's 2016 Horror Write-off:

One Thousand and One Frights

Submitted by Doctor Wither

               It had been a family tradition to drive by the Baron's Palace at least once during our trips to Egypt. Our grandparents lived in Heliopolis, at the outskirts of Cairo: every year, we would pack up our bags, and fly all the way from Baltimore to visit them.  Spending Christmas break to New Year's in my ancestor's country was something I anticipated all year: my parents never failed to make each trip fun and memorable.

               The winter I turned eighteen, however, felt patently different. Both of my parents were ill, and my oldest sister was stuck working the holidays. There was even talk of calling off the trip altogether: a first, in all the time I had been alive! Eventually, however, we did take a flight: we would arrive in Egypt on December twenty-first. I was quite worried, for though I felt as healthy as ever, my parents seemed almost too tired to move. They looked absolutely exhausted, and were unresponsive when addressed: you had to shake their shoulder, or pull their hand. By the time we had finally reached my grandfather's home, the pair had fallen asleep in their seats. The taxi driver found this very amusing, and even helped us unload the baggage, joking with my grandfather in Arabic. I helped as well, but the worry must have shown on my face: as soon as my parents were inside, and the taxi driver had driven off, Grandpa took me aside.

               Maybe the traveling had taken its toll on me as well: he said I looked a little dejected, and suggested I join my parents in slumber. I didn't feel sleepy, however: the jetlag left me feeling as if it were the middle of the afternoon, though it had been dusk. I didn't feel hungry, thirsty, sick, achy, or tired. The feeling of wrongness was hard to describe. It was a bit like fear.

               I knew I should have been sick and tired of traveling, but at that moment, I knew only one thing would calm me down: a nice long drive. My grandfather was incredulous, but my face must have looked pretty bad: he didn't seem to question me much, and only protested a little before giving me the keys to his old truck. I used to love driving out in the desert last summer, but I wasn't going to go that far out this time. Just a little drive around the neighborhood, I promised.

               Perhaps I should have checked on my parents, and helped unpack. If I had just stayed in that one night, nothing would have ever gone wrong. But that evening, I really needed a drive. I didn't even know why I felt so terrible, but as soon as I put in the keys and revved up the engine, calm washed over me. I made sure my papers were on me, and then drove off down the road, windows down, cool night wind in my hair, and the nightlights flashing in my peripheral vision.

               It couldn't have been long before I decided to go see the palace. It had always intrigued me as a kid: it was so different from all the other old buildings in Cairo. Other old buildings tended to be Islamic, or churches, or have a certain 'Roman' style of big marble columns. Not the palace! Naked statues of marble stared at the roadside: Hindu gods held up the roof, as winding lungs and stone reliefs of naga peeked from corners and on stairways. It looked like a Cambodian Wat, with a more tradition two stories, and one tall tower with minarets, surrounded by a verdant garden full of uncanny statues.

               My grandfather had told me its story, but the details always elude me when I try to recall: Some Belgian millionaire, Baron Empain, fell in love with the desert, and built the bizarre palace on land he bought from the British. It had been empty for nearly fifty years, though: we were told the insides were full of bats and stray dogs, and no one had entered since the nineties. A wall of wrought steel and carved stone elephants surrounded the property - it had been defiled with the addition of barbed wire, and a pair of guards. No one was allowed in, and so the best I could do was drive by, and hope I could still see the palace in the dimming twilight.

               The palace looked glorious with the desert dusk as a backdrop - splashes of red and pink, in a deep blue sky, all shining down on the strange manse. So glorious, in fact, that I decided to take a picture! My smartphone didn't get service in Egypt, but it could still take photos. I parked the truck, and locked it tight: I didn't think anyone would steal such an old clunker, but you never know. I walked out with my phone, and walked up to the gate, hoping for a great angle, before three things struck me.

               Three things struck me: The gates were open, the guards were nowhere to be found, and the street was utterly devoid of passing cars. I stared beyond the gates, thinking that the two guards might have gone inside to investigate - but the garden was empty, and the golden palace offered no answers.

               I had always dreamed of seeing its insides: it had been looted long ago, or so the internet told me, but I didn't care. Perhaps I'd get in trouble, once the guards came back, but I didn't care about that either: this might be a once in a lifetime chance. I walked over the threshold and into the garden, phone in hand. I stepped over the grass, and took photos of a few of the statues: I vaguely recalled them being vandalized and covered in graffiti, but they seemed almost pristine to me, in that dim light.

