What if the court magician's of Pharaoh's retinue got in over their heads? When you mess with life and death...it never turns out well.
|A graphic novel is coming...stay tuned!|
“My Lord, the Hebrews have gone,” Haran-ka prostrated himself at Pharaoh’s back.
Pharaoh said nothing; He stood before the enormous statues of Isis and Osiris. The gleaming white marble reflected the blazing Egyptian sun onto the tiny figure nestled atop the joined arms of the silent gods.
The Pharaoh’s son was dead. The screams of last night’s horrors still echoed in the ears of all those who had survived. Haran-ka felt his own eyes well with bitter tears. Only…he did not weep for the son of Pharaoh. Instead, his tears were for his oldest brother, Isto-Ra, who, at this very moment, lay on the death altar in his parents’ home.
Throughout the land families mourned. The death of the firstborn had come in the night just as The Hebrew promised. These past weeks had been one nightmare after another. The heads of all the royal magicians still adorned the staffs that had once been symbols of their office.
Well…all heads but one.
“Ready the men. Prepare my forces. We march within the hour. I will see this Moses on the end of my spear.” Pharaoh rose slowly, head still bowed over the lifeless body of his son. “And tell Neraphatte to come at once. He will be given the same chance his nine brethren were given.” The venom of anger displaced the sorrow in his voice.
Haran-ka could feel the Pharaoh’s eyes bore into the back of his head as he left the chamber.
Neraphatte gripped his staff so that his knees would not buckle. Why could he not have been called to rid the waters of blood or banish the frogs?
“You will undo what Moses has done or your head shall join the others and your body shall be cast into the endless sands for the scorpions and serpents.” Pharaoh stood in his full battle dress, his spear leveled at Neraphatte’s chest.
“By Isis and Osiris, I shall do as my Pharaoh demands.” Neraphatte’s eyes dared not drift up from the point on the floor he fixed them to the moment Pharaoh entered the chamber.
“When I return, my son shall greet me…” Pharaoh gripped Neraphatte’s chin, tilting his head up. He locked eyes with his last remaining court magician and his gaze turned ever colder. “Otherwise, your head shall rest on that staff your fist clenches so tightly.”
With that, the pharaoh and his men left. The sounds of an army thirsty for vengeance filled the morning air. Eventually the roar faded as the might of Egypt raced after those responsible for the smell of death that already hung over the city like a lingering cloud.
Neraphatte’s quarters were dark and cluttered. Scrolls lay on tables, benches, and the floor. Still curled up in a corner was the lifeless body of his favorite assistant, Kherfin. Like so many others, his face was locked in that visage of pure terror. Perhaps he had seen this Angel of Death sent by the God of Moses just as he took that last breath.
“I know it is here,” He snatched up one scroll after another. Scanned its contents, and discarded it. How long would it take Pharaoh’s men to deal with the Hebrew slaves? Perhaps two days at best.
Wading through the mess he had added to in his urgency, Neraphatte rushed to the door. A thought came as the sour smell of death tickled the back of his throat. He had no idea if this ritual was worth the papyrus it was written on. If he did some elaborate ritual on the Pharaoh’s son in the palace and it failed…
He laid Kherfin on the long wooden table, brushing everything to the floor with no regard for the many scrolls he spilled the day-old pitcher of wine on. If this failed, none of his belongings would be joining him in the afterlife. He would be killed and never granted the Rites of Death that would allow his life to be weighed before the gods.
Hastily he scrambled about the chamber. Neraphatte rummaged through bins and ransacked his shelves as he gathered all of the oils and other associated items needed for the ceremony. Satisfied that everything was in order, he began to pour fine white sand in the forms of the symbols called for. With oil, he traced still more symbols on the cold, stiff body stretched out before him. He only became aware of how profusely he began to sweat when stinging drops trickled into his eyes.
