I’ve loved the Egyptian Gods and early Egyptian society since I learned about it as a kid, despite the tendency of teachers to talk about the Greek/Roman pantheon. The Greeks/Romans were a better contrast of pagan beliefs to Christian than the egalitarian Egyptians. After all, what other society valued marriage as much? Why else do so many hieroglyphs and images portray both husband and wife side by side?
Okay, and to be honest, the Mummy movies (one and two, let’s not talk about three) didn’t hurt either, even though poor Anubis got such a raw deal. I guess a jackal head and being the god of mummification and afterlife seemed more threatening than a ‘Set animal’ or typhonic being – in other words, the first shapechanger – than Set, the god of chaos and darkness. After all, it was Set who chopped up Osiris and scattered him across Egypt. And Isis who rescued him.
That was part of the attraction – that it was Isis who rescued her beloved Osiris, and that women in Egypt were largely as autonomous as the men. They could have businesses, serve in the army, do anything and everything that men could do.
So, what was it that triggered Heart of the Gods, what made me write this story?
Like all of us, I was as intrigued by the process of mummification as the next person and there was the mythology of the Mummy movies – the person unwillingly mummified. Alive.
And then the scene that opens Heart of the Gods was in my head –
Egypt, 17th Year of King Narmer’s Reign, Early Dynasty
Torchlight flickered over the stone walls of the immense cavern, bathing them in a soft golden glow. That light danced over the massive figures of the Gods, giving the faces of the statues the appearance of expression. It illuminated as well the faces of the priests and priestesses gathered around the stone pedestal that served as an altar. The air was pungent with the scent of burning incense. Chanting echoed throughout the chambers, a sound that rose and fell, a low atonal hum that resonated in the bones.
Mummification had never been intended for use on the living but it was as it must be and none of those gathered there could gainsay what was about to happen. Not General Khai, nor any of the priests and priestesses of the Gods, nor even the High Priestess Irisi herself. Who were they to second-guess the Will of the Gods?
Irisi could not and would not.
It was as the prophecy had decreed however much they wished to deny it. Kahotep’s prophecy. He who was Priest of Horus, the Falcon-God, whose Eye saw everything.
“A darkness rises, oh Pharaoh, to be unleashed across the world. It comes as a shadow rising from the desert laying waste to all of Egypt, scouring the earth as it passes. Death and destruction follow in its wake, and the cries of the people of the world are terrible. From the north comes a warrior, a crowned and golden servant of the Gods with eyes like the sky, bearing swords in hand to rise up and drive the terrible darkness out of the world, and to stand against it for all time.”
That shadow had risen and the battles had been terrible. Now they had a chance, one chance, to end it. Here. Now they had a chance, one chance, to end it. Here.
Servant of the Gods. Irisi was that, she was priestess to both Isis and Sekhmet. To stand against it for all time? What was prisoned in the chamber below would live forever. And so, therefore, must she.
And so, this.
For it to have any chance at success she knew she must accept it without protest, she must give it both her Ba and Ka, her heart and soul, willingly, and so she steeled herself to face it.
There was no other way and there was no other to do it, only she, both warrior and priestess, could, however terrible it was.
Irisi knew only she must accept it without protest, willingly, if this they did were to have the slightest chance of success and so she steeled herself to face it. Even as that other below, Kamenwati, did not. He fought them, writhed and screamed in protest, in outrage. He chanted spells against them even as Awan, High Priest of Osiris, Kahotep, High Priest of Horus and Djeserit, High Priestess of Sekhmet struggled to contain him and his terrible magic. In the back of Irisi’s mind she chanted the words of the two Books she knew so well, the Book of Life, known only to the priests and priestesses of the temples…and the Book of Emerging in Daytime – what some called, wrongly, the Book of the Dead.
Of the priests and priestesses only Rensi, High Priest of Anubis and gentle Nafre, priestess of Hathor, stood with her in the upper chamber. Representatives of their Gods, each had their task. Rensi made certain the rites done this day were done as they must be to keep Irisi’s soul alive against all the odds and to preserve her body in the hope that someday she might reach the afterlife.
Nafre gave comfort to help ease her passage.
And then there was Khai, Irisi’s beloved Khai.
She looked up at him from where she lay on the cold stone of the plinth.
Her breath caught as it always did to look at him. He was so beautiful and she loved him so much. Her heart ached at the thought of leaving him.
Gleaming black hair streamed in shining waves to his shoulders and framed his strong handsome face, high cheekbones and beautiful long-lashed dark eyes. Deep within those dark brown eyes was the hint of warm gold she knew so well. There was grief in his eyes, the sure knowledge of what they were about to do. She knew what it cost him to stand aside and watch, how little he loved to feel helpless, but for once his strength and courage could avail him nothing. This was for her to do, and her alone.
