This is my first time writing for Fiction Press and hopefully I can improve my writing a bit, since English is my second language.
Warning: Rated T for some violence. Later, chapters might turn it into an M.
Eighteen Months before the Great Turn
Thursday, March 28th
Homs Muhafazat (governorate), Syria.
The soldier did not know how long they spent walking on the desert under the blazing sun, wounded and hungry for food, water, and shelter. His brother, Hakem, lay unconscious on the makeshift stretcher he made out of wood, ropes, and pieces of fabric he stole from a village two days ago, pulling him with it, but they didn't find any signs of civilization since then. Farhan feared for his brother's health, worsening every single hour, and their situation as well with their food and water depleted. He contemplated leaving him at the mercy of the desert or he could use their last weapon, a lone grenade strapped onto Hakem's belt, its pin taunting Farhan to be pulled out and kill them both, ending their misery. He couldn't make himself do it, his family's voices swarmed into his head like flies, begging him to turn the other way and bring his brother home safe and sound.
He looked up north, a rocky hill awaiting his approach, then his dark brown eyes gazing to his east and west, a vast expanse of desert rock and sand. He wore his dark-green shemagh, with only his eyes shown on the narrow slit of the scarf, and a light jacket with matching shirt and tanned cargo pants, all to protect him from the harsh exposure from the sun. He had been praying for an oasis, his throat dry and his lips chapped for water. Every time he tried to talk his brother to sleep, it became harder to even say another word.
Farhan mustered enough strength and pulled his brother over the next hill, a task that took him almost half an hour to finish. Beyond the hot desert sand lay a ruin, ancient with its magnificent structure of brick and limestone, a prayer Farhan has been asking for. They needed shelter from the sun and the ruin was all he need. He looked up to the clear heavens, blew a quick kiss above as he proceed to drag the stretcher toward the ruin.
The ruin was made out of countless rubbles and a few standing columns withered by the harsh elements. A grand structure half buried by the desert sand lay beside it with small staircases leading toward what used to be its entrance. It was a temple, Farhan guessed, or what's left of it anyways from the countless books he studied from his father's library. They approached the ruin, and dwarfed by its colossal size. He pulled the stretcher under a giant wall, blocking the rays of the sun. Farhan could feel the heat lowering a few degrees under the wall's shadow. Hakem coughed, his eyelids slowly opened as his eyes found its way to him.
"Are we home?" He asked with a hoarse tone.
"We're almost there." It was a lie. He did not know where they were going. Ever since they got ambushed by the armed forces, he tried to head west but was lost in the way. His brother would die in the desert, he was sure of that, and he did not want him to die alone, scared, and helpless.
"Good. I want to kiss mama and tell her I love her. Papa, too. I didn't get the chance since I walked out of the house when everything started." He coughed again. "I dreamt of Papa's kashkash. It was in front of me, I want to eat it, but my mouth won't open." He paused. "I miss them, Farhan."
"I know, Hakem. Sleep now, you need the rest you need to tell them that."
Farhan missed his home, yearning for the smell of books and the sweet scent of his mother's cooking, but the civil war that tore his country shattered those beloved memories. Ever since Hakem joined the uprising, he has no choice but to leave his university and follow him. He promised his mother that he'll keep him safe, but he failed on that one simple task. They were inseparable since they were children, always doing things together, getting into trouble together, and probably would die together.
Farhan peeked into Hakem's wounded leg, were a bullet still reside deep within his flesh. He was unable to take it out with his knife and he didn't want to go any farther, for fear Hakem might die of infection. They decided to leave it there and search for a nearby hospital but they were miles off from civilization.
"Farhan," Hakem mumbled, "Am I going to die?"
It took him a second before saying no, but the boy shook his head, and laughed that sounded like a cough and a sneeze combined.
"I should not have ask you to come me. You won't be here if I haven't been so stupid…if I haven't been so envious of you, trying to be a man." Tears started rolling down his face and Farhan pulled his brother's collar as they came face to face.
"This is not your fault! Do not ever blame yourself. I am your older brother. It is me who failed. I should've protected you better." The other boy didn't make a sound, but instead lay down again and turned his head away from him. "I'm going to look around."
