Safia fought to shut it out. She ran a hand along the wall. Sandstone. The steps underfoot had been worn by countless sandals and bare feet. How many others had walked this same path? She imagined the Queen of Sheba herself climbing or descending these stairs.
As she ascended, Safia sensed time’s constriction, the past and present merging into one. More than anywhere, here in Arabia, the past and present blurred. History was not dead and buried under skyscrapers and asphalt, or even trapped behind museum walls. It lived here, tied intimately to the land, merging story and stone into one.
She dropped her fingers.
Lu’lu joined her. “I heard you speaking to your beloved.”
Safia didn’t want to talk about it. “He’s not…that was before…”
“You both love this land,” the hodja continued, ignoring her attempt at a protest. “You’ve let too much sand come between you. But such dust can be swept aside.”
“It’s not that easy.”
Safia stared down at her hand, where a ring once rested. Gone like a promise once made. How could she trust he’d be there when she needed him? It was a boy who left you. It is a man who kneels here now. Could she believe that? In contrast, she pictured another’s face. Painter. The way he held her hand, his quiet respect and comfort, even the agony in his eyes when he frightened her.
Lu’lu spoke, as if reading her mind. “There are many men with noble hearts. Some take a little longer to grow into theirs.”
Safia felt tears rising. “I need more time…to think things through.”
“You’ve had time. Like us, you’ve spent too much time alone. Choices have to be made…before we are left with none.”
As proof, a short way up, the storm’s rush of winds moaned across the opening at the top.
Safia felt a breath of it across her cheek. She felt drawn to it. After so long below, she wanted to be free of this prison of rock. If only for a moment. To clear her head.
“I’m going to check the storm,” Safia mumbled.
“I’ll come with you,” Kara said, a step behind her.
“As will I,” the hodja added. “I would see with my own eyes what the first queen saw. I would see the original entrance to Ubar.”
The three of them continued alone up the last flights of stairs. The winds grew stiffer, and sand swirled down atop them. The three pulled up hoods, scarves, and goggles.
Safia hiked to the top. The opening was a crack ahead. Kara clicked off her flashlight. The storm was lighter than the dark passage.
The exit stood a yard away. Safia spotted a crowbar leaning near the exit. Beyond the threshold rested a large flat boulder, partially blocking the way.
“The rock must’ve hidden the entrance,” Kara said.
Safia nodded. Captain al-Haffi’s men must have used the crowbar to pry the stone aside enough to pass through. Perhaps, if they outlasted the storm, they could all escape, push the stone back in place, and block Cassandra.
The fresh wind filled Safia with hope.
Even from here, the storm did not seem as dark as she remembered back at Shisur. Maybe the brunt of it was ending.
Safia bent through the crack but stayed sheltered behind the stone. Sand still covered the sun, but full night had become twilight again. She could see the sun again, a wan moon through the storm.
“The storm looks less severe,” Kara said, confirming Safia’s assessment.
Lu’lu disagreed. “Do not be fooled. These sands around Ubar are deceptive. There is a very real reason tribes avoid this area, calling it cursed, haunted, the sands of djinns and devils.”
The hodja led them farther out of the entrance.
Safia followed, the wind tugging at her cloak and scarf. She looked around. She realized that they were atop a mesa, some thirty or forty feet above the desert floor. It was one of countless rocky prominences that poked from the dunes. “Ships of the sands,” they were named by the nomadic tribes.
Safia stepped farther out, examining their perch. She recognized the shape of the mesa. It was the same as the sand painting at the palace. Here was where the first entrance to Ubar was discovered almost three millennia ago. She stared around. Both the citadel and the queen’s palace had been patterned after this mesa. The most precious of all the ships of the desert.
Beyond the mesa, the storm drew Safia’s eye. The swirling clouds in this area appeared strange. A mile or so out, the sandstorm darkened in bands, encircling the plateau. Safia could hear distant winds howling.
“It’s like we’re in the eye of a hurricane,” Kara said.
“It is Ubar,” Lu’lu said. “It draws the might of the storm to itself.”
Safia remembered how for a short time after the keys erupted and opened the gate, the sandstorm had seemed less intense.
Kara crept dangerously near one of the rims. It made Safia nervous.
“You should get back from there,” Safia warned, afraid a gust of wind might carry her over the edge.
“There’s a path down this side. More of a goat track. Maybe we could make it down. I can see three trucks below, about forty yards out. Captain al-Haffi’s transportation.”