She longed to touch him once again, treasured the memory of his hands on her, his body against and a part of hers. The thought was bittersweet. In that Kamenwati had succeeded, he’d kept them apart for so long. Surely the Gods wouldn’t deny her this much? In her heart of hearts she felt the sweet benediction that was the blessing of her Goddess, Isis, who, having lost her own beloved Osiris for a time, understood her fear and her pain at having to give up her own beloved.
Here, finally for this one time and with these trusted few around them, they could do as they’d wished for so long to do openly.
While Irisi had been Kamenwati’s slave that hadn’t been possible. Or while under his threat. Only that had kept Irisi away, the sure knowledge that Kamenwati would kill Khai had he but known of their love.
His lips touched hers, so warm, the feel of them firm but gentle, a soft caress.
Reaching up, Irisi touched Khai’s stern handsome face for one last time even as the sharp pain of the reeds lanced through her wrist, her ankles. She wouldn’t cry out, not looking up into that beloved face. It wasn’t in her to make him suffer any more than necessary. She loved the Gods, she loved Egypt her adopted home but above all else she loved Khai. It was only for her duty, for Egypt and its people, and the people of all the lands she’d known, that would she would leave him.
The Gods understood.
As did he.
“You are Nife-an-Ankh to me,” she whispered, “and Nomti…I love you, I will always love you. Forever.”
Breath of life and strength he was to her. Her heart.
She’d loved him from almost the first moment she’d seen him that long ago day in the desert, standing surrounded by her dead and theirs. He’d offered her honor, then, as one warrior to another. She loved him for that, for his honor, courage and for his great heart.
He was beautiful to her in all ways.
“Irisi,” he said and lowered his proud head to hers.
Khai looked down at his beloved Irisi laid out upon the altar and wanted to cry out his denial of what was to come but he could not. Leaning over her with one arm braced on the stone he touched her face, looked into her lovely eyes, at the glorious length of her hair as it spilled over the sides. So beautiful, so alive…
Breath of life and strength as she was to him as well.
Blood flowed through the reeds, her blood, drained out of her… her lifeblood. The rich coppery aroma of it filled the air, mixed with the scent of the herbs in the Water of Life as it was drawn into her.
It must be and they both knew it. She was the one who must go and he the one who must stay.
Egypt needed her only surviving General.
Irisi’s successor had already been chosen.
Slowly, he touched his lips to hers, the kiss soft as the priests and priestesses chanted around them. Her hand was warm on his face as their lips found each other. Grief lay heavy on his heart. Duty lay heavier. He couldn’t bear to let her go and yet he couldn’t keep her, however much he wished it. He, too, served the will of the Gods. And he could see no other choice, no other way.
The herbs, the potions, flowed into her, burned in her veins. Irisi fought the pain of it with warm feel of Khai’s lips, so long forbidden, on hers…and with the surge of love that washed through her.
“Irisi,” he whispered. “You are my heart.”
As he was hers but she could no longer speak the words or else break the chant that echoed endlessly in the back of her mind.
The stone of the altar was cold and the chill seemed to soak slowly into her flesh.
Around her Irisi could hear the chanting, the minds and voices of the priests and priestesses raised in support of her and of those who fought below, mixed with the drone of the Horn in the chamber far below.
It had taken some little time for Irisi to achieve the semi-trance state necessary to endure what was done, yet some of the pain and the weakness seeped through to batter at her will. As did the will of the creatures in the darkness of the chamber below – the magic of the Horn and her own will, joined to these others, was all held them there. She dared not falter.
She felt her lifeblood drain swiftly away even as she felt the embalming fluids flow in, the natron and herbs bit sharply into her veins. It burned as it went but she turned her thoughts away from it as she turned them away from the other things they did.
Her arms were folded across her breast with a hand on each shoulder and bound so tightly with lengths of linen that she could barely breathe. Her hair was coiled up as the cloth was wrapped around her throat, around her head to cover her mouth and forehead. All but her eyes.
Cold fluid brushed across her belly, followed by numbness. Something pressed just below her breastbone. There was a sense of invasion as they finished wrapping her body in the last long lengths of linen.
Warm liquid soaked her from collarbone to feet. It drenched the linen and stung sharply in the cuts they’d made.
A cry echoed from the darkness below. That, too, fell on deaf ears.
She bit back her own cries. Fought the sense of being constricted.
