the temple near Tamegroute, the one that Sharinza visited?”
“No.” She said it in a gasp, and fear glimmered in her good eye before she turned away from him. So she was a woman after all. “You do not want to go to that temple. We … we need you. You were not given that book for your own–” He cut her off with a glare.
The weariness, the uncertainty, and the feeling of distance all faded, replaced with a sense of purpose. A plan, half-formed and cloudy until now, roared through him.
“You said Souad was a valuable member of your … organization.” He almost said ‘cult.’ “This will be my trial, then. If I can reach the temple, then both Souad and I will return to you, and you will be stronger for having both of us. If I fail, then this book is only lies and blasphemy.”
She looked at the floor, understood his threat.
“The book does not tell everything. Some secrets were left only with trusted servants of our order, so that no one who only has the book would know the whole truth.” She glanced up at him, only to flinch away from his hard stare. “The temple of the Masked Messenger is much as the book says it is. But Sharinza’s story does not mention that there must be an offering to access the power of the temple.”
“And what does the djinn of the temple prefer? I expect it is not exotic incense.”
“No. A soul must be offered.”
Udad nodded, turning this profane act over in his mind.
She tried to look at him, and again flinched away.
“Peel, the Westerner who murdered your sister. He has a copy of The Masked Messenger, and he could be headed toward Tamegroute.”
“He is an ignorant American who doesn’t know what must be offered, even if he can understand the book.” Udad felt the heady rush of power course through him. Even if Peel wasn’t headed for the temple, it would not be difficult to kidnap him. “Still, it would be best not to make him wait for his destiny.”
Udad could see no greater justice than to burn the soul of the Western unbeliever who had murdered his sister in order to light her way back from death. And if the temple did not work as the book claimed, he would at least have revenge.
“Is there anything else?”
“Just being near the Temple is dangerous, Udad.” Her small hands plucked at the air. “Time and space are distorted, and can drive a weak-minded man mad. You could see your past or future.”
Udad was unimpressed.
“I don’t fear the future. Is this why you need a man to go? Someone without womanish fear?”
She dropped her gaze to the floor.
“Then you should go,” he said. “I need to prepare.”
Clearly cowed, she left. When the door was safely shut behind her, Udad pulled the clothing out of a chest, revealing the AK-47 hidden beneath.
It was nothing for him to steal a pickup truck and turn it south. It was a long drive that took him across the Atlas Mountains and into the burning, trackless Sahara, but his desire for vengeance burned hotter than the pitiless desert sun.
Peel sped into the mighty Sahara. He’d crammed Chemal’s Landrover with bottled water, canned food, and petrol drums in the back. He needed to be prepared as drove out of Tamogroute and to the south, where a vast lifeless world opened to him.
When he made an illegal crossing into Algeria nobody noticed. When he reached the Bechar to Tindouf road, he crossed it without thought and drove into the mighty sea of sand dunes.
It was then that the Masked Messenger appeared.
She sat next to Peel, in the passenger’s seat. She wore only a dirty white robe. Acid perspired from her pores, dissolving the fabric of her robes and the car seat, but never enough to completely erode either. She smelt like drain cleaner.
Peel ignored her for three days.
Only when he was lost, when he was convinced that he’d been driving in circles for the last forty-eight hours, did he deign to talk to her.
“What exactly do you want of me?”
That thin smile again, but no answer.
Later they stood together outside the stationary Landrover, on the rise of a dune. Peel peered into the vast expanse of still yellow waves searching for a landmark to drive towards. He guzzled another water bottle until it was empty. It was so hot he felt that he sweated most of the water before it reached his stomach.
His unwanted companion required no sustenance. Outside the hot wind gathered, swirled her robe about her slender form as if it were a living entity. She continued to drip acid, an endless supply carving canals in her flesh. Where the acid fell upon the sand, glass formed.
“Are you going to speak to me … Nyarlathotep?”
She pointed south. “There’s a sand storm coming.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means you’re about to lose your vehicle.”
Bottling his anger, Peel fashioned a makeshift turban to protect against the encroaching winds of coarse sands. When the storm hit he worked hard, dug through the rest of the day and right through the night. But the sands were too fast, too persistent. Without really remembering when it happened, the four-wheel drive was swallowed by the dunes. He’d only managed to save an AK-47 assault rifle, a knife, his map, five liters of water, and his copy of The Masked Messenger.
“Fuck you!” he yelled into the night, for Nyarlathotep had long abandoned him. “I said fuck you!”