               After I had seen enough of the garden, I walked up the golden steps, and found the door. Carvings of smiling devas and dancing serpents looked at me from the doorway: there was no door in itself, and the inside was pitch black. I could barely make out the floor, let alone any features inside the palace.

               I took my phone, and looked for the flashlight app, but before I found it, a voice made me look up, "Ya Shab!"

               A man walked out of the shadows, addressing me in arabic, "'eish jeet hunnah, ya shab? Eindak bitaka walla eish?"

               "A...assif," I mumbled, apologizing, as I only half understood his sentence. He looked like a photo of a Fellah taken by some British archaeologist during the discovery of King Tut's tomb. He had a white, embroidered taqiyah hat on his head, and a worn grey robe. His skin was similarly worn, almost grey. His face was gaunt, and he had a long nose and sparse black moustache. I couldn't help but stare a little at his mouth: his teeth were so rotten, they had become a deep brown, almost back: the exposed gums looked purple. I shook my head a little, before smiling at him sheepishly, "Eh... do you speak English? Erm... B'tihki Englaize ya M'alem?"

               "Sure thing," the man responded, leaning against the carved stone doorway. I was surprised by his lack of accent: I must have been gawking, because he laughed, revealing those horrible rotten teeth and a swollen tongue, "I guess you aren't a local boy, eh? Everybody around here has heard of Ol' Abu Ragl Masloukh! What's your name, kid?"

               "M...Mister Burnt-leg?" I said incredulously, "Oh... I'm Malik."

               "Yes siree, Mister Burnt-Leg," the strange man said, and as if from the darkness itself, he drew a pipe! Beyond him, a little light glowed in the darkness. I could see a hookah, an Egyptian water pipe, stood up a little behind him. Smoldering coals and lumps of tobacco filled the head, at the top of a long glass neck with water at the bottom: a tube came from the bottom, which the man lifted to his lips, and inhaled deeply, before blowing out a smoke ring towards the ceiling, "Don't let the name fool you: You're a good kid, Malik, I can tell. No reason to fear a bogey if you've never disobeyed your parents, eh?"

               "A bogey?" I said, a little confused, "Look... I'm sorry if I'm trespassing. I've just always wanted to go inside the palace. Are you a guard? Are people allowed to enter now, or something? The gates are open."

               "I don't know about all other nights," Abu Ragl said, taking in another breath from his water pipe, "But tonight, anything goes. It's the winter solstice, and everybody knows what that means. It's the summit! And this year, my own home country of Egypt is hosting."

               "Summit? What summit? There's a meeting going on in here?" I said, looking over his shoulder: Everything seemed totally dark, except for his pipe.

               "What summit?" The strange man chuckled, looking me in the eye, "The Summum Malum. Kimmat'l Sharr. La cumbre de las sombras. The big one, the summit of shadows!"

               "Oooooh-kay," I said, now utterly incredulous, "What is that? I've heard Satanists do rituals in-"

               "Satanists! Weak sauce!" he said, waving one hand dismissively, "Tell you what, Malik. It's easier to show you than to tell you. I know you don't have an invitation or anything... but why don't you take a step inside?" He moved from the doorway, and beckoned for me to follow, but my eyes weren't anywhere near his hands. As he walked, the edge of his robe moved, and revealed his feet: one was normal, and clad in an old fashioned sandal. The other?  It lived up to his title. It looked like the worse fresh-burn I had ever seen. Mottling of purple, spots of black, bloated pus sacks of yellow, rotten grey flesh, and streaks of bloody read, all could be seen on this oozing stump!

               Where he stepped, he left rings of blood on the ground... I ran forward, and put a hand on his shoulder, concerned for him rather than concerned for myself, "Abu Ragl! You are not okay - I have a truck, I can take you to the hospital! How did that happen to you?"

               But I had taken steps into the darkness. Now, the door behind me was gone, and it was him, I, and a water pipe, standing on invisible ground, in endless shadow. He looked over his shoulder, and took another puff, "Oh? I disobeyed my parents once, played with fire. Seems like a little crime, eh? Playing with matches?" He lifted his hand, and snapped his finger, "Doomed me to an eternity as a bogeyman. Surely, someone's told you the story?"

