It’ll sound strange, ridiculous even, to someone who has never had the misfortune of visiting the city…but the whole place is alive. The crumbling buildings, the huge sandstone blocks that form the walls, the wild eyed statuettes that adorn every house, temple and shop. They emit a hum. No, perhaps hum isn’t quite right. A feeling would be more accurate. A kaleidoscope of senses. During the day you can push it to the back of your mind. You can keep it at bay. But night’s a different matter. Your consciousness is disarmed, voices invade your brain. Dark shapes appear in your dreams. Faces. Shadows. Glowing red eyes. Some nights I fancy I see Jimao’s face. No, not the temple. The real Jimao, alive and of flesh.
Dr Richard Rigby-Smith, 18–
The gunfire started early that morning. No one in the café seemed to notice. I sipped my coffee, flipped open a month old edition of The Times. “Not your lot again, is it?”
My companion of the past few days – a Frenchman whose name I hadn’t bothered to remember – offered me a stuttering glance. He had a thick moustache which, unlike his beer stained shirt and tatty old breeches, was perfectly groomed.
He’d been staring at the skull carved into the cliff face. For three millennia its ruby encrusted eyes had glared over the city, watching countless nations invade, occupy and crumble. It was both a terrifying and majestic sight. Each tooth was the size of a man and layered with strips of ivory. The lower jaw hung open, leading into only God knew what.
“Or was it the bloody Belgians? I’d like to know what they expect to achieve by blasting musket balls into a twenty foot thick wall. Do you know who the last white man to take this city was?” Of course he knew. Everyone knew. But that didn’t stop me reminding him. “Alexander. Came through here on his way to India. Haven’t you been to the Greek quarter?”
I lit a cigar, put down the paper. A waiter bustled by, refilled my coffee. The Frenchman picked up his bag, grasped it to his chest and shuffled into the square. He was trembling. I leaned back in my chair, blew a smoke ring. He peered up at the skull, no doubt wondering if he could force himself to take The Test. Wondering if the three month trek from Grenoble was worth the bother.
I understood him. I understood his dilemma. I too had marched halfway round the globe to this war torn toilet in the desert. And I never once questioned my resolve. At least not until I found myself, as the Frenchman did, looking at that awful skull. If you’ve never seen it, it’s almost impossible to convey the horror and the wonder of coming face to face with the temple. It’s like standing at the edge of the Universe and peering over the edge. Like confronting all of your hopes and dreams in one sitting.
Lips parted, eyes vacant, the Frenchman shambled up the steps. There was something puppet like about his movements, as if the temple were drawing him in on a string. He seemed to be mumbling to himself, his hand clutching the crucifix round his neck. The history books tell you that you need courage if you’re going to pass The Test. That you need resolve. For the Frenchman’s sake, I hoped they were wrong.
I left the rest of the coffee undrunk, made my way back towards my hotel. The place was what you’d expect: Cheap, stuffy and full of cockroaches. The carpet was worn and marked by a galaxy of brown stains, while the bar looked as if it hadn’t been wiped down in decades. Old pictures hung on the wall. All prints: Van Gogh’s and Cezanne’s mostly, the colour and vibrancy drained from them by dust and glare from the sun. But the owner – an elderly gent of Middle Eastern origin – was friendly enough.
“Rumour is the Portuguese are planning to attack the Southern Wall tonight.”
I ran a finger over the beer rind on the bar, wrinkled my nose. “I’ll have something strong.”
“They’ve somehow managed to drag their field guns through the desert. Who knows if they’ll work? The sand gets everywhere.”
“I’ll take it outside, before it gets too warm.”
I stumbled onto the veranda, collapsed in a chair. I could still hear musket fire, but it seemed more distant. The smell of brick dust wafted in and I tasted the grit on my lips.
“Your friend – I didn’t think he’d go through with it.” The old man arrived with a bottle of amber coloured moonshine and two filthy glasses. He sat opposite me, didn’t wait for an invite.
