They found themselves in a hallway whose magnificence would have shamed that of any king, khan, or potentate. Pillars of rose-hued cold fire supported a mezzanine that appeared to have been carved from solid ivory. Overhead, the vaulted ceiling was ablaze with stained glass of every imaginable pastel color. It was all vapor and fog, the most elegant effluvium imaginable, but the effect was utterly stunning. Marveling at the delicate aesthetics of the ethereal architecture, they strode in silence down the vast hallway. Beneath the pseudo-stained glass, the color of the light that bathed their progress was ever changing.
“So this is what the inside of a mirage looks like.” Though there was no compelling need for him to do so, Simna had lowered his voice to a whisper. “I never imagined.”
“Of course you didn’t.” Ehomba strode easily alongside his friend. His sandaled feet made no sound as they sank slightly into the floor that, instead of tile or marble, was paved with mosaic ephemera. “No one could. The inside of a mirage is not for human imagining, but for other things.”
Simna’s eyes widened as he espied movement ahead. “It’s not? Then how do you explain that?”
At the end of the overpowering hallway was a throne, eight feet high at the back and decorated with arabesques of rose-cut gemstones. Pillows of lavender- and orange- and tangerine-colored silk spilled from the empty dais to form a rolling wave of comfort at its feet. Sprawled and splayed, reclining and rolling on this spasmodic bed of dazzling indulgence, was a clutch of sinuous sloe-eyed houris of more color and variation than the pillows they lolled upon. There was not a one who would not have been the pride of any sultan’s harem or merchant’s front office.
Giggling and tittering among themselves, they rose in all their diaphanous glory to beckon the visitors closer. Their gestures were sumptuous with promise, their eyes the lights of the passion that dances like a flame at the tip of a scented candle: concentrated, burning, and intense. For the second time since he had begun his journey, Ehomba was tempted to forget his woman.
Simna suffered from no such restraints. Eyes alert, every muscle tense, a grin of lust on his face as pure as the gold he hoped to find, he started forward. One houri in particular drew him, her expression simmering like cloves in hot tea.
Blackness blotted out the enticing, serpentine vision. The blackness had four feet, unnaturally long legs, and muscles bigger around than the swordsman’s torso. Simna started to go around it, only to find himself stumbling backwards as a massive paw smacked him hard in the chest. More than his sternum bruised, he glared furiously at the litah.
“Hoy, just because there’s no cats here, don’t go trying to spoil my fun!”
“There’s no fun here, genital man.” Ahlitah was staring, not at him, but at the hazy, vaporous side corridors that flanked the hallway. The ostensibly empty corridors. “Get out.”
“What?” Two surprises in a row were almost more than Simna could handle. Ehomba stood nearby, not commenting, his gaze shifting repeatedly from the now frantic demi-mondaines to the litah.
“Get out. Get back, get away, retreat, run.” As he delivered these pithy admonitions, the great cat had turned to face the vacant throne and was backing slowly up the hallway, his massive head swinging slowly from side to side so as to miss nothing.
Hesitant, but for the moment persuaded more by the cat’s behavior than his words, Simna complied, keeping the litah’s bulk between himself and—nothing. Or was that a flash, a flicker, a figment of movement there, off to his left? And another, possibly and perhaps, on the far side of the hallway, dancing against the evanescent wall?
Ehomba had joined in the retreat. More importantly, he held his spear tightly in both hands, extended in fighting posture. Together and in tandem, the visitors backed steadily away from the dais and its languorous promise of phantasmal carnal bliss.
“I still do not see anything,” the herdsman murmured tightly.