               At the snap, I felt a strange sensation in my stomach - my head had already been spinning: we were obviously in the room, and it had no light... but, how did I see him, then? And myself? And nothing else? Where had the door gone? But now, I felt as if I were in a massive elevator: I wasn't falling, and my feet were on the ground, but my guts knew I was descending. "What's happening?" I managed, staring at Abu Ragl Masloukh.

               He turned to me, and changing as he did, but still speaking calmly, "Oh, the summit party is happening down in the tunnels, the ones the baron had built to the graveyard of the basilica," He said, as his head began to expand - the taqiyah was gone, and his forehead grew bigger, and bigger, till it exploded into smoke! His entire head was a swirling halo of grey smoke, where those nasty blackened teeth floated, moving as if he were still talking, "We wouldn't be bogeymen if we didn't hide under beds, hmm? And I'd say, those people in the graveyard, they're sleeping just fine in an earthen cradle."

               I gawked, and grabbed for my phone - he snorted, "Go ahead, Malik - there's no reception this deep. Besides... Who you gonna call?" he laughed, and extended a hand towards me, as his robe became a shroud of grey ash and black soot - one that made it only to mid-thigh, revealing his burnt leg in all its horrifying glory! The entirety of it was painful and mottled, with shades of rotted green, and stretches of exposed muscle. The water pipe floated behind him, unchanged, and he pressed the tube to his blackened teeth, apparently inhaling, before letting out another smoke ring, "Come on, take my hand and stand up. You're a good kid, you don't have anything to fear from us."

               A man with a head of smoke... was smoking? I should have been absolutely terrified by his transformation, but perhaps it hadn't fully sunk in yet: this whole sequence of events had been so strange, was I tripping? Had I gone insane? Did the plane crash, and this was my dying dream? It had felt so real... he took another puff from the water pipe, and I began to snicker... then to laugh aloud, hysterically almost. I reached out, and grabbed his mostly human hand - it wasn't burnt, but it seemed to stained black with soot.

               "We're here. Act nice, okay?" Abu Ragl said, his voice coming from his swirling smoke head, "It's called a summit, and there is some business going on, but most of the bogeys see this as a party. So try to have a little fun."

               "Sure, I'm about to have LOADS and LOADS of fun," I said, as he pulled me to my feet, still laughing hysterically "So, bogeys? What are those?! Are they all old Arabic men who have exploding heads?!"

               "Don't know what a bogey is?" he asked, his floating teeth still moving as if they were arranged in a jaw, "Malik, when you were a kid, didn't your mama ever tell you, 'if you don't eat your vegetables, the sack man will take you away?' or, 'if you don't go to sleep, the monster under your bed will eat you?'"

               "No," I said, giggling a little, "My mom wasn't a psychopath! Who threatens children that monsters will eat them?!"

               "It's a time honored tradition!" He said, sounding almost offended, "Humans have been doing that since they invented storytelling. Kids that act up, disobey their parents? We're the ones who put them in their place. Scare 'em straight!" the smoky man took a puff from the hookah, "Well... in the old days, we would eat them. No longer, though! It's a new era. We spook, we don't harm."

               "Fan-fucking-tastic!" I said, still quite freaked out, "so, every old wives' tale and mythical oogie boogie is real? And they all are here, meeting up?!"

               "You got it, kid," Abu Ragl said, "Well, all the widespread ones. Oh, we're here!"

               Like an elevator door, the opposite wall slide open! First, there was a crack of light, then; an entire yawning chamber became visible! It was an oval room, with red stone walls, and the floor was not level: there were three elevated platforms, for what could only be a bar, a dance floor, and a live band. On the ceiling, a complex array of mirrors rotated around a blue flame, making light dance and flicker all around the room! On the main floor, guests mingled, and I could see indents in the walls, where it was too dim to see.

               The... 'things' enjoying the room overshadowed the room itself: the variety was mind-boggling. I guess if each country had one, there would be at least 196 different bogeys about - there looked to be thousands, and not one looked like the other. Worse yet, Abu Ragl shoved me from behind, "act natural, kid. I've gotta go watch the door!"

               I stumbled forward into the room, trying to process all I had seen. I landed rather clumsily, and turned immediately - the wall behind me was smooth, there was no way out. The music now reached my ears - and it wasn't at all what I would have expected. I could hear flutes, oboes, violins, horns, and even a xylophone. It wasn't grim, it was quite an energetic tune!

