Beneath vaulted arches of patched burlap and silk bed sheets dyed a regal burgundy and violet, Alahn holds me close. His brown, fleeced arm tightens over my bicep. His stubble cheek rests on my head. I listen to the deep wind rumble in his bare chest padded with the perfect blend of muscle and fat. I pray Astraea grants us one more night of peace and love.
“Sarehm, promise to meet me at the Iron Pyramid tomorrow?” he asks me. His smooth hand strokes my hairless, brown chest. “Midday? Astraea willing…”
I unfurl one chest curl at a time and avoid the question. I would go anywhere, do anything for Alahn. Every day he saves me from the lonely life of the desert, makes me feel like I am more than a servant. He makes me brave. But courage is not enough inside the Iron Pyramid.
After a few awkward minutes, Alahn says, “I have to meet with my father tomorrow morning.” He pauses. His breath deepens. “The Sand People are winning this war. They’re ruthless. They feed on us.”
I lift my head to speak, to urge him to leave the Iron Pyramid and the Sand People alone, but Alahn interrupts me. “We have to defend ourselves and hit them where it hurts. We can only do that with the wind.” My eyes narrow as Alahn shifts to lay on his side. We face each other, brown eyes connect. “My father is ill and there’s no one beyond me to hold the throne, and should he ever learn of our love…well, you know…”
I do know—the king would rather let his people fade into the sand than to have the line of Alahnian kings end, disgraced by a gay son.
“Do you remember the spell I showed you?” Alahn adds. “With the spell, harnessing the power from Astraea’s sacred runes, I can bring back the wind, Sarehm. I can bring back the mountains, take us home and build a better world for us.”
“And what a world that will be,” I whisper.
From his vision of a world where we might wander the valleys of old and love as men do, free and fearless, I summon the will to reach for him and to gently pluck his wool-wrapped lips. For a moment, I forget the misery beyond the tent, the war, and how the Sand People tore our mountains into sand and forced us into squalor. I don’t remind Alahn how the wind is cursed, how it brought our people nothing but ruin when Alahn the First had stolen it for himself and made the mountains, depriving the Sand People of their wealth. The last thing I would ever want is to end up in the Iron Pyramid or to bring about a second ruin for our people. Maybe things will be different for Alahn.
“So, will you go with me, Sarehm?” He asks, pulling away and stroking my hair. “Please. I don’t want to go alone. I need you there. You make me brave.”
Though the lines of age and hair have covered his face, Alahn’s eyes are as soft and hypnotic as they were when we met. They’ve always invited me into his world. When we were eight years old and the children rejected me, Alahn took my hand and welcomed me into the games. He made me his personal servant, brought me out of a meager life, and filled my life with a love I never thought possible. Can I deny him this one request? It may frighten me, but at least Alahn will be there. All I want is to be with him, wherever it may be—even in the jaws of Hell.
“Yes, I will go,” I say.
His smile widens. He tosses my leg over him, and I melt into his body. I drip over every inch of him.
Until knives slice through the regal tent. Men in stone armor pierce the ornate veil and tear our naked bodies away from each other.
“Bareth, what is going on?” Alahn asks the helmetless, fair-faced guard, who shoves me aside, knocking me to the ground. Other soldiers flood into the tent and pry Alahn from the bed.
“Prince Alahn,” says Bareth, “by order of the King, whose name you have shamed with this sodomy, you are banished. Astraea help you and heal this corruption,” he glares at me.
The moment Alahn and I feared most has arrived. Astraea help us now! We are so ill prepared. What will become of me? What will happen to Alahn?
“You can’t do this!” Alahn shouts, his voice shattering, desperate. “I am his last heir. You need me! What will you do without me?”
Knives tear through the burlap walls. Common men slither through the gaps.
“We will find a way. Our salvation will not rest on your kind,” says Bareth softly, venomously.
I squirm and wail as they bind me with rope and toss Alahn and me onto a wooden cart—the same one the butchers use to haul the slaughter.