Safia edged closer. She could not imagine trying to traverse a cliffside path in these winds. They gusted unpredictably.
Lu’lu agreed with Safia. “It is death to attempt those sands.”
Kara glanced back at the hodja. Her expression argued that it was just as dangerous to stay. Clearly Kara was willing to take the chance.
Lu’lu understood her thought. “Your father dismissed warnings of these sands, as you do now. Even after all you’ve seen.”
Her words only angered Kara. “What is there to fear?”
Lu’lu swept her arms out. “These are the sands of the nisnases.”
Both Safia and Kara knew that name. The black ghosts of the sands. It was the nisnases that were to blame for Reginald Kensington’s death.
Lu’lu pointed to the southwest. A small whirlwind stirred, twisting, a tornado of sand. It scintillated in the darkness, aglow with static charge. For a moment, it burst more brilliantly, then vanished.
“I’ve seen a dust devil like that,” Kara said.
Lu’lu nodded. “The nisnases bring the burning death.”
Safia pictured Reginald Kensington’s tortured body, locked in glass. It reminded her of the mummified citizens below. How were they connected?
Another devil bloomed off to the east. Another due south. They seemed to stir up from the sand and into the air. Safia had seen thousands of such whirlwinds, but never ones so brilliant with static charge.
Kara gazed out. “I still don’t under—”
Directly before them, a wall of sand blew up from below the mesa’s edge. They all fell back.
“A nisnase!” Lu’lu gasped.
The whirlwind formed just beyond the mesa, swirling in a sinuous column. Both Kara and the hodja retreated for the passage. Safia remained where she stood, mesmerized.
Vast waves of static charge swept up its length, chasing up from the sand and into the sky. Her cloak billowed, not from winds this time, but from the play of electricity in the air, crackling over her skin, clothes, and hair. It was a painful but somehow ecstatic feeling. It left her body cold, her skin warm.
She exhaled, not realizing she had been holding her breath.
She took a step forward, close enough to see the full breadth of the snaking whirlwind. Energy continued to jitter through the column. She saw the devil centered around one of the three vehicles. From her vantage point, she could see the sands around the truck forming a whirlpool beneath it.
She jumped a bit when something touched her elbow. It was Kara. She had strengthened her nerve to watch. Kara found and took Safia’s hand. In her touch, Safia sensed Kara reliving an old nightmare.
Beneath the truck, the sands began to darken. A burning odor wafted up to them. Kara’s hand clenched on Safia. She had recognized that smell.
The sands grew black. Molten sand. Glass.
The energies in the whirlwind whipped wildly, glowing through the entire column. From their perch, they watched the truck sink into the molten pool, at first slowly, its rubber tires melting and popping—then there was a tremendous whoosh of static, the devil collapsed, and in the instant before it vanished, Safia watched the glass turn as black as nothingness. The truck fell away, as if through air. The black pit melted deeper into the sand, and the last winds swept fresh sand over it, wiping away all trace.
A ghost come and gone.
A moment later, a soft blast burped. The sand in the area bumped up.
“Fuel tank,” Kara said.
They both raised their eyes. More of the deadly whirlwinds were popping up all over. There had to be a dozen of them now.
“What’s happening?” Kara asked.
Safia shook her head. The encircling wall of storm had also grown blacker, contracting toward them, moving closer in all directions.
Lu’lu stared around them with a look of terror. “The other storm system from the coast. It has come, the two are feeding on each other, becoming something worse.”
“The megastorm,” Safia said. “It’s forming around us.”
More and more whirlwinds danced across the sands. Their glows were flames rising from the sands. It was a hellish landscape. The storm beyond grew blacker and wilder. It screamed now.
To move across those sands invited certain death.
Safia heard a sound closer at hand. A noise from her radio. She freed it from a pocket. Omaha had asked her to leave the channel open in case he needed to reach her.
She fished it out and backed toward the passageway.
A voice whispered through static at her. “Safia…if…can hear me…”
Kara leaned next to her. “Who is it?”
Safia pressed it to her ear, listening tightly.
“…I…coming…Safia, can you hear…”
“Who?” Kara asked.
Safia’s eyes widened. “It’s Painter. He’s alive.”
Some vagary of the storm’s static let his voice reach her clearly for a moment. “I’m two miles from your position. Hold tight. I’m coming.”