He got up and left Hakem under the shade, overwhelmed at the sight of his brother's broken spirit. He pulled down his shemagh, sting of the sun poking at his badly tanned and sunburned face. He walked around the ruin, then did it again, going on in circles trying to find any signs of people who might've been there before them. There was none. He quickly noted that the ruin was of colossal size and was bound to be found and studied by archeologists from the capital, maybe already included in the world heritage site. An inkling thought crossed his mind that maybe this wasn't found yet, that he was truly deep into the desert with no way out. There were no roads leading to the structure or any tourists that wandered around. It struck him as funny that he'll be the one to discover the place, his mind wandered that the ruin would be named after him. He returned back to the shade to find his brother not moving. Farhan grabbed his wrist and checked up on him. His heart skipped a bit, his brother's pulse gone only to feel its beat a second later. He sighed in relief. He got up again to check around one last time.
Farhan watched over the horizon, hoping a sign of civilization would find its way to the ruin and save his brother. An hour passed, and there was no one. He couldn't bear to see Hakem die and he had always imagined his brother laying on a bed, old and happy, but not like this. He knelt down, picked up a large rock. He furrowed his brows eyeing at the object, its surfaced marked by inscriptions and symbols so old he did not understand it except for the small engraving of a skull, dozens of them. One symbol sent shivers down his spine, a skull human in shape but with snarling, sharp teeth and hollowed eyes. He threw it hard across the ruin, cursing anyone above who put them in such a dire state.
The rock hit a large column, tumbling all the way down and stopped at a platform. All of a sudden, the column gave way as it rumbled and collapsed on the ground, hitting two more columns on the way. The debris almost hit him but was fortunate enough to duck behind another column, the dust and sand dispersed into the air, enveloping the column Farhan was hiding. He walked out a few seconds later, his shemagh back on and around his head to cover his mouth and eyes, as he made his way to the collapsed columns.
The hole was the first thing he saw, gaping like a snarling mouth of a beast with its jagged edges. It was big enough for him to jump and go through, but without any rope, he did not know how deep it went. Farhan moved closer and peeked into the hole, pulled his flashlight out and pointed it at its haunting darkness. He called out, but only his own voice answered back. Hakem shout out for him with panicked cries, startled by the chaos and just woke up from his sleep. Farhan was about to response that he was alright, but the ground groaned beneath his feet and he felt a swish of air and a gasp escape his lips, his stomach felt like it jumped to his throat, and found himself looking at the hole above him, so far out of reach.
He screamed, anticipating the impact of his body on solid ground, his head smashed on a rock. Instead, he was engulfed with the cold, familiar embrace of water. His right leg hit something hard down the way, a jolt of pain ran throughout his body. He quickly rose to the surface, finding himself in a cavern with only the light of the hole, now big to fit an elephant, shining the way. His flashlight lay on a bank near him, its light shining right on his direction, and he has to squint his eyes to see where it was. His other leg felt a hard muddy ground beneath his feet, and he stood up, with the water only up to his shoulders.
"Farhan?" He heard Hakem's echoes in the cavern. He looked up making out Hakem's head peeking out of the hole. "I can see you!" Apparently, his brother had crawled toward the hole.
"Can you see anything up there?" Farhan asked.
"A little bit. Only your flashlight and your head. Aside from that, no." Hakem moved farther that Farhan could now see the outline of his shoulder.
"Hakem, be careful! Move back! The ground's unstable." Hakem quickly did what he said, until Farhan couldn't see him anymore.
"Do you find a way out?" Hakem shouted over. Farhan looked around, but all he could see was darkness. He needed to get to the flashlight. He did not know how big the cavern was, and there was that weird putrid smell that came from everywhere around him. "Do you smell that?" Hakem could smell it too.
"Yes. Hakem, I want you to stay away from the hole. Find something in the ruins, another entrance that leads underground. If there's a way in, there's a way out."
"What if it's buried under the sand?"
Farhan paused. He didn't like the thought of that. "We'll find a way. Just search for it. Allah would guide us both."
He saw a glimpse of his brother's shadow moving away, searching for the entrance. Farhan limped his way toward the bank, the pain stinging throughout his body every time he moved his legs, when he heard a faint splash behind him. He quickly turned around, facing the sound.
"Who's there?" Silence only greeted his call. He thought it could be only one of the falling rocks from the collapse hitting the water so he continued to walk toward the bank. Then, another splash and Farhan could see that beyond the darkness, there were eyes staring back at him. He furrowed his brows, trying to see clearly for any signs of movement on the calm, dark water. A splash from his left corner broke his focus, it was nearer this time, and Farhan scrambled for the shore.
He was almost near the bank, pushing himself toward the flashlight and trying to suppress the agonizing pain on his right leg when he felt something grazed against his knee. He turned around, ready to punch, dodge, or smack the thing behind him. There was no one. A quick pull, and Farhan was underneath the water, dragged deep into its darkness as a shock of pain, like multiple knives and needles, stabbed and poked his body. He tried to climb up, and fluttered under the water, kicked and screamed his way up toward the surface.