Exhausted he wrapped a shawl about him, sat with his back to the violent winds, and waited out the storm.
In the morning when the winds had died, Peel marched. He held off from drinking the last of his water for as long as he could. He trudged south only because his map said that a water pumping station lay somewhere in that direction. But in the desert there were no landmarks to keep his bearings, and when his mind was rational, he knew he was lost.
Time passed and eventually his water was no more. The sky swam, blistered with gusts of heat like invisible demons sent to torment him. Eventually he tumbled down the side of the dune. When he crashed at the base, his mouth and eyes stung with the sand that filled them.
“I’ll do it!” he called. “Whatever you want, I’ll do it.”
The ground began to rumble. Huge layers of sand slid down the dunes, forcing Peel to continuously climb upwards. Just beyond the next crest a gigantic cloud of sand billowed into the sky. He spied enormous stone blocks rising in its chaotic fury.
Peel clambered up a shifting dune. A great temple was rising from the Sahara, greater than any structure built by humanity. Sand ran off its mighty roof like waterfalls. Hollow reverberations like the echoes inside an enormous cavern rang to announce its materialization. Peel could only wonder at its size, for it was at least three hundred meters in height, with four sides a kilometer and a half long.
Upon its square roof were gigantic statues of faceless winged demons. In mighty alcoves arranged around its base where impossibly large statues of octopoidal-bat hybrids, each carved from a single piece of stone.
In a daze Peel walked up to its base, stood at its mighty steps. He could not be sure he wasn’t hallucinating until he clambered upon the first mighty stone block. When he reached the lower balcony, exhausted and sun-burnt, a single stone entrance awaited him. In his heart, he knew that an infinite darkness lay beyond, and that he must enter if he was to find answers and salvation.
Peel staggered into the temple, his weapon slung under his arm, his sheathed knife within easy reach in his belt.
The portal was more than a doorway, for he found himself transplanted across the gulfs of space and time, and perhaps into another universe altogether. This was no longer the Sahara, but a vast alien city of buildings and towers carved from single pieces of rock. Each structure was connected by a web of passageways, balconies, tunnels and bridges joined at conflicting angles that only Escher could have imagined. The sky was a brilliant green tapestry of stars and galaxies. Half the horizon was dominated by a tremendous gas giant, its swirling atmosphere of browns, oranges and whites clearly visible. Peel could make out six satellites of varying colors, populated with oceans, mountains, volcanoes and … writhing tentacles.
In a stupor Peel walked to the edge of one balcony, peered over its lip. Hundreds perhaps thousands of kilometers beneath him was the surface of a purple world decorated with pink clouds and pasty-grey mountains, and a sea which frothed like bubbling acid. This city reached heights so great, Peel could see the curvature of the moon upon which it was built.
Feeling vertigo Peel stepped back.
Now the Masked Messenger waited for him. She wore an elongated mask of bronze, with two dark eye-slits and no mouth piece, so slim that it should have been impossible for her face to hide behind it.
Beyond the Masked Messenger lingered two muscular naked humans, a man and a woman. Their faces were blank stretches of featureless skin. They waited motionlessly like bodyguards.
“I’m insane, aren’t I?” Peel asked.
The Messenger approached, removed her mask revealing the normal face of Lathanty Rope, now hairless and disfigured by her caustic blood.
“So where am I then? Am I to be another one of your tales?”
“You’re in my home. This is Sharnoth, the Court of Nyarlathotep beyond the universe. All things can be learnt here, for a price.” Her mask had transformed, as she handed him a bronze jug lapping with clean water.
Peel didn’t hesitate as he guzzled its entire contents. “Including the knowledge on how to bring Nicola back?”
“All things are possible.”
His eyes caught movement, not from the faceless watchers, but from a distant man running between passages, darting across bridges, and peering into windows. He too carried an AK-47. At times Peel could see the man more than once, as if he could glimpse the man in his past, his present and his future all at the same time. Like Souad’s weapon, in this world time and space were unaligned with cause and effect.
“Who is that?”
“The man I want you to murder.”
Peel lifted his Russian made weapon, firm in his hand now that he was no longer delirious with dehydration. The Masked Messenger in her infinite planning had arranged for everything.
“Who is he?”
“He is Udad Benhammou, brother of Souad. He is here to kill you.”
Because of the water in his gut, Peel felt alive again, more clear-headed. But that was exactly how Nyarlathotep wanted Peel to feel, because she had a job she wanted him to do.