“Hoy, cat, what are we—”
Simna’s query was interrupted as Ahlitah rose on his hind legs and slashed out with his right paw. The blow would have taken off a man’s head as easily as Simna could pull a cork from a bottle. Four-inch-long claws tore through an unseen but very real something, ripping it where it stood. The two humans saw only reflections of the destruction, flashes of bright gold in the air in front of the cat. Something that was all long, icy fangs and shredded, glaring eyes howled outrage that echoed off the enclosing walls. Tiny individual droplets of wet, red blood appeared from nowhere to fall as slow scarlet rain, crimson bubbles suspended like candy in the cloying atmosphere of the hallway. The mist-shrouded floor sucked them up greedily, hungrily. Thin, skeletal tendrils of the tenebrous surface under their feet began to curl and coil upward, clutching weakly at the travelers’ ankles.
Whirling and roaring like the tornado he had once challenged to a race, Ahlitah snapped viselike jaws on something that had fastened itself to his back. An inhuman high-pitched scream split the sugar-sweet air, and fresh reflections emitted a second shower of rapidly evaporating blood. Simna had his sword out and was looking to cover the litah’s rear, only there was nothing to cover against. Strain as he might, he could see nothing moving save his friends and the delicate feminine visions that seemed restricted to the vicinity of the magnificent, forsaken throne.
“Gronanka—show yourselves—whatever you are!” Close to him Ehomba was swinging the point of his spear from left to right and back again, sweeping it in a deadly arc over the floor as they continued their withdrawal. “Do you see anything, Etjole?”
“Not a thing, my friend!” Alongside them, two immense paws came together with a thunderous clap, and a third something unseen died. Ahlitah’s eyes were wide and wild as he dealt death to the invisible. And all the while the floor continued to scrabble and clutch at their feet with futile fingers of fog.
Two of the gesticulating, moaning houris left their pillows and came running toward them. Their arms were outstretched, their eyes pleading. They wailed and moaned in languages unknown to either man, but there was no mistaking the desperation in their gestures, the imploring in their eyes. They were beseeching the visitors to take them along, to remove them from the mirage in which they dwelled in unsolicited, unwanted, unloved luxury.
Something bellowed angrily and slapped at them, sending them flying backwards to land among the satiny fluff and froth-filled cushions that hugged the dais. Helplessly they lay there, sobbing softly among their intimates, turning their flawless faces away or dropping their heads into their hands.
Meanwhile, the apprehensive, uneasy visitors continued their steady retreat. Having picked up the pace a little, the two men strained every sense they possessed in search of assailants they could not see while Ahlitah continued to rage and destroy corposants that could not be made visible but that could bleed.
They backed right out of that grand and sumptuous hallway, right through the walls of wisp that enclosed the delirium palace, until they were standing once more upon dry sand and rock. The splendid battlements and spires rose high above them, masking but not blotting out the sky.
“Now—run!” Ahlitah commanded.
Turning, they sprinted away from that place as fast as their inadequate human legs would carry them. Though he could have fled westward at ten times the speed, Ahlitah trailed behind, often looking back over his shoulder to make sure they were not being pursued.
But a mirage cannot follow. Sooner than Ehomba would have expected, the litah slowed. “It’s all right now. It’s going away.”
Out of breath, they turned and stared. In the distance the fleecy, resplendent palace was fading from view, waning like a new moon obscured by clouds until, like a final shimmer of heat pinched between earth and sky, it vanished from sight.
Simna sank to one knee, struggling to catch his breath. “What—what were we fighting in there? I never saw anything.”
“Eupupa.” Through his hands, Ehomba rested his weight on his spear. “I have heard of them, but never before encountered any.”
“How would you know if you had?” Taking an especially deep breath, the swordsman straightened and sheathed his untested sword.
“I am told you can feel their presence around you. They live in the empty, dry places of the world. Only rarely do they come out of the mirages that are their homes. But on a long day, when the sun is high and hot, I am told you can feel them investigating your body, swimming around your cheeks and your chest, coming right up to you to peer deep into your eyes. Outside their mirages they have only the power to cloud one’s thinking. Have you never wondered why so many people who are lost in the desert die only a day, or an hour, or sometimes less than that but a few feet from water, or help?” Looking away, he gazed back at the now ordinary, unmarred horizon.