Remaining still by an act of will she kept her eyes focused on his dark ones, sought the gold within them, the warmth even as her own drained away. His will melded to hers, lent her the strength she needed to do this as the weakness grew within her until he stepped back as, finally, he must.
Her heart hammered in her chest, drawing in the sacred herbs, natron and fluids through her veins even as it pumped her lifeblood out. Mixed among the herbs was the blood of the one who lay below so she would be bound to him and he to her.
The last length of linen went across her eyes. The light disappeared behind the linen to take her down into darkness.
Pain flashed, sharp, sudden, within her to leave a sense of absence, a stillness within her.
It would go quickly now and she was grateful for that.
And it did.
She felt them raise her to carry her swiftly out.
A coughing roar echoed down the tunnel that led outside. They followed that sound, she knew.
The lions, her lions…gifts of the lion-headed Goddess Sekhmet when that Goddess had turned her away and sent her to Isis’s service instead. They would come with her, to keep her company through her long duty so she wouldn’t be utterly alone.
Watching, Khai bowed his head and looked away as they tipped her up for he couldn’t watch as her linen-wrapped form slid with a splash of the Water of Life into the hollow in the stele they’d prepared for her.
He could wish this had been done in sunlight as Irisi was and always had been a creature of light and not darkness.
Grief burned. If only he could have gone in her place…
He could not, he was no priest, he had no magic, nor as Egypt’s only surviving General could he leave his country and its people undefended any more than Irisi could have refused this.
Duty and honor wouldn’t allow it.
He laid a hand against the cold stone, listened as the hammers beat above him, pounded the sealing stone into place with steady rhythmic blows so much like the sound of a heartbeat. Sealing the stele with Irisi inside it. What was it like for her in there, in the darkness filled with the Water of Life?
He willed her the strength and courage to endure. Like the beat of her valiant heart, each blow of mallet on stone reverberated, echoed from the distant walls, to whisper back over the grassy hollow within them.
Above, through the narrow break in the cavern roof Khai could see the stars glitter coldly.
Desperately, instinctively, Irisi’s lungs sought air, her body fought…even as she clung to trance, to will, to the spells in her mind, to the endless mental chanting of the words from the Book of Emerging into Daytime – the Book of the Dead.
She had to hold against the grief and the fear, the close space that enveloped her. What lay below, him and them, battered against her will.
Khai was still here, though, her beloved Khai and these others she loved, Awan, Kahotep, Djeserit, all the priests and priestesses with whom she’d served over the years. Even poor Saini in the distant chamber below, seeking his redemption, watched the last faint light disappear as the doors shut on him to seal him in among the Dark, among Them…
She could almost pity him, not knowing which of them suffered the worst fate.
Faintly, she could hear the Horn call as he blew endlessly, drawing air in through his nose, blowing out through his mouth. That sound must not falter until the doors were shut and sealed. Forever.
Beyond, outward, there was all of Egypt, all of the world. They couldn’t let what resided so restlessly within that chamber escape to lay waste over it. Not again. She couldn’t set what lay within the tomb loose upon the peoples of this world, not with what they now knew of them. Those below would devour every living thing, turn the people of the Nile, the distant peoples from which she’d come and those of all the lands where she’d served and fought as a mercenary into cattle, chattel, something to feed upon…and their feeding…the torment of it…
Horror shook her.
If they were to be free, safe, she must hold, even as her body bucked, fought for air…and so she held. It seemed an eternity and yet it was only minutes.
She remembered…and clung to her memories, lost herself in them, held them against the pain, against the cold that seeped into her. The cold and the darkness.
Alone in the dark she remembered the ones, the one, she loved and would always love.
His hand upon the stone, Khai remembered, too, remembered his beloved Irisi with her swords flashing, her hair swirling around her as she did battle that first day he’d seen her and all the days thereafter. Priestess and warrior. So lovely, strong, so seemingly indomitable. It was her laughter though, that rang in his memory most. That beautiful hair, her glorious eyes…her laughter and her joy.
In grief and sorrow he touched the face carved into the stone of the stele…laid his forehead against the cold stone forehead of it as he would do with her in life.
His fingers traced the words engraved in the stele, the chants for Coming Forth into the Day, for Going and Coming Out of the Realm of the Dead, and For Taking on Any Shape. She would need to know them.
He willed her strength and he willed her love. How did she fare within? Was her struggle over yet, had the Gods taken her, given her surcease? Were her ba and ka yet free of her body?
He looked to Awan, to Djeserit, and saw the same thoughts mirrored there in their faces.
