Ali read the signboard and scratched his head. Surely he wasn't lost, was he?
He pored over the treasure map in his hands and mentally traced the path he had taken, comparing it with the trail scribbled on the map.
It was an old map, directions and crosses fading on paper now crumbling to the touch. The cliffs and valleys denoted in the map no longer existed, their places usurped by tall structures of blue glass and steep stairwells that led to underground cities.
Where Ali stood now was like a vast cave itself, several feet below the ground, made up of a criss-cross of different tunnels, each leading down unlit paths that disappeared around bends.
He looked down at the map, then up again at the glass façade. He was certain he was right outside the mouth of the cave that had once held an endless trove of treasure and where his brother Cassim had met his fate.
But the signboard confused him. How could anyone be so foolish as to reveal the magic words so blatantly, he cursed.
Of course it was even more foolish to make no attempt at concealing the treasure within, he reckoned. He reached out for the signboard, intending to take it down and burn it, but it was suspended behind the glass doors.
Open Sesame, Ali whispered.
Open Sesame, he said louder.
He walked around to the side of the glass-fronted cave, suspecting the 'main entrance' lay hidden here.
Another set of glass doors.
Another signboard there.
This one read, "We are closed now. Opening hours 11 AM to 9 PM."
Ali hadn't the foggiest idea what 11 AM meant but suspected it was a time of the day that clearly hadn't arrived yet.
Open Sesame, he cried out again.
In a fit of frustration, he kicked the glass door hard. It barely budged but promptly let out a prolonged howl that sounded to Ali like a wail of wrongdoing. And before Ali could say abracadabra, three men sprang forth from the darkness, dressed uniformly in dark blue garments, wielding metallic contraptions that they pointed at him with a menacing purpose.
Freeze, one of them screamed.
Ali stumbled backward and fell to the floor.
The three men towered over Ali, their weapons aimed at his chest.
One asked what business brought Ali to the underground passage at that time of the night.
He truthfully replied he was trying to get into the cave but that the magic words did not work anymore.
Ali pointed out.
And why was he trying to get into the cave, another of the uniformed men asked.
To take home some treasure, Ali replied. He and his wife had been down on their luck for a million nights now, and what with even genies demanding to be paid in gold for their services, he had had little choice but to return to the cave for more treasure. Only the cave had changed, as had the forest around it, and so have the magic words unfortunately, he explained.
You have a genie, eh? the third man smirked.
I do, Ali said but could have immediately bitten his tongue off.
And what are the magic words?
Open Sesame, Ali said. The three men guffawed. I would normally not have told you but it is written there for all to read, he said.
Time to lock him up, the first man said. All three advanced towards Ali.
Perhaps you should ask your genie to come and rescue you, my boy, the copper sniggered.
A feeling of dread overcame Ali. He quietly slipped his hand into his pocket and rubbed an old little lamp concealed there. He rubbed it thrice and screamed, Take me home, Genie.
A puff of cloud, a loud pop, and when the smoke cleared, Ali was gone.
An instant later, he and the Genie found themselves in their cave in the woods of Persia having travelled a million nights back in time.
This world is coming to an end, Genie, Ali said with a rueful smile. The new world will not have magic in it.
And no genies to boot, Genie added.