He gazed up the light from the hole as it dimmed from his vision, until he couldn't see it no more when cold hands grabbed his throat shoulder, as something plunge a bite out of his neck.
Hakem searched for hours, limped his way to every corner of the ruins, clawed his way on the covered sand of the structure and hoping to find another hole that led underground. There was none. He screamed in frustration and sat back against the wall. He looked at his watch, its arms now moving past 4:30 PM. He returned to the hole an hour ago but his brother never responded to his cries. He feared something bad happened to him or that he may already found a way out and that his way is blocked from the other side and it's up to him to find it. It was driving him mad. He completely forgot that he was hungry or thirsty. He thought of pulling the pin out of his last grenade and end everything. He was dying, that he knew too well, but his brother's life depended on him.
He turned his head toward the horizon when a single silhouette approached the ruin. There, on top of the hill, a shadow of a young boy was clearly watching him. Beside him was a lone camel, tall enough for the boy to ride. Hakem got up and waved both his arms up, trying to get the attention of the boy. He screamed and he shouted, almost in tears on finding help. He's saved. They were saved. But the boy ran toward the camel, got up and rode off, leaving Hakem behind in disbelief and agony.
He scrambled to his feet, limped up the hill trying to catch the boy. As he reached the top, the boy was out of sight from all directions. He feared he was having hallucinations, coupled with hunger, thirst, and fatigue.
He got back down to the ruin, lay down on the ground a few feet away from the hole where his brother fell through. He tried to shout his name again but he knew no one would answer. He lay on the ground staring at the sky. He was tired, his body going numb. For the past few days, he could still hear the ringing sound of the explosion that catapulted him out of the Jeep he was riding. Luckily enough, he survived with minor injuries before being shot on the leg. He remembered crying and cursing in pain as his brother dragged him away from the ambush site, far away enough to see the black smoke rising from the wreckage with the men he considered his own brothers now lay on the sand covered with their own blood.
Dusk finally turned to night, the stars now shimmering in the clear night sky. It started to get cold, and Hakem got up to tear out the pieces of fabric from his stretcher and use it as cover. On the corner of his eye, a dozen flickering lights caught his attention from the top of the hill. Men were coming down. He couldn't see their faces clearly as they approached the ruin fast on top of their camels. They were yelling and screaming at one another, their voices echoed through the darkness of the night. Their light looked like a beacon of safety, yet it unnerved Hakem that these men might not bring him back to civilization.
The men approached and surrounded him, armed with spears, a long stick with a kitchen knife strapped on its tip, a couple of machine guns, and clubs with spikes on them. There were at least a dozen of them, each carrying their own torch, and the familiar shape of the young boy riding one of the younger camels. A dark and tall figure out of the men whispered to the boy, as he repeatedly pointed at him. The men shouted at him, their voices trying to be heard on top of each other, and Hakem didn't know who to turn and listen to. All of them got down from their camels, and advanced toward him. He took a step back, inching closer to the hole.
"Please, my brother…He needs help!" He shouted. The men didn't listen.
"Get out! Not safe!"
"You'll curse us!"
"Fool! Stupid, utter fool!"
"You'll leave this place at once!" The tall man said.
From the light of their torches and the way they dressed, Hakem realized they're part of the Bedouin tribe, an ethnic group in Syria who must've lived not too far from here. Hakem tried to talk to them but the men approached with their weapons ready, so he pulled out the only thing that could save his life. He raised his grenade threateningly and swiftly pulled the pin out. The men stopped and backed away, yet they remained closer, their weapons gripped tighter on their hands.
"I just need help! My brother…he fell in the hole!" He pointed at it. "And I need rope to pull him out, please. Then, we'll go, far away as possible."
The tall man looked at the hole, his eyes widen, cursing and aimed the gun at him. The others did as well, stood in a stance ready to attack him.
"You got them out! You fool! You don't know what you have done!" The tall man screamed.
One of the men, an older man with a silver beard chanted a prayer. Hakem's world swirled in confusion. He started backing away as the men slowly crept closer toward him. He limped his way back, when he hit a rock by his ankle, toppled over and crashed face first on the ground. They ran toward him, using the opportunity to attack when he's down, and realized it was a grave mistake. The grenade was on their path, rolling like a menacing mouse on the ground. Hakem quickly hid behind a collapsed pillar. The explosion split the tall man into half, sending it across and crashing on top of the boy. One man lost his leg, as the older one who chanted earlier was knocked off his feet and fell over the hole.