In the darkness of the cavern far below, the great iron doors slid closed as bands of gold and silver were hammered across it to secure it with the powers of the Gods Ra and Isis. The seal, carefully balanced, was placed in its niche to enclose what lay within, hopefully forever.
The chanting did not end…it was not done, not yet.
As one, the priests and priestesses closed around the stele. Each lay their hand on the stone and willed strength to the one within. The Gods came to the one within then, all of them but Set, each to render her a gift.
Sekhmet was the last.
In the chamber below the great iron doors were closed and sealed, and she set to stand guard over it, to ensure it remained sealed, forever.
Alone through the ages to come.
Tales were told of one’s life flashing before the eyes as one died, but Irisi was not dying nor would an afterlife await her.
So many memories…
Heart of the Gods was originally written a much larger book, but once it was written I realized it was two separate books, both intertwined. Servant of the Gods, the prequel to Heart of the Gods, will be released in September of 2011.
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They say writers should always go places that scare them, that make demands on their skills. Nike’s Wings was one of the more difficult books I’ve ever written, for a lot of reasons. Nike came to be by way of my vivid fantasy life, an article on parkour and a song – ‘She Don’t Want the World’ by Three Doors Down. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_bQAs1KYfIk I could see how parkour would be handy for an assassin who didn’t rely on strength or fancy weapons. That song played in the back of my head all through the scene that began it all, the moment when Ty confronts Nike at the abandoned school halfway through the book. I could see the dingy windows and smell the moldy mattresses. So Nike was born. Not only did I want to know how they got there, I wanted to know what happened next.
I’ve written harder scenes – the one where Elon and Colath are captured in The Coming Storm, for instance – but some of Nike and Ty’s experiences were difficult. I believe you have to put yourself where your characters are, share their experiences, and to some extent at one time I sort of had.
I didn’t need to do a lot of research, I’m an avid reader of not only books but newspapers and magazines. The information on the cartels, the wall, etc., are all based on real events. I was surprised when, shortly after writing it, a newspaper article suggested that the situation I postulated for how Nike was turned into an assassin might actually have been real.
Even so, I hesitated in releasing Nike, although I finished it over a year ago. I loved the book but something about it still felt incomplete. Not that the research didn’t come in handy *grins* I used it as the foundation for an erotic contemporary suspense called Special Delivery, written under the pen name V. J. Devereaux.
I worked on several novels in between but Nike niggled at the back of my mind. Then, one morning at 4 AM, I woke up. In that halfway space between dreaming and waking, Nike and I walked through those scenes and suddenly I had it. I got up, rewrote them and tumbled back to bed. Woke up, thinking about how it could be stronger, better. Wrote that. Halfway through the day, I had the last pieces, and it all fell into place.
Deliberately, I stepped back for a day or two before going back to her and doing the final edit. I passed her to people I knew and trusted, particularly one. The feedback came back positive, and so I released her.
Now she’s yours.
August 2001 Somewhere in Central/South America
The big custom-built Hummers bumped their way through the jungle along the rutted road to the oil fields. It was hardly Callie’s first trip out there but it was the first in such prestigious company. Her father’s boss and some man from the State Department, of all things, traveled with them. It didn’t look as if she’d need the book she had in her backpack, or get the chance to read it.
Oddly enough, it was turning out to be something of an occasion. Originally, they hadn’t planned to bring her along on this trip but she’d just turned eighteen and was due to fly back home to the states in just a few weeks. In less than a month she’d start her first year at Princeton University with a major in international studies. As it happened, Princeton was where both her father’s boss, Tony Gallegos, and the man from the State Department, Phillip Reeves, had attended college. Once her father mentioned it, both men insisted on bringing her along so they could fill her in and trade stories of their time there.
There were several vehicles in the expedition into the jungle where the oilrigs were located, a truck with some of the oil field workers, cars with guards both ahead and behind, another truck carrying supplies and their own Hummer.
Except for the presence of Mr. Reeves, it was a fairly routine trip. Tensions over the oil were rising among some of the more radical groups in the area so he’d come to try to negotiate with them to see if he could smooth the waters a bit.
First, though, he wanted to visit the oil fields. A lot of people were pretty pissed about it and some of them would be even more so if they knew about this trip. Some of them thought that statement said too much about his priorities, that like in Iraq the oil fields were more important to the U.S. than the negotiations. It was the oil that Reeves really cared about.
Callie had even heard some of that kind of talk on the streets among the people she hung out with there, her parkour and free-running friends.
Listening to him on the way out, she couldn’t really argue the point, it was all he talked about, the importance of the oil fields. That was, when he wasn’t talking about Princeton and the bars she had to visit in the towns near the campus once she was there.