As we rush by the dilapidated tents of the commoners, over the burgeoning, serrated salar, and under wilted foxtail palms, the men I’ve known since childhood smear our bodies with rotted fat and blood, which has been caked onto the cart.
“Abomination,” they shout. “Men do not love men. Only demons seduce men.”
Striking every stone on the main path, the wheels slice through the encampment, and after a few moments, all the tattered tents fade into the distance.
“Give him to the Sand People! Let them deal with the vermin,” the men say.
One cuts our bindings, and they toss us onto the sand beside thorny bushes—dehydrated, cracking, and dissolving into dust. A whip cracks over the horse and the wheels growl. Neither of us rush after the shrinking cart. I’m not angry nor am I hurt by the words of the men. I knew this day would come, but in those nightmares, Alahn was never with me. He’s here, and I couldn’t ask for anything more.
My skin glows from a light that pricks the dark veil above me. Astraea’s gaze is unmistakable.
“Alahn, look!” I stand and point to the brightest star. “Where do you think she’s taking us?”
He rises, wipes away the filth from his body and mine, and then lays a kiss on my lips.
“A better world,” he replies.
I hope one is waiting for us somewhere.
Astraea faded with the morning and left us to fend for ourselves, but such is her nature. We press on in the direction she’d given us. Alahn and I scamper across the burning, golden plains—unshaped, duneless. No breeze soothes our feet. The palms and desert trees are too gnarled to offer shade or to cool our skin. My hope for salvation, for a new home wanes.
“This is the way to the Pyramid,” Alahn says between hard breaths. “Trace the path of the rising sun and we will find it, or so says the old—look!”
I follow his quivering finger. A pointed, ebony stone peers over the sand.
“Impossible,” I say. “It’s so small…”
“It is!” Alahn races away and disappears.
I rush after him and stumble over a cliff. I scrape my arms on stray rocks as I slide down the sheer face of the well. I reach the base and rub my arm as I pry myself from the cold, dark brown sand. I gaze at the black structure before me. The tight swirls glide across the sleek, iron surface, climbing the temple heights until the lines straighten and reach the zenith.
“All is not lost, my love,” says Alahn as he approaches the Pyramid and sets his hand on the iron face.
A quake erupts beneath us. The swirls on the Pyramid glow green, and the lights flow to the peak.
My heart launches into a panic. I cling tight to Alahn, but his eyes remain fixed on the Pyramid. My feet sink into soft grains, and my face catches leaping pearls. Beside us, the ground peels away. Sand falls and molds into a bridge over a white-bricked well and meets an ornate staircase, encrusted with pale stones and citrine crystals.
“It calls to us, Sarehm,” Alahn says. “The wind longs to be free!” He springs to his feet and rushes toward the stairs, while I slowly approach. “Sarehm, come on! We can’t waste time.”
“Wait, Sarehm! It might be a trap.”
Sarehm slips away from me. I don’t have the chance to ask him why he thinks the Sand People are not here to stop us. I can’t leave him alone. I can’t be left alone. I have to follow him now.
Fear haunts me as I descend deeper into the cave. Shadows consume me. I can only feel the balustrade, so I tighten my grip and carefully step into the darkness, hoping for another step. I pray I won’t tumble into the void.
“Astraea,” Alahn whispers as we pass through a grand archway and enter a vast, iron hall bathed in flickering green light.
At the center, stands an enormous statue of Astraea, scaling the height of the Iron Pyramid, bearing a citrine crystal over her body. The statue is held on an iron stage suspended over a deep well by broad, metal beams attached to walls. She is more beautiful than the carved wooden version Alahn keeps beside his bed.
A breeze wafts up from beneath an iron bridge lined with black statues of men and women, scholars and warriors, each holding citrine crystals. I extend my sight to where the road leads and see two, glowing emerald pillars. Their light is rich and vibrant, inviting me to cross the platform.
As Alahn and I cross, I hear him whisper, “Our new future is so close. I feel it.”