Calling out to Osiris, and singing the words on the scroll, Neraphatte began to feel a coldness fill the room. It was like that chill on a night where no clouds masked moon or stars; where each star blazed, and skin pebbled up as the air kissed it. His eyes followed the markings as he sang each line. He watched the ink fade into the scroll and vanish! Something tugged deep inside. For a moment, it felt as if the spirit was too large for his mortal body. With tremendous effort, he spoke the final word. He stared perplexed at the scroll; all that remained in his hands was a blank sheet of age-browned papyrus.
A moment of uncertainty mixed with fear struck him like an invisible fist that sent him staggering back from the table. Then…relief. The words remained in his head! Neraphatte had no doubt that he could recall them at will. Every symbol traced on the body seemed to vibrate at the ends of his finger tips. His arms felt strangely limber, and could easily repeat the intricate patterns they wove with shaky effort just moments before when they had spilled the fine white sand around the prone and rigid figure on the table. But, was there any reason to repeat the ritual? So far Kherfin lay still. Cold. Dead.
The sun had just vanished behind distant hills leaving the sky tinged in reddish hues. Several hours passed in agonizing slowness and still nothing had changed in the condition of his acolyte. Neraphatte paced back and forth. His mind was cluttered and full of unsettling images. He was haunted now by the smiling, laughing severed heads of his fellow court magicians. In his visions, they laughed and called him “Fool!” How could he think to wield the power of a god? How could he expect to defeat Death?
A low moan filled the room.
Neraphatte froze. His eyes locked on the body stretched out on the table as one hand clenched slowly into a fist. Moving closer, he felt a rush of triumph as he witnessed Kherfin’s eyelids fluttering open.
Not waiting for another moment to waste, Neraphatte scooped the small urns and jars he would need into his arms and rushed to the door. The Pharaoh would have his son, and he, Neraphatte, the last of Pharaoh’s court magician, would keep his head right where it belonged...firmly atop his shoulders.
“Meet me at the palace as soon as you’re able,” he yelled over his shoulder not waiting for his acolyte to gain his feet. He dashed through the door and down the street.
In a slow, awkward series of movements, feet swung off the edge of the table and landed heavily on the floor. Vacant eyes sought for something. Only one need filled the being that was…but was not…Kherfin.
Queen Meraseti sat on the floor cradling the body of her dead son in her arms. The magician had pleaded that she not disturb the body until the magic took hold and returned him to life. The moment his hand had flinched, she had shoved the frail, sickly looking excuse for a man aside and grabbed her son.
The young prince’s body convulsed violently against her once and stopped. Then, in fits and starts, she felt him move against her. His hands flexed and closed on her arms. She felt his head shift slightly and nuzzle into her. Memories of how she, Queen Meraseti, had nursed her son flooded her mind. She had refused to allow a slave the privilege of tending to the needs of the beautiful boy who had broken free from her womb. Now, it was as if this re-birth brought with it the desire to nurse. She knew that there would be no milk, but she could not stop what was happening for fear that just as suddenly as life had returned, it would vanish again.
Cold lips touched the bare skin at the curve of her left breast. With a defiant gaze, she looked up to see the magician staring with mouth and eyes wide. She dared him to speak a word in protest. For giving her back her son she would not kill him, simply remove his tongue. That would prevent him from spreading any sort of gossip.
A sudden jolt of pain caused Queen Meraseti to cry out. She looked down in time to see her beloved son pull away with a mouthful of her breast. Blood gushed from the jagged and ugly wound, turning her white dress crimson. She looked into blank, white-filmed eyes that displayed no emotion or recognition as her precious son’s blood-soaked face came forward...mouth opening wide. Teeth closed on the tender flesh of her throat and tore.
Queen Meraseti wanted to scream, but nothing came forth except a froth of hot blood. She watched in frozen terror as a thin stream of it shot several feet, splattering the sandals of the magician who still continued to stare…unable to turn away. Darkness began to narrow her vision. Before total blackness fell, she saw her husband’s final remaining royal magician turn and flee like the coward she knew him to be. She thought she heard him whimper something just before he left. Had she lived but a moment longer, she would have heard him shout a name that would echo throughout the empty palace corridors.