Peel had killed enough times in his life, and he regretted every one of them. The faces of the dead kept him awake at night. His only solace was that each killing had been in self-defense, or to protect against alien intrusion that they worked to allow. But to kill in cold-blood for a selfless purpose, Peel wasn’t certain that he had it in him, or if Nicola would even want him to.
“Why, what do you get out of it?”
Again, Nyarlathotep gave Peel that sardonic, all-knowing, omnipotent line-thin smile. “Nothing that you could ever possibly hope to understand.”
Udad clenched his AK-47. It was his closest link to the real world. Most of the time, the gun’s steel retained some heat from the desert outside. Sometimes, however, it was cold beneath his fingers. Udad clenched his teeth until the warmth returned. He did not like this palace of the ifrits. The sky was unnatural, frightening, and made Udad nauseous just looking at it. The temple around him was no relief either.
His other anchor to reality was his hatred of Peel. Udad had seen tracks leading to the mighty temple, and they could not have belonged to anyone but his sister’s murderer. There was a symmetry to all this, the poetry of fate.
Udad crept across the strange interior, keeping his head down. He tried to ignore the grotesque, ungodly statues. The carven abominations mocked everything that was sacred and decent, and their imagery preyed on his mind. Two days of driving in the hot desert night and sleeping during the worst of the Sahara’s blistering heat had left him exhausted and parched, but still determined.
He crept through the dark interior of the temple, searching, unsure as to how long he had been doing so. Time seemed elastic and strange, wrapped around itself. Several times, he could not tell how many, he found himself in places with no memory of having arrived. Experimentally, he made a single pass with his hand in front of his face. His hand appeared to flicker randomly before coming to rest where he had intended. On the second pass, he tried to change where his hand would stop, but somehow, it ended up somewhere else.
Fate, it appeared, was strong here. All the better for him.
After an uncountable time of stealth and waiting, Udad saw Peel and a bald woman standing together on a raised dais. Anger surged through him. If he had been betrayed by the Sisterhood, he would hunt them all down. Then he would be the sole master of the temple and its power. Peel had a reliable AK-47 slung off his shoulder, like the one Udad held.
He found a dark corner, next to one of the immense carven blasphemies. As quietly as he could, Udad worked the action of the AK-47, chambering a bullet. Neither Peel nor the woman seemed to notice. As Udad watched, she gave him an urn, and Peel drank. It was too much to hope that it was poisoned.
As he brought his sights to bear on Peel, the figures on the dais flickered and vanished. Udad cursed under his breath. He should have been faster. His sister’s spirit cried out for vengeance, and he had been too slow. What evil magic was this?
Even as he remonstrated himself, someone–Peel–was back on the dais, alone. Udad could not make out his features, silhouetted against the nauseous green light from outside, but the distinctive assault rifle with the curling magazine slung off one shoulder was all the confirmation he needed.
Peel turned. He appeared to hear the shot just before Udad squeezed the trigger. The weapon’s chest-thumping retort was immediately swallowed by the strange geometry of the temple. There was a chunky spray as the bullet caught Peel in the head, and he collapsed like a sack of grain.
In his triumph, Udad did not rush his pleasure. He walked casually up the stairs slinging his weapon over his shoulder. His sister was avenged, and the sacrifice had been made. The powers of the temple were now his to command. But first, he wanted to see the face of the man who had murdered Souad.
He reached the top of the dais, but no body and no blood awaited him. The polished grey-yellow stone of the dais was dust-free as if it had been polished.
He glanced back to where he had come from and saw himself, weapon aimed. The retort of the shot reached him a split second after his own bullet smashed through his skull.
The offices of the French oil prospecting company, although still deep within the Algerian Sahara, were a welcome sight for Harrison Peel. He drank their water, ate their food, and used their amenities until he felt refreshed and human again. Then he commandeered their telephone to call the United States.
“We all thought you were dead, Peel,” said the distant voice of Jack Dixon, Peel’s NSA contact back in Maryland.
“I should have been, mate. I should have been.”
“Well glad to hear that you’re not.”
“A geological survey team found me in the middle of nowhere, brought me here. Unbelievable really, the chances of them finding me were astronomically low, but they did.”
The open office plan was pristine and clean, with desktop computers and notice boards. A young woman sat at one of the computers, her keystrokes even and unbroken, otherwise Peel was alone. From where he stood he couldn’t see her face. She didn’t seem to be eavesdropping, so he let her be.
“Get yourself to In Salah. We’ll have a passport and a flight out waiting for you.”