So far, though, the trip had gone pretty quietly with the two men trading stories of their days at college. Callie caught an amused and resigned look from her father when the other two men weren’t watching. He gave her a wink and she smothered a grin.
She glanced out the windows at the thick undergrowth that ran so close beside the windows here along the road where the sun could reach and then up at the trees that towered high above them. Branches clattered and scraped against the glass. The sky was cloudy and dark above them, the sunlight of the morning vanishing as the rainy season clouds rolled in. To those who didn’t know the rain forest it was surprisingly cool, the clammy air thick and heavy with moisture. Some folks thought the humidity at home was bad but they’d never been in the jungle in the rainy season.
Both Mr. Gallegos and Mr. Reeves were reminiscing again over their days at college. Callie restrained a sigh, listening with only half an ear. A part of her longed for the book in her backpack. It was a long usually boring trip, broken only by the appearance of an animal or bird erupting out of the brush but now she couldn’t even read or she’d look rude.
The sudden chatter of automatic weapon fire shattered the boredom, the quiet.
Instantly it became a green and scarlet nightmare as bodies shuddered with the impact of bullets, blood sprayed, screams and cries ran out as men fell amid the shouting and confusion.
Glass shattered in the car ahead of them, every window exploding as bullets stitched along the side of it from the cover of the underbrush. The bodies of those within juddered with the impact of the bullets as blood flew like rain. Some of the guards bailed out of the vehicles in a desperate attempt to return fire and save themselves. Bullets savaged them. Their bodies jerked and twisted as more blood flew. It was so sudden, so shocking Callie couldn’t even draw breath enough to scream. Others tried to run to save themselves and were cut down anyway.
The noise was incredible, the sheer volume of the sound stupefying, overwhelming.
Callie tried to twist in her seat to see the guards that rode in the car behind them. One of them, Jeremy, had been teaching her self-defense. He’d been with the Navy Seals and she’d liked him. Had a crush on him. No one had been expecting any trouble.
Even as she turned, her father unfastened her seatbelt and dragged her off the car seat onto the floor.
She only had a brief glimpse of the chaos erupting behind them before her father’s weight crushed her to the floor of the car. Instinctively she wrapped her arms around her head. She didn’t even know she was screaming as the car bumped and jerked, the driver trying desperately to get around the lead cars until bullets smashed through the windshield.
Hot wetness splashed the side of her face as the car filled with the coppery aroma of blood.
The car jolted to a halt, shouting men firing their weapons into the air pulled the doors open and roughly dragged everyone out, pushing and shoving as the gunfire continued. She smelled burning fuel and scorched metal.
Callie’s father fought to keep them away from her, fought to hold onto her, shouting at them, but the men tore her away. More shots were fired as she was dragged off into the jungle.
When she looked around, all she saw was the men who’d taken them. Mr. Reeves and Mr. Gallegos.
She didn’t see her father.
The rough, dirty, smelly men dragged and shoved her ahead of them, barking at her in Spanish. She nodded numbly, staggering between them along the nearly invisible trail.
She glanced back just once before the jungle closed around them.
Bloody bodies were scattered around the vehicles and the road. No one moved. One of the trucks exploded and she flinched. Thick black smoke billowed. It rose above the trees. She couldn’t see any sign of her father, of Jeremy…then even the trucks disappeared behind the dense foliage.
Somehow she knew her father was gone…dead…but somehow she couldn’t quite bring herself to believe it. She had no time for tears or grieving, only surviving. If her father had died trying to save her, the least she could do was stay alive.
She was so scared…so scared…but Jeremy’s words as he had been teaching her echoed in her head. “Most people die because they stop thinking, Callie,” he’d advised. “Don’t stop thinking.”
Unconsciously she nodded in response to his remembered words. She wondered if he’d had time to think before he died.
She’d only been taking the lessons from him because he was cute…and he seemed to think she was, too. Now he was dead back there like the others. Because if he wasn’t dead, they would still be shooting and her father would be calling for her. But he wasn’t.
Her throat was tight.
Maybe Jeremy’s words, his training, would save her even if they hadn’t saved him. Tears streamed down her face. That was his legacy to her. That and her life.
Another set of words moved through her mind, words from an old science fiction book she’d read. She thought of deserts, not jungles, and of enduring. Of surviving.
Something about fear.
Her mind worried at the puzzle of those words, trying to remember them right.
The men tied her wrists together, pushed and shoved her along, shouted epithets in Spanish.
Knowledge, too, was a dangerous thing. It was a valuable thing. She would keep her knowledge of Spanish to herself. Everything was an edge. She would survive. Somehow, she would survive this.
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