I poured myself a glass, left the other one empty. “He wasn’t my friend. But no, neither did I.”
“Presumably unsuccessful. I didn’t stick around to find out.”
“A pity. He was a good tipper.” He picked at his finger and flicked whatever he found onto the table beside us. “Tell me, Mister Chiswick, you have been staying here for nearly two weeks.”
I knew what the old bastard was getting at. I didn’t like it.
“So, that is an unusually long time. Please,” he held up a hand, “I do not mean to suggest you are unwelcome. Quite the contrary – in these difficult times I am happy for the business. But in my experience, foreigners tend to make their decision to take The Test quickly or think better of it and return home.” He screwed his face up, brandished a wizened finger. “You are still here.”
I tapped the side of the glass, arranged my face into a smile. “Perhaps I’m just enjoying the local ambience before I come face to face with my demons.”
“And perhaps you are making excuses.”
I could have turned the table over. I could have smashed the bottle and rammed the shards down his wrinkled old throat. When I was younger, I would have. But this place has a way of draining everything out of you. Anger, love, resentment – it scoops out your innards as if you were nothing more than a rat chewed melon.
I got to my feet, grabbed the bottle. “I think I’ll take this to my room.” I shoved the chair backwards and got to my feet. “Add it to my bill.”
When I awoke it was dark and I was covered in sweat. My head was pounding and my heart was thumping. I lurched downstairs, found my way back to the bar, poured myself a drink.
I narrowed my eyes, downed the booze. “Thirsty.”
The old man nodded and ambled to a nearby table. He was wearing the same cloths as the previous morning. “I wondered if the guns might have woken you up.”
“Cannons. Do you not remember? I told you that the Portuguese were coming.” He blinked. “They are here.”
I should’ve been afraid. I should have felt something. Instead, I poured another drink.
“I watched them from my room. They’ve made a small breach in the wall. The Belgians are doing their best to dissuade them, but plague has killed off more than half of them and they are low on ammunition. Who knows how long they can continue.” He paused. “You saw him, didn’t you?”
I watched him carefully, my eyes narrowed. I downed a second glass. “I saw him.”
“Is this…the first time?”
I could’ve lied. I could’ve made my excuses and slunk back up to bed. But perhaps there was nothing left of the mask – nothing but the truth.
“It started on the third night. First I saw the eyes. They seemed to burn right through my dreams, right through the darkness.” I ran my finger over the bar, levered up a segment of paint with my fingernail. “But it’s not a darkness I’ve ever seen before, not like a starless night or being locked in a dark room. It’s more…complete than that. It’s like an eternal blackness. Like the womb of creation.”
“And the dreams have become more vivid?”
“I started seeing an outline.” I tried a smile. “I knew it was him. Before long I could see the whole face. No flesh, just pearlescent bone, rubies blazing from the sockets. I tried to look away.” I stopped myself, wiped the sweat from my forehead. “There was a kind of sound too. Not music exactly, more like a drone. And whispers.”
“What will you do?” It wasn’t the first time the old man had had that discussion. Maybe he’d even had it with the Frenchman. Either way, the pity in his voice was genuine. The sadness was real.
“The Portuguese,” I said, deflecting the question. “What will you do?”
He laughed, hobbled towards the bar. “What I always do: serve drinks and advertise my rooms.” He touched my sleeve, gave me a look that we both knew meant this would be the last time we’d see one another. “It’s time you made a decision. The skull can wait forever, but can you?”
Despite the distant screams, the thudding of the cannons, the square was oddly calm. And I was drunk. I kneeled on the step, hands folded together as I gazed up at the skull. It almost seemed peaceful as the moonlight glinted from the white stone. I thought about England, about what the old man said. Home. It was an intoxicating concept.
But so were the ruby red eyes. So was the prospect of coming face to face with The Test and making it through to the other side.
I sighed, felt the chambers in my heart grind together as I contemplated what might be beyond the threshold, about what was inside. I stood, much like the Frenchman had, bag in hand, peering up at the living embodiment of my nightmare.
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