Idris put the finishing touches on the letter, angling the chisel to get a crisp edge on the last stroke. The dislodged sandstone whipped away in the ever-present wind. He winced as a few grains lashed his face, grateful for the wrappings protecting his skin. Bracing his legs against the wall, he leant back upon his hanging platform to admire his work.
The word was finished. Thirty feet high, carved into the city’s great wall with as much precision as he could muster, it would be visible for leagues around. Idris grunted in satisfaction. A fortnight’s hard work. Perhaps the next word would go quicker, now he was used to working alone.
Idris looked down. There, ten feet below, was Tala. His niece was also bundled up against the winds, but her stance—hands planted on hips—revealed her mood as surely as if he could see her face.
“Uncle, get down here. It’s late!”
Idris blinked, then squinted at the horizon. He had been so engrossed that he had not realised the sun was sinking into the far-off dunes.
Grasping the pulley-rope, he lowered his platform until he could place his feet on the ground. As he stood, he staggered. Tala rushed to help.
“I’m fine.” He shook her off, but his shoulder twinged as he did so and he couldn’t prevent a gasp of pain.
“You’re not fine.” She shook her head. “Uncle, you can’t keep doing this. It is futile.”
“Not this again,” Idris grumbled. But he could not deny that she had a point. The same winds that tugged at their clothing were already scouring his freshly finished word. In a month the sacred script would be blunted; in three it would dwindle; in six it would be illegible once more. And he was slowing, he knew. His shoulders burned and his arms trembled from the effort of wielding the chisel and hammer. The last of his assistants had quit months ago. How long until he could barely finish a word before it eroded?
Tala laid a hand on his arm. “One man can never complete this task.”
“Then why don’t you help me?” It emerged sourer than he intended. “The sacred script must always grace Tazarhal’s walls. And I am the last scribe who knows it.” He shot a glance at her. With no children of his own, he’d tried to teach his niece the sacred text when she was young. But Tala hadn’t been interested in memorising strange letters no one else could read. It didn’t help that her mother—gods protect her soul—had also thought it a waste of time.
Tala sighed. “It is a myth, Uncle. The desert is empty. There is no demon you are keeping at bay.”
There it was—from the mouth of his own niece. Idris looked down at his shaking hands. He had to admit it. No one believed in the demon anymore. And Tala was right on one count: he could not do this alone.
“All right, Tala. Take me home.”
Every day for the past forty-six years, Idris had risen, bleary and aching, while darkness still reigned outside. Every day for the past forty-six years, he had been up on his platform by sunrise, chisel and hammer in hand.
Today, he did not rise from his bed until the sun was halfway to its zenith. Tala did nothing to hide her delight as she made him breakfast, singing and chattering while she drizzled honey over his stewed peaches. He found it hard to finish the rich, sweet fruit, too used to only a small flatbread pulled from his satchel as a mid-morning snack. In the afternoon, he watched Tala work her loom, weaving the patterned fabrics she sold from her home. Her son, Laziz, alternated between helping his mother untangle her threads and demanding Idris play games with him.
“Let your Great-Uncle be, Laziz,” Tala chided the boy, before setting an eye on Idris. “He needs to sit still and rest.”
Idris sat still. But he did not rest. He waited.
The storm began late afternoon. The winds crested the city walls and dark clouds mounted in the west. In the street, awnings flapped and stalls tipped into the dirt. When Tala ran out to rescue her wares, Idris followed. As he looked to the west, thunder stampeded across the sky and lightning lanced from cloud to cloud. Against the brilliant flashes, a gigantic figure loomed.
Tala gasped. “What is that?”
Idris eyed her. “There is no demon, eh?” Without waiting for an answer, he pushed through the shocked bystanders towards the city gates.
At the gates, the crowd grew thicker. But as Idris made his way through the throng, whispers started. “The scribe… It’s the scribe! Yes, go. Go!” Bodies pressed back to let him through, and hands pushed him forward. Soon he was propelled out of the front of the crowd.
The demon towered over him. Its body was a roiling mass of shadow, its eyes nests of lightning. When its mouth opened, a torrid wind rushed from its maw. “You are the scribe,” it said, its words reverberant as a war-drum.
Idris swallowed. Had he made a terrible mistake? It was too late now to turn back. “I am,” he said.
The demon raised one dark, shifting finger and pointed to the wall. “You stopped.”
“I did.” He cast a glance behind him. Tala hovered, aghast, at the front of the throng, clasping a wide-eyed Laziz. “The people did not think it necessary anymore.”
The demon’s crackling gaze swept the crowd. Idris tensed.
“But I wish to know,” the demon said, “what happens next.”
Idris exhaled. “Of course you do.”
“I was promised.”
“You will finish.” The heat of its breath scorched him. “Or I will break the walls.”
Idris bowed low. “I understand.”
The demon regarded him for a moment longer. Then, satisfied, it turned and loped away. The storm followed, dark clouds trailing the great figure like an obedient dog.
Tala appeared, pale-faced, at his elbow. “You mean to say… The sacred text…”
“…is a story, yes.” Idris smiled faintly. “And we’re only on the third chapter.”
Idris wiped his brow. The word was finished, and it had only taken a day. He grinned at Tala on the next platform. She was already chipping at the next word, while beyond her more volunteers prepared the rest of the sentence. Beneath them, Laziz ran to and fro, correcting an accent here, a stroke there. The boy had turned out to be a quick learner; one month of lessons and he had already mastered most of the letter-forms.
Idris twisted on his platform to look out at the desert. It had been a risky gambit, he knew, but it had worked.
He hoped the demon was enjoying chapter four.
Jess Hyslop is a British writer of fantasy, fabulism, and science fiction. Her short stories have appeared in venues such as Black Static, Interzone, and Cossmass Infinities. Jess can be found online at www.jesshyslop.com. Offline, she resides in Oxford with a number of slowly decaying houseplants.