“Thanks Jack, I owe you one.”
“You always do.” He laughed and then hung up.
Peel sighed, feeling as if he could actually relax for the first time in weeks. He made himself coffee in the minuscule kitchenette. Instant was all that was on offer, but it tasted good regardless.
The silent woman continued to tap away. Only her fingers moved.
Peel’s mind was drawn again to the horrors he experienced inside the temple, and its bizarre and terrifying secrets. He’d told the Messenger that he would not kill Udad for her. As simple as that, he had walked away, out into the Sahara, expecting to die.
Even now he wasn’t certain he hadn’t imagined the whole thing. Was the Masked Messenger really a cosmic god that made all the decision on when and how the universe evolved? Or was she entirely a fabrication of his fevered mind?
His copy of The Masked Messenger was all that had survived with him. His knife, the gun, the water, even his photograph of Nicola and their engagement ring had been consumed by the sands. Why had the book survived?
The tapping had ceased without him even noticing it.
“Harrison Peel.” She wasn’t asking.
He turned, faced the young woman staring at him. She was pretty, until he spied her milky white eye.
“I have something for you.” She handed him a vial with a metal stopper. Inside swished a pristine transparent liquid that turned turquoise and amber depending upon the angle of the light.
Reluctantly Peel took the vial. “What is this?”
“The Messenger keeps her promises.”
Peel did a double-take as he stared back at the woman. Was she one of the Sisters? Was their organization real? Did the Masked Messenger actually exist?
“Drink it,” she explained. “And it will take you back in time and space, to be with your lover once again. But only some experiences of your past will change. You’ll still return to Morocco. You’ll still become lost in the Sahara and find the temple, where you will fulfill the Messenger’s plans.”
“But I …” he stumbled. He wasn’t sure whether he should dismiss her, or interrogate her. “What? I didn’t kill Benhammou.”
“We never expected you to.”
“Then what did I do, to deserve this?”
“You’ve read the book Mr. Peel, the first story? After her servant sacrificed himself in the temple–a fact not recorded in the book–Sharinza returned to her home, and in doing so bridged the dimensions between our world and that of Nyarlathotep, and then …”
“… and then forty-hundred-and-ninety-nine tales of destruction and madness plagued the world,” Peel finished.
He put his head in his hands. He’d been little more than a pawn in a game he barely understood, and couldn’t have affected the outcome any more than a grain of sand could have stopped the sandstorm that had engulfed his truck.
All he had to show for it was the vial. He looked at it, wondering if it was everything the woman had said. Was he ready to go through the past year again, face all those horrors and watch so many of his friends die? Only he’d have Nicola by his side, and what a life she would make for him again, or would Nicola become a hollow reflection of her former self? Perhaps he could even defeat Nyarlathotep, by refusing to walk into the desert to find her temple, and save the world from whatever horrors awaited. Perhaps he could do any of these things … or could he? Would he even remember that he was to live that last year all over again?
He looked up to ask the woman that very question, but she was gone.
On the long bus trip to In Salah, Peel threw the vial into the uncaring sands. Quickly it disappeared from his sight, and more importantly, his reach.
Want more Harrison Peel stories? The Masked Messenger is one in a series of short stories featuring Major Harrison Peel, whose further adventures can be found in The Spiraling Worm (Chaosium), The Eye of Infinity (Kindle, paperback) and Cthulhu Unbound 3 (Permuted Press).
David Conyers is a science fiction and horror writer from Adelaide, South Australia. He edited the anthologies Extreme Planets, Cthulhu Unbound 3, Undead & Unbound and Cthulhu’s Dark Cults, is a reviewer and interviewer with Albedo One, and has won the Australian Horror Writers Associations’ Fiction Award twice. Some have said he is Australia’s most prolific Cthulhu Mythos author with his stories appearing in over two dozen anthologies and with contributions to a dozen gaming books for the popular Call of Cthulhu Role-Playing Game. He is working on one and maybe two new collections of Peel stories. www.david-conyers.com
John Goodrich is so manly that Wilum Pugmire once called him a crybaby. He has been writing Cthulhu Mythos stories for eight years, and a few people have noticed. The products of his warped mind and word processor appear in Arkham Tales, Cthulhu Unbound, Dead but Dreaming 2, Cthulhu’s Dark Cults, Urban Cthulhu, and the NEHW’s Epitaphs. Sample his madness and comic-book obsession at qusoor.com.
Story illustration by Adam Baker.
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