Hakem never anticipated the surrounding couple of pillars to crumble, came down swiftly on top of the men, and the last thing Hakem saw was the boy running away from the ruin. The ground beneath him gave way. He was falling into the darkness, swallowed deeper into the belly of the beast. The water broke his fall, and quickly swam to the bank, avoiding a few of the collapsed debris from falling on top of him. One man floated alongside him, his dark-brown eyes stared back at him, lifeless.
He finally reached the bank and got hold of Farhan's flashlight still lying on the ground. The cries of the others echoed throughout the cavern, lost in the water and darkness. Hakem's leg throbbed in pain. He shined his light on it. The area of the wound has become purple and sensitive to the touch, a sign that Hakem knew was a bad sign.
"Farhan!" He called out to the darkness, hoping his brother would hear him this time.
The moon's light shined brightly into the cavern, a glow that is peaceful to Hakem seeing as he won't have to rely on his flashlight all the time. He turned to his left and found a collapsed section of the ruin, forming a steep hill that led back up the hole, a way out. He called out for his brother again.
"Farhan!" He waited for his brother's voice, but he could only hear the cries and curses of the others. Then, the scream.
He pointed the light at the water, to the men who tried to swim toward him, his flashlight acting as their guide. He first saw the man to his left pulled underneath the water, then the man beside him, and so on. As the others realized what was happening, they swam hard to shore. Hakem got on his feet, shuffled his way toward the collapsed section. He turned back to see one of the last man reaching the bank only to get pulled back into the water by an invisible entity.
Hakem knew he was the last one left. He reached the bottom of the section, slowly climbing his way up to the surface. He saw the young boy watching down on him carrying his torch from the top of the section, waving at him.
"Get up! Faster!" He cried.
Hakem did as he was told. He ignored the cries and jolts of pain from his leg, inching closer and closer to the surface. He could feel the things that killed the rest of the men creeping faster toward him. He took another step on a rock when it crumbled beneath his shoes, and it almost sent him falling down when he caught himself, though his flashlight, his only light, fell into the abyss. He couldn't see clearly now, climbing blindly in the darkness with only the moon and the boy's torch as his beacon.
He fumbled in the dark, grabbed a strong grip on a rock, and positioned his feet to hoist himself up again. He felt it beneath his feet, a second would've saved him is life, but he didn't move. He didn't count on when it will give up beneath him, but it did. He tried to grab hold of something, anything, that he could hang on to but there was nothing. He fell and rolled down the steep section, hitting a debris on his wounded leg, and he was sure he just opened it wider, making it worse. His body tumbled to every rock and protruding debris on his way, his head banged and bruised on the way down.
He couldn't feel his legs, not even his toes. The pain of his right leg was suddenly gone. He tried to get up but he must've broken a few of his ribs as it was getting harder to breathe. He took a peek of his injured leg, his broken bones now bulge out from under the flesh. He tried to scream, only that it was muffled by his own blood. He spit it out, and ran his fingers along his jaw and broken nose until he felt a wet sensitive area on his forehead. He noticed his flashlight was just behind him and he quickly grabbed it, shining it at the dark, ready to scare away the thing that killed the rest.
"Are you still alive? Papa? Adib? Shakir?" the boy asked.
Hakem looked up, and flashed his light. I'm still alive. Then, he heard someone moved from the darkness.
"Farhan, is that you?" No one answered. It could be his brother was already dead. Whatever was down here probably had killed him already, a thought that pained him greatly.
He heard a distant scream but it didn't come from the cavern, it came from above. Hakem glanced up and saw the boy's torch falling and rolling down the steep slope, creeping toward him like a ball of fire until it finally landed near his feet, the boy's hand still attach at the bottom of it.
He heard the louring growl, right behind his ears. Its breath slightly puff his short dark hair, and smelled like a decomposing body that overpowered Hakem's nose.
Hakem spun around and then he heard his bones snap, a gray, long arm, and slender fingers with sharp nails, or is it claws, pierced out of his chest, his beating heart on top of its palm. The last thing he saw was a couple of shadows, big and clearly not human from his blurry vision, climbing the collapsed section inching closer toward the light of the moon, until they vanished to the surface. Hakem's eyes rolled back, blood dripped out of his mouth, as sharp teeth gnawed its way on his neck, dragging him into the darkness, back to the cold dark water of the cavern.
A/N: Thank you for reading and reviews are greatly appreciated! :)