Down the dark streets Kherfin wandered. A sudden noise made him turn his head. Something was coming closer. The hunger rose and the painful coldness that filled the thing that had once been Kherfin sought the warmth filling this source nearby.
Ulina sat in the doorway sniffling. Her parents were still praying over the shrouded body of her big brother, Nepara. All the food that had been prepared for today’s feast sat untouched. Nobody wanted to celebrate her eleventh year when so many had died in just one night. Knees pulled up under her chin, she watched the stars reveal themselves in the total blackness above.
A sound caused her to jump just a bit. Somebody stood at the end of the path that led up to her family’s house. None of the lanterns had been lit that would allow a visitor to see clearly up to the door. It also kept Ulina from seeing exactly who stood waiting to be invited up.
Perhaps it was somebody who had remembered that today was her special day! She unfolded her coltish legs and stood. A glance over her shoulder revealed that nobody was moving inside the house. She considered calling out, but did not want to disturb her parents. Besides, they might send whoever it was away, saying that it is a bad time for visitors.
First walking fast, then breaking into a run, Ulina rushed to greet the visitor. Just as she got within arms’ reach, she noticed something that made her halt with a slide in the still warm sand of the walkway. This person smelled like her brother. It was definitely a man, and he had that same sourness that made her stomach churn and had caused her to be out on the steps in the first place.
She thought she recognized something about the man. He worked a couple houses away at the home of one of the Pharaoh’s magicians!
Without warning, hands lunged forward, grabbing her shoulders and jerking her off her feet. She thought to scream, but before any sound left her mouth, something clamped down on her tiny throat. White-hot pain seized Ulina, and in a total state of shock, her body coped with the fright and sudden pain the only way it knew how…she fainted.
The warmth filled him. Tearing into his prize, Kherfin immersed himself in the heat that rose like a fountain, pouring forth from the figure in his clutches, and seeping into his coldest places.
For just a moment, the warmth sent a flicker in a part of the mind that had been the living Kherfin. In the horror, during that brief flash of conscientiousness, he dropped the body. Then, just that quickly, the coldness returned in a rush, tightening its grip. That tiny spark was gone forever.
He looked down at the body sprawled near his feet. Much of the warmth he craved was gone, but deep inside he could sense something pulsing faintly. Each pulsation sent a ripple of that much desired heat throughout the tiny figure.
Once again, Kherfin tore into the unmoving form. Finally, he found the prize he sought. Burying his face in the waning warmth that remained, he fed until the coldness completely filled the body he fed from.
A moment later he stumbled down the narrow street in search of new warmth. There was another source nearby and Kherfin was once again so very, very cold.
Neraphatte burst through the wide-open doorway and raced to the room he first performed the ceremony on the cold, dead body of his assistant. Empty! No sign of Kherfin anywhere. Fearing it was useless he still dashed from room to room. Equally useless. He stepped out onto the balcony. “Kher-fin!” he cried out to a strangely quiet city.
The warm night breeze wrapped around him. The stench of death was growing stronger. Looking out into the darkness, past the city, he thought he could spy a faint glow on the horizon. Not the sort you would expect from a large encampment. Instead, this glow seemed to reach up to the heavens. On any other night he would think to investigate…but not now. Now he must find Kherfin.
Side-by-side, but oblivious to one another, Queen Meraseti and her son Prince Haru-Tanis moved haltingly along the smoothly polished stone floor. The wide passage allowed for them to be several feet apart. Yet, they felt drawn close to one another even though neither had any idea why.
Through a gauzy curtain warmth awaited. A large, open sleeping area for the servants who tended to Prince Haru-Tanis directly sat at the end of this long corridor. A few lanterns burned along the way casting a soft glow over everything.
Together they stumbled into the curtains; neither one slowing nor bothering to push them aside with their hands. Queen and Prince staggered into the circular room. Some of the servants awoke, looking up from their beds at the two dark shadows that stood outlined in the entryway.
