Bo was tireless. He ran through the desert for hours. My body hurt and just when I thought I could not hold on anymore, Bo yawned and slowed down.
“I am sleepy,” he said and stopped near a large rock. I slid off. Bo turned away and vigorously started to dig.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“A den,” he growled as he disappeared behind and below a growing mound of sand. I crawled in behind him. It was cold down there. I curled next to his body, took a sip of water from my skin, and fell asleep. When we woke up, it was dusk again.
“So you are a night animal,” I commented. He shook himself off and yawned.
“I am hungry,” he said. “I need to hunt for a while.” Once he left, I climbed out and looked around. There was no sign of life. Almost. I saw vague white shapes dancing near the horizon. Were they sand grains stilled by night? A noise interrupted my musings. I heard a horse. I slowly crawled back. The priest said he knew where I was going. Were they chasing us? Bo showed up in a couple of hours, his fur glossy and he looked smug.
“We can go on,” he said in a voice of someone who feasted well.
“Did you see any people?” I asked. “They have a camp near us,” he said. “I can outrun them easily.”
This time I felt good enough to look around me as I rode Bo through the night desert. It was a bare place with sands and grey rocks. My eyes searched in vain for anything green. I calculated when we get to Babylon. At this pace it should take about three to four days. A yell woke me up from my complacency. I looked back. There was a dark cloud behind us, and it was coming fast. I recognized a bunch of horse riders.
“They cannot see us, can they?” I turned to Bo.
“No worries,” he barked. “We can always dig in.” Sure we could if they don’t see us doing that.
“Go this way,” I screamed. There were two large rocks with a little valley between. We could hide there and perhaps dig that hole Bo was longing for. The rocks loomed above us as we approached and entered the pass. They must have been at least forty feet high and formed two long walls. The pass was narrow and straight. Two men of horses next to each other could pass, but that was about it. I wildly looked around for a hole, anything. There were none. We fled through the passage. The riders were coming. I could hear them. Hell, I could feel them. I gritted my teeth. If they see us, they will capture us. If they don’t see us, they will just ride over us. Where is the exit? I could not see it. I turned back. They were only two hundred feet behind us. One of them yelled in triumph. They saw us! At that moment, rocks began to fall. Horses screamed and fell. Riders tumbled down on the ground and were buried by huge blacks that kept falling from the top of the valley’s stone walls. Bo whined and sped up. I held on for dear life. The screams of dying were left behind us.
“Stop,” I whispered into Bo’s ear. “We are not attacked. He slowed down and turned his head to look behind him.
“We are not,” he conceded.
“We are too small to be noticed,” I said.
“Not really,” said a rough voice and someone picked up Bo behind his neck and lifted him off the ground. I found myself staring into a wide mouth full of rotting, blackened teeth. Its owner had deeply sunken eyes and yellowish, pitted skin. His head was covered by a few long grayish strands of long hair.
“What are you?” He asked.
“I am A-alex,” I managed.
“Are you a dwarf?” He asked. “You don’t really look like one, but you are not human either.” Bo turned around and tried to bite his hand. He evaded it easily.
“Don’t eat me,” he reprimanded Bo. “You know we don’t eat you either.”
“Do you know him?” I asked Bo.
“He is a man-eater,” Bo blurted out.
“I don’t know what you two talk about, but I can guess,” the creature said calmly. “I am a ghoul. My name is Kabu.” A ghoul!
”Are you, uh, going to eat me?” I asked.
“No, A-alex,” he said, “for one thing, you are too small, just about one bite. For another, you are too alive. We prefer to eat your pursuers, after a suitable period of time. Fresh meat doesn’t taste good.”
I did a quick survey of my new captor. He was pot-belied, but his legs and feet were very skinny. He was also naked. He carried me up the valley’s wall. It seemed almost vertical to me, but he quickly climbed up following marks that were obvious only to him. Once up there, he put Bo down.
“Don’t run away yet,” he said. “We don’t get many interesting visitors. I want to know who you are, not just your name.”
We were surrounded by a ghoul camp. I saw more of the creatures including some women and children. They were all naked, but the males carried spears and swords which appeared to be captured from their victims.
“We move around,” Kabu said as he followed my gaze. “One day here, another day somewhere else. It is safer this way.”
“Are you human?” I asked.
“We were human once, long time ago,” he said. “Then people expelled us because of the customs of our tribe. Now we are one with the desert. We have freedom and we have food too. People provide with their silly wars.”
“You killed those back there,” I pointed out.