When we reach the end, Alahn examines the pillars. There are incongruent lines, the smattering of sharp and curved markings rising and falling over the green face. He smacks his hands together. His blood-webbed eyes widen, and he says, “I knew it! Don’t you see, my love? Wind! We just have to reach out and take it!”
For the first time, I want space between us. Whether I need air to process the information or to ease nerves alarmed by his expression, I’m not sure, but I take a step back. I glare at the pillars, at the glyphs I recognize as the markings of air, and I remember the stories. I don’t care for war or redemption.
“We can’t take the wind,” I say. “Let’s get out of here. We can find a place to live.”
“Sarehm, we can make a better world. We can bring back the mountains. We can walk in the valley, free to love. No more hiding. A world where the goddess can return.” He spreads his arms and lifts his hands to the iron frame of Astraea. “She left behind the Pyramid and this statue to watch over the humans. Praying they’ll change their hateful ways.”
“And to guide the lost,” I add.
His attention stays on the goddess, and he continues, “She taught me the spell. It’s simple. It can rebuild her world, save our people and bring peace.”
I shake my head. Grains of sand spill from my brown hair. “We can’t take from the Sand People and think they won’t come after our people again. They fought the Father. Why wouldn’t they come for us too?”
“The goddess brought us here for a reason,” Alahn says. With wide eyes, he whirls and stalks toward me. “If it wasn’t to take the wind, to answer my prayers, then why?”
My breath is hard and sharp. To repeat the sins of our past is not the way to save our people. It will only bring us to ruin. I’m sure of it. Why can’t we just go? We’re together. We can make for a new land. We can find a new world.
Alahn walks to the emerald pillar closest to him and places his hand on it. He mutters to himself words in a language I’ve never heard. A deep wind builds in his voice. His pitch rises, strengthens, and the pillar’s glow intensifies. Beams strike the orange crystal, draining into the glassy frame.
I clench my fists. “The wind does not belong to us,” I say, but before I can reach out to Alahn and grab him, a voice echoes over the iron hall.
“Son of a thief! You have learned nothing.”
Directly beneath the goddess stands a faceless man. His skin is bleached and devoid of any clothing. His thin lips sit straight, unmoved, and his crimson eyes glare at Alahn.
Alahn steps between me and the figure and says, “I am no thief! My Father claimed the wind for our people, the people enslaved by yours.”
“Do you seek to take it from us as your father did?” he asks. A low mutter echoes around us, like a hundred buzzing discussions.
“We seek freedom,” I answer.
The man holds out his hand. Curled, dry fingers point to the stone archway, and he says, “You are free. Go now and we will not harm you. If that is truly why you have come here.”
“There’s no freedom out there,” says Alahn. “Your people hunt us. And for men like us, we are better off eaten by you. Not unless we make a better world.”
“So, you seek the wind to shape the world. Have you learned nothing from your Father? The Alahnaran have always sought to destroy what they do not like. Your Father stole the wind, hoping to free his people from us as if they were ever our servants. We gave them a home, our food, and love, and he waged war with us because he saw us as different, as lesser. Now, his children come to beg for the wind. Well, we will give you the wind we love, for a meager price. One that can settle our grievances and bring us both peace.”
The faceless man’s sharp words tense my gut. I squeeze Alahn’s arm and say, “Let’s go. Please! Something doesn’t feel right. We can go away and live how we want. I don’t want the wind.”
Alahn lays his hand on mine. “I won’t live in the shadows or be buried in sand while my people suffer. We deserve better, Sarehm. Don’t all people have the right to be happy?”
“I am happy. Every moment with you brings me that joy.”
Alahn’s head falls. He takes away his hand to rub his neck. His breath quickens. He taps his foot and mumbles, “I can’t be happy until my people are saved.”
I step away from Alahn, desperately containing the broiling air in my chest. The heat fills the emptiness in my stomach, which Alahn is causing. He doesn’t turn to me. Alahn offers me no consolation or affection. Instead, he steps toward the faceless man, proud and strong.
