Servant of the Gods
A child of prophecy, in her life she would bear three names, one as a peasant and mercenary, yet another after she was captured and enslaved. Despite it all she would rise to become Priestess of Isis and High Priestess of all Egypt and face her greatest challenge…an nearly immortal evil.
It was late in the afternoon when they came within sight of the tall, thick walls of the fort, slowing to a canter as they approached.
An eerie silence prevailed, unbroken by the sound of the birds that normally scavenged the refuse and detritus of the fort’s dunghill. All they heard was the wind blowing over the sand, a soft ominous hiss.
Khai looked to the walls.
They were empty. The gates were open wide, almost in invitation. No one could seen, within or without.
Something was badly wrong.
Instinctively, nervously, the archers strung their bows and carried them at the ready as the charioteers held their horses on a tight rein, the animals tossing their heads restlessly.
At Irisi’s side, Nebi made an anxious noise low in his throat, shaking his mane uneasily as his tail twitched.
Unsettled as well, Irisi reached behind her to loosen her swords in their scabbards.
The towers at each corner were unoccupied, as was the interior as far as they could see through the narrow aperture of the open gates. Nothing moved beyond them. The garrison should have been bustling with men drilling and patrols coming and going. Especially in light of the stories they’d heard.
Everyone looked around nervously as they rode through the gates in the outer wall.
No one challenged their right to enter. Shadows pooled unnaturally beneath the walls.
They passed through the first wall then through the second and into open marshalling yard.
To all appearances, the complex of barracks and buildings was completely empty. The square before them was barren, no soldiers drilled, no one repaired their gear or sharpened their swords, nor did the commandant come to greet them.
It was unnatural, eerie and disquieting. The entire garrison seemed to have vanished.
A silence unlike any other, broken only by the whistling of the wind, surrounded them.
“How many?” Irisi whispered.
Khai shook his head. “A hundred, perhaps more.”
The enormity of it…
With gestures, Khai split his people and sent them scouting carefully through the complex.
He and Irisi dismounted to cautiously approach the commandant’s quarters.
They could see nothing within the shadows of the entry but those shadows seemed darker than usual.
Nebi pressed protectively close to Irisi. Out of habit, she rested her hand on his head, her fingers in his mane.
Darkness seemed to press against her, though the sun was still high in the sky. Something was wrong… The closer they walked to the commander’s quarters the more disturbed she felt. She tried to tell herself it was her imagination.
Malevolent… Evil… Gathering…
With a great coughing roar, Nebi suddenly crouched.
“Khai,” Irisi shouted and threw herself at him.
Nebi leaped just as something with wicked teeth and claws erupted from within the concealing darkness.
Whatever it was that burst from the cover of the commandant’s quarters was like nothing Irisi had ever seen before… And yet it was familiar in a strange way, something she’d only read about, something to haunt her nightmares.
Nebi met it, snarling and roaring.
More of the thing bounded out in the wake of the first.
They looked like hyenas but they weren’t, everything about them was slightly wrong, from their oversized teeth to the too long claws on their feet, yet the powerful bone-crushing jaws of the hyena they resembled were still very much a danger.
Irisi spun away from Khai, throwing her swords up to defend herself as one of the things launched itself at her.
“Call your people back, Khai,” Irisi cried. “Get them back.”
The thing twisted to evade the iron in the rough steel of her swords.
Khai shouted for his people as more of the things and new, different, ones erupted from the shadows where they’d been hiding.
Things that resembled smoke but weren’t flowed from the barracks around them in rolling billows. That smoke transformed into creatures that were shaped roughly like men. It was there that all resemblance ended.
Rough creatures, their skin was as black as charcoal and rimose, threaded with glints of red like the coals of a banked fire. Their eyes were narrow glowing slits, their noses and mouths a slash of embers. Others shifted shape and form, some appeared to be men who’d suffered a terrible battle – all bore fearsome wounds. Khai feared he knew who they were and from where they’d come… The fallen of the fort.
With a howl, a hyena thing leaped at Irisi. She spun away, her swords flashing. It screamed in frustrated fury as her blade cut it while another leaped at Khai himself.
Khai took the thing down with a two-handed swing of his own sword, sending it tumbling across the ground. It instantly rolled to its feet and raced toward them once again. A spear thrown by one of his men pierced it. It howled, rolling, scrabbling and biting at itself.
“Don’t let the shadows touch you,” Irisi cried out in warning, as she cut an ifrit in two.
If she was right… Fear shot through her.
Gesturing, she called up a burst of wind to drive back the shadows closest to them and their people.
“What are they?” Khai demanded, turning to put Irisi at his back as his people raced to join them, most of them ducking, dodging and fighting the creatures that seemed to burst through or ooze from nearly every orifice of the fort.
He saw the smoke that wasn’t smoke swirl around one of his men.
Screaming, the man’s eyes bulged as he fell, his clothing stained red even as he toppled.
Irisi threw herself against Khai as he instinctively responded, going to the aid of his man.
“No,” she cried, “you can’t save him.”
More of the things appeared.
Nebi leaped past them to take another, his massive jaws locking on the throat of one of the hyena things.
“Djinn,” she answered as she looked around in horror. “They’re Dark Djinn…”
They came from everywhere.
Ifrit in the shape of hyena, sila – fire demons – ghuls who would eat the dead or a man alive…and the marid, beautiful spirits who would steal a man’s soul.
In all her reading Irisi had never heard of such a thing. Djinn didn’t fight together. Djinn never fought together. They were solitary creatures. And yet here they were.
United like this…
They couldn’t fight so many, not with so small a force.
Dear Gods and Goddesses, help us, she thought.
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To Khai’s horror, his fallen man rose up to take sword against them.
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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