“It was an opportunity,” he shrugged. “We were hungry for a while. Soon we will eat like kings. Would you prefer we let them to catch you?”
“E-no,” I said.
“Now, answer my question. Who are you?”
I told him.
“So you want to go to Babylon,” he concluded. “If you stay with us a couple days until the meat is ripe and we eat and resupply our larder, we can take you there. It is not far and we will need to travel in that direction anyway, away from human settlements before they found out about our successful hunt in the valley.”
A white mist began to settle above the valley and then slowly descended as it was being sucked in. I again recognized vague shapes in the mist. There were hands and arms coming out and sometimes I caught a flash of an eye on a misty face. Some were more animal like resembling giant hyenas and antelopes.
“What is it?” I whispered.
“These are Jinns,” Kabu explained. “They feed on the life force and there is plenty of freely available life force down below as it seeps from the dead and dying bodies.”
Our ghouls called themselves the Free People, I found the next day. They were just one of the ghoul tribes roaming the deserts of Asia and Africa.
“We have been here forever,” Kabu explained to me, “but we really multiplied since the time of the Great Flood when there was suddenly so much food for us. We had difficulties in ancient Egypt because their mummies were not edible the way they prepared them, but now at this age, there is again an unlimited supply of food.”
“Don’t they kill you if they catch you?” I asked. He grinned.
“We fight back. Besides, they are too superstitious to chase us too deeply into the desert.”
I dug in my bag for something to eat.
“Would you like to share our feast?” Kabu asked.
“No, uh, I will eat whatever Bo brings,” I said nervously.
“As you wish,” Kabu shrugged. “Our food will be ready by tomorrow. Then we eat, and leave.”
Just as he said, two days later, ghouls broke the camp. It was not difficult, really. Women picked up the little children and men their weapons and all of them filled their leather bags, which they carried on their hips with remains of the soldiers of Father Angelico. I spent the last day secretly looking for him among the dead. I did not find him. However, many bodies were crushed by rocks so heavy that they were unrecognizable. Finally, I ran across a red hat, which I remembered I saw on his head the last time we met. He must have been buried to deeply here even for ghouls to dig him out. We set on our way.
I accepted Kabu’s offer and rode on his shoulder, so Bo could have a break. Ghouls move only during the night, when the air is cold enough. We marched toward the east at a steady pace.
“We can go on the whole night,” Kabu explained. “Even riders have a problem to keep with us and we don’t leave many traces for them to follow.”
The desert was flat, but every so often we passed a regular-shaped hill looking like a miniature volcano rising straight in the middle of a great plain.
“What are these?” I asked.
“These were great cities of the past,” Kabu said. “Now they turned into the dust.”
I saw another of the misty shapes dancing on the top of the hill.
“A Jinn?” I guessed.
“A Jinn,” Kabu confirmed. “There is always some residual life force for a Jinn to feed on. Sometimes plenty.”
We soon approach another hill, this one large.
“Observe,” Kabu said. From behind the fill peeked a head of a giant snake. He slowly crawled around the hill’s side. It must have been at least half mile long and as tall as a house. It encircled the hill.
“This was a big city and its life force was enough to feed this one for millennia,” Kabu said. He looked at me curiously.
“Humans usually cannot see Jinns. How come you can? Did it happen when you shrunk?”
“Sometime later,” I said. He did not press for an answer and I closed my finger around the cross from the Crusader. I still had it after all the events. We slept during the day. Ghouls do not put up tents. Instead, they take advantage of the terrain and find caves and deep burrows. Their life in the desert taught them how to find them even in most unlikely places. The next day, around midnight, I noticed a black line separating the sky and the high desert.
“Babylon,” Kabu answered my questioning look. “We stop here. You will have to continue there on your own.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Babylon was a great city,” Kabu said. “A million people lived there at times. There is a huge life force left. Many Jinns fed on it for centuries. Over time, they became too much like people.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“They are too dangerous,” Kabu said. “They plot and fight among themselves, just like people do. It is not a place for a ghoul. Besides, they try to feed on us and take what little life force we have. No other Jinns do that. We avoid Babylon.” He took me off his shoulder and set me down. Bo trotted over and sniffed at me.
“Can you carry me?” I asked. He stretched.
“I had two days off,” he said. “Hop on.”
“Would you like some food ?” Kabu asked with a smile. “We would be happy to share. You could even join us, if you wish.”
“Perhaps some other time,” I said and mounted Bo.
“Go with peace,” Kabu said seriously. “If you get out of there alive, you can look for us there,” he waved toward the north. “We can take you back to Jerusalem.”