“For my people, I will take the wind, regardless of the cost. Please, give it to me.” He holds out the stone idol and laughter rumbles over the iron hall.
“The line of succession is built on sin. To claim the wind, the blood of the Father must be vanquished to cleanse the stain between our people.”
Alahn steps back. I grab his bicep, pulling him close, imagining the void he would leave in my life—one so profound it defies comprehension.
“Alahn, please let’s leave!” I cry. “We will figure something out. Please! I can’t lose you!”
“Please, Sarehm.” His lips sag. His eyes darken to plead with me. “You take the wind. Don’t you want that world? One where we can both be happy, and we can be ourselves. If you give me the chance. I want to do this, not just for our people, but for you.”
Why should I give up Alahn to save a people who discarded us onto the scorching sand? Who left us to the mercy of the Sand People? Why should we save anyone?
“Please, Sarehm! Help me!”
Perhaps if we would’ve lived in the world that Alahn wishes to create, he would have carved away at the vile tradition of banishing people to the sand. We would have strolled amongst the almond trees of the valley. I’d steal him away from his regal duty to kiss him under a constellation of white flowers. I’d love him as other men love their wives.
I’ll do this for Alahn and no one else.
The platform rumbles, shaking my hands into Alahn’s. I try to pull him closer. I call out to him, but a gust cleaves the iron beneath us. We’re split into separate stages, and Alahn’s fingers slip from mine. Towards the far wall, I watch him fly.
“Sarehm!” His voice dims to silence, and the boom of crumbling stone roars from behind me.
“Will you take the wind?” the faceless figure asks.
“Where’s Alahn? Give him back!”
“Answer the question!”
My jaw tightens. “Coercion is no way to bargain.”
“Morals from an Alahnaran? Answer me, thief!”
For Alahn, I would do anything. He has always believed in me and encouraged me to live beyond what others think. I should hold to his faith as he’s always held onto me. If he dreams of a better world, why can’t I do the same? I wonder if the almond trees are as beautiful as the old stories say. I nod with a huff, and the work begins.
A crash behind me forces me to turn. Chunks of the emerald pillars shatter as they strike the platform and pool into green sand. The iron hall plunges into a veil of darkness. My breath is my only comfort. Heaves join the heartbeats ringing in my ear.
A torrent whips from the edge, knocking me prone. My knuckles bang against the iron border. Carefully, I pry myself from the ground, and the wind strikes my body. It sandwiches me in place, spreading my arms apart. Threads of air stab at my skin. The pressure squeezes my chest, siphoning the air from my lungs.
I scream, begging the faceless figure to stop, but the words shrivel under the weight of the wind. The feeling of death scurries over the platform, meeting my feet; its gnarled fingers brush against the hairs on my leg.
“Breathe, son of mountains. Heir of the wind and sand, do not fight it. Allow the wind to slip into your body, to find its home in your lungs. Let the promise of a new world settle your nerves.”
Air wafts from my chest, teasing my nostrils. It carries a scent I recognize. One similar to the fragrance airborne by the trees of the lake. No, I’ve smelled this before, but not by the water. It holds a soothing depth, one that drops the air into my body, rejuvenating my spirit. My eyes widen. It is the scent in Alahn’s chamber when I stood by the wooden frames. Deeply, I inhale. Mountain air drains down my throat, stretching my lungs to the brink of explosion, and with a sharp motion, a stream of air slips out of my mouth. But it doesn’t end there. Gales turn into gusts and merge into a storm. The sand flutters around me.
“Sarehm! Help!” A voice cries through the darkness. It sounds like Alahn.
The wind binds me. Sand scrapes against my skin. It burns like the sun-scorched grains of the desert. I cry out for Alahn, for the goddess, but the only response is a booming I recognize as the faceless man.
“As the line of Alahn ends, we will all make a better world. For wind, we take the bane of the sand.”
Darkness takes me.