               I scanned my surroundings, trying to decide what the hell to do. I couldn't see the band, now that I was on the floor level: in fact, it was very, very crowded near me. There was a huge group of old ladies, who ran the gamut of looking awful: ranging from thin to obese, with long nails, wretched clothing, fangs, matted hair, crooked noses, warts, and sagging wrinkles. They seemed to be led by Baba Yaga, or so I'd guess: a woman with gnarled tusks and a crooked witch's hat was shouting in Russian. There was what looked like an upright turtle talking to a man with an Oni mask - no wait, they were holding hands, and nuzzling noses. Who was I to judge? A tall horse headed creature I recognized to be the Jersey Devil was close, but he was literally breathing fire: I didn't have the guts to walk up. What would I say anyways? I was a fan? Ask for an autograph? Besides, he was obviously talking to his own clique: a skeleton with a sack and a fanged satyr listened to his flaming gargles, before bursting out laughing, as if it were the best joke they'd ever heard.

               The music stopped, and a voice could be heard over the crowd, "Alright, folks, that was 'La Danse Macabre' by Quankus and the old-bones orchestra! Hope you enjoyed! Up next is El Coco's Lullaby, sung by the big man himself! Everyone give a round of applause for the one, the only, El Coco!"

               Something with a giant, shaggy, coconut like head clambered up onto the band's stage, and a strange, sweet voice echoed all around- a delicate, beautiful crooning, almost like a love song. I didn't know Spanish, but I saw more people head to the dance floor - it thinned a little around me.

               A creature of leaves and tree bark tapped my shoulder, and asked politely, "Hey cutie - wanna dance?"

               I looked at it - erm, her? Him? It was like a palm tree! Very tall, with a crown of fronds and greenery, and crisscrossed, soft bark. It had two legs, but I could see no arms - how would I dance with it? I shook my head, and tried to be polite, "Maybe later - I have to meet someone at... the bar," I lied, "But thanks for the offer. I'd normally take it up in a heartbeat!"

               "Oh - alright. Enjoy the convention, habibi," it said, before striding off into the crowd.

               Arabic? It didn't have an Egyptian accent. Ah well, it wasn't like I had a chance of identifying half of these monsters anyways: I could see a hairy red frog, a giant nutcracker, a goblin with backwards feet, a woman with giant ears, and that was only the beginning. If I was going to make it through the night, I needed a stiff drink. There was bar, and that was going to be my first destination.

               I wandered through the crowd, trying as hard as possible to shut out everything. The song might have changed, the announcer spoke more, and a few people tried to talk to me, but I surely wasn't ready. Eventually, I did reach the base of the elevated bar - the rim was above my head, how was I supposed to get up? I spent a few minutes staring, before something lowered itself over the edge - a hairy ladder! I didn't hesitate to grab handfuls, and climb up to the bar proper.

               To my dismay, the ladder wasn't merely a ladder - it was the lower body of a massive woolly caterpillar, who also happened to be the bartender . It turned to me for a moment, and I could see a tiny name tag hung lazily from its mandibles, reading 'Hello! I am AWD GOGGIE'. The Caterpillar inched forward a little, and the undulations of its body carried me to its side, bristles tickling me the whole way! I ended up being plopped on the floor, giggling a little.

               It leaned over me, and I stood up, and looked around - There was a single rounded counter, with bowls of veined eyeballs spaced every so often, and stools facing them. A few people sat at the bar, and ate an eyeball now and then, but I had been expecting more. Perhaps monsters weren't such big drinkers? I took a seat at the stool, and took note of the length of Awd Goggie - it extended behind the whole expanse of the counter, and a dozen or so caterpillar legs were wiping the counter, mixing drinks, or refilling eyeball bowls! Some even shuffled to the tune of the music. That was some impressive multitasking! I wondered if they accepted US dollars as tips.

               "Hey, barman," I said to the looming shaggy larvae, "Hit me!"

               "Look 'ere y' gawby, don't you try summat 'ere!" it - no, SHE said, "You and I both know you're underage. Drinks are complimentary, alreet, but you're underage! So don't try and get addled up 'ere. I'll give you a pop, but nowt else."

               "You caught me," I said, looking up at her, "Fine, soda pop will do. How exactly do you know my age?"

               "Bogey nawpins, hinny," she said, as a cluster of legs filled a glass chalice to the brim with fizzing, steaming yellow liquid, "you ain't frit none, but we can tell when a kid is lying, or being dishonest. It's a bad habit, hinny, don't try it again."