A cool breeze guides me across the sand helping me carry Alahn’s pale, naked corpse. I couldn’t leave him there by the Iron Pyramid. I had to bring him home. He needed to be buried in the royal plots by the hands of the people he fought to save. We aren’t far now.
The crimson and lavender tents sulk by the shallow lake. They catch the waning sunlight like beacons of foolish hope. The rustle of withering palms and the bellows of eroded cloth is music to me, the sound of the only home I have left—with Alahn gone—but it doesn’t soothe me. All I can hear is Alahn’s screams as the faceless man tore the life from him.
I’ll leave him here on the outskirts of the village, and my people will see him. My tears are not for them to enjoy. He’s so peaceful. More time is all I want with him. Just another minute to hold him, to love him as men do. I steal my chance. On dead lips, cold yet soft, I lay one final kiss. Fearless.
My people hover in the distance with fallen and covered mouths. They don’t approach. My people kill exiles on the spot if they return. I’ve not crossed the bounds to the encampment, but will they spare me over a technicality?
From the crowd, someone shouts, “The Sand People are coming!” A man points behind me.
I glance back at the black specks burrowing from the sand, growing into humanoid figures. Hordes of onyx cloaks sway as the hunched creatures, gnarled and dry, limp toward me. Their amber eyes flare to crimson. Fangs slip over cracked bottom lips.
The faceless man lied to me! The Priest of the Sand People, the vilest of all the demons on this wretched plain, took my Alahn away and sent an army to rid the desert of my people! Gone are my dreams of walking among the almond trees, of a free life with Alahn, and of the better world. I hate Alahn, too—he forced this deal! We could have made for the sea, for the Sun, for anywhere but here.
But now I hold the power of the wind. I should be fearless. I can be the terrors of the sand if I so chose. I know the spell. I can tear down the bane of my people. I can bring us all peace.
I draw a circle around me and Alahn. Within the sandy bounds, I carve the runes that were etched on the emerald pillars before rising and standing before the army of the Sand People.
“They will not take you, Alahn,” I say. “They will not take anyone. I promise you.”
I inhale. Smooth air tickles my nose, caressing my airways the same way Alahn used to touch me at night. My breath swells, ignited by hatred, and it bursts from my lips. A gale erupts, flowing over the still desert and crashing over the army. The hands of the Sand People break away. Slowly, the wind takes their bodies, climbing to their hoods and the fabric fades.
But the wind doesn’t stop. It whips across the golden plains, sculpting the world into looming towers and walls. I stand and marvel. These stones lifting me from the sand are familiar, like an old memory waking up. The world sits well on these dunes, better than those surrounding the Iron Pyramid.
My people cry, “The mountains have returned!”
The Mountain People pitch their tents. They fish from the new streams I’d carved to feed the lake. The Sand People do not come to wage war with us anymore. We’ve found peace in this new world I built with the wind.
Under a shimmering constellation fixed in the veil of night, as men do, fearlessly, I wander the valley. Sapling almond trees break from the soil. Here the air is so crisp, so healing that all the worries of the old life can fade. At last, our wounds can heal.
My hand is locked in Alahn’s hand as we scale the mountains. At the summit, Alahn steps behind me and wraps his arms around my waist. His lips touch my neck. His hands coddle the tunic over my body. Together, we watch the wind carry the night over the Iron Pyramid.
A breeze tickles my skin. Sand brushes against my face. I reach for Alahn’s arm, the one I conjured from wind and sand, from my memories, but it’s gone. Astraea’s star pierces the sky. Alahn’s voice comes to me, soothing, yet commanding, and asks, “It really is better, isn’t it?”
Kevin M. Casin is a gay, Latino fiction writer, and cardiovascular research scientist. His work has appeared in If There’s Anyone Left, From The Farther Trees, 34 Orchard, Pyre Magazine, and more. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Tree And Stone, an active SFWA/Codex member, and First Reader for Diabolical Plots and Interstellar Flight Press. For more about Kevin, please see his website: https://kevinmcasin.com/. Or follow his Twitter: @kevinthedruid.