               I accepted the drink she gave me, but was at once quite scared to take a sip: it looked like yellow soda pop, but acrid vapors swirled from the surface of it, making my eyes burn and leaving a powerful taste in my mouth. There was a first time for everything, I guess: I lifted the drink, and downed a huge gulp. It tasted a little fruity and sugary, but then a blend of artificial flavorings filled all my senses for a few moments. When I did recover, I found myself collapsed face first on the bar, steaming drink not far from my ear. Tearing up a little, I sat up, and lulled my tongue a little in my mouth: it was probably a good thing she hadn't given me a real drink, I'd have probably dropped dead.

               Still, I did feel a lot better - I didn't feel shy, or anxious, or even tired. I sipped the rest, and fell into a pleasant reverie, for a few moments. The loud sound of the announcer jolted me upright once again, as the music ended. "Everyone enjoyed that song very much, everyone applaud for Mètminwi and please support him for his international debut on the spring equinox!" I heard the announcer's voice say , "Next up is 'The augurs of spring', performed by Baubas and Morko."       

               I spotted the palm tree-thing approach the bar - and I decided, why the hell not? I walked up to it, and smiled my broadest smile, "Hey, I feel a little better now. Does that offer to dance still stand?"

               "Oh yes it does," It said, "Up next is one of my favorites - let's go!"

               The night that followed was kind of hazy to me. There were many, many soda pops that followed - I danced till my legs hurt, and met so many great abominations. The announcer was a great guy - a walking mass of insects, wrapped in burlap, a real oogieboogie man. He even sang a few numbers! I met a few suited men that tried to teach me voodoo, and a giant slug who needed help with his dentures. I gave English tips to a Belgian cannibal. I men an Indonesian bogey who had a part time job in child protection services.

               At some point in the night, Abu Ragl came in to the party. Things were pretty wild then: there was something like karaoke with a moving skeletal band. I gave it a whirl: I didn't know any lines at all, but most of the bogeys were roaring and snarling at it anyways, and I did get applause. The woolly caterpillar started serving snacks too: I did enjoy the world cuisine, but I wasn't quite brave enough to eat the living animals or the child effigies.

               Eventually, dawn came. The announce bid everyone farewell, and all the horrid spooks and weary party goers had to depart. I was barely awake at that point, I merely followed Abu Ragl Masloukha until I was outside the palace again.

               "Well, looks like you had some great fun... maybe a little too much fun, eh?" He said, sitting on the golden steps leading to the manse, "Why don't you come to the next summit?"

               "Oh? Where is the next summit?" I said sleepily, sitting beside him on the steps. His oozing leg, nasty teeth, ashen shroud - none of it bothered me anymore. The golden stone statues of Hindu gods peering at me across the Palace were now utterly mundane to me. Abu Ragl still had that hookah, but the coals had burned low, and his puffs were weak.

               "Iceland," He said, "At the equinox, we're going to meet in a volcano. Sounds fun, eh?"

               "Absolutely," I said, struggling to keep my eyes open, as other monsters walked past us, and out into the street, "but I live in Baltimore. I can hardly drive across the Atlantic."

               "Don't worry about that," he said, idly waving at some leaving bogeys, "Give me a call, and I'll give you a lift."

               "Oh? What's your number?" I asked, grabbing for my phone.

               "Just open your closet," he said, black teeth warping into a grin, "I'll be there. We'll all be there."

               "How... reassuring," I said, fighting to keep my eyes open, "speaking of rides... I'm not really in the condition to drive. Is there a way you could... call a taxi or something?"

               "Even better," Abu Ragl said, "I've gotta take some friends to the airport anyways. I'll deliver you home." But when he looked over to me, I had already fallen into slumber.

               That was the last trip we ever took to Egypt. I woke up at my grandparent's place - and my family was already packing to leave. That very day, my parents dragged me to the airport, and flew straight back to the US, and for the first time, our grandparents joined us. They now live in the apartment above, having abandoned their home in Heliopolis.

               I constantly ask what happened, what made them act so strangely, but all I can get are shudders and attempts at changing the subject. I could easily guess what they saw, though: all international news channels were abuzz with the strangest story: Of the sky above Cairo turning black in the morning of the 22nd, and the mass illusion of a chariot of fire and ashes flying through the suburbs, and stopping only once.