Moments later, there was screaming. Trained since birth to endure whatever royal punishment was given, all thirty-two of the servants died at the hands and mouths of their master and his mother.
Making unsteady progress down the stairs, the gore-soaked girl paused on the path that led to the street. Stepping out onto the small landing from the darkness of the house to join her were a man and a woman. Dressed in black gowns of mourning, it was impossible to see the bloody holes torn in both of them in the darkness of night.
The woman moved first to join her daughter. The husband tried to follow, but toppled from the small rise and landed with a splatter. Slowly climbing to his feet, he set off down the path after the other two figures. A long, ropy strand uncoiled from his stomach to lie on the ground like a nest of serpents. He continued to walk away oblivious, only pausing slightly as something tugged just for a moment before tearing away.
Animals of all sorts crawled from the shadows to investigate. None of them fed on the vile strand. Not even the rats.
Neraphatte reached the palace for the second time that night. He heard screams of anguish and fear as he climbed the many stairs that led to the Grand Entry.
He had searched frantically, but found no sign of Kherfin near the house. He could be any place in the city by now. He must see to the prince.
The main door remained ajar. Just as he had left it when he had run from the Queen and her son. The child had been like an animal, tearing into the flesh of his mother. So much blood. There must have been something he had done wrong.
He stood in the middle of the hall thinking. This had been where Pharaoh had given his edict. Well…he had obeyed. Hadn’t he? The son of Pharaoh was…alive?
Now that was the predicament. Neraphatte had not stayed once the boy had torn into his mother’s throat. Perhaps that had been some instinctive reaction, like how the body shudders when exposed to cold air after being submerged into a tub of hot water.
He must find the boy. That was all he could do. Of course, the screams he heard as he approached the palace cast doubts. Deep down, the feeling that he was only fooling himself did a poor job of hiding.
His gaze paused on the nine stakes with the impaled heads of his fellow court magicians. Each face seemed caught in between an expression of pain and peace. Perhaps death was not such a terrible thing.
The trio had grown. All down the street there were more stumbling out of doorways. Somewhere, there would be warmth. They could sense it as they passed darkened houses. Each time they would enter in search of it. Yet, when they left they were once again unsatisfied and cold. Each instance they found the opportunity to bathe in that warmth, the satisfaction from it was more brief.
In ones…twos…packs…they converged on random houses. There seemed no reason or pattern as the blood-soaked horde added to the woes of an already demoralized Egypt. Numb from the previous night’s terror, people ignored the screams and wails of their neighbors until it was too late. Those that did answer did so alone and fell easy prey.
Kherfin turned. Nothing that was his former self remained. Yet, he was driven to seek out that one source. It called to him. With no control of his actions, he walked on. It was closer now. He did not understand the flickering signals in the small part in his brain that remained. He simply allowed them to lead him.
As the sun began to crest the distant hills of sand, he arrived. His feet stopped and, for just a moment, Kherfin stood unmoving. The head turned first, then the body followed. Step by grueling step he climbed. The coldness in his body seemed to reach out for that warmth.
Behind him, the streets were dotted with more just like him. Some walked, some crawled having lost one, both, or parts of their legs. A low moan had begun. First it was like a buzz heard when that swarm of locusts had arrived. Many of the living who remained had shut up their houses fearing, perhaps, their return. Any who saw the true source of that horrible noise that had grown as the numbers swelled, as they all converged on that one focal point, also barred their doors. Many began to pray; some even to the mysterious God of Moses.
Neraphatte opened his eyes. He found the pale and drawn face of Queen Meraseti only inches from his own. The stench of death poured from her, filling his nostrils with a smell so thick it was as if he were breathing through sand.
The gaping hole in her throat that still oozed dark fluid gurgled slightly as she opened her mouth. A cold hand brushed his face and many others clutched at his clothing, but none of them did anything more. They all stood…waiting.
He had run down empty palace corridors in search of the Pharaoh’s wife and son. When he found them, it was as if his mind refused to accept what it saw.
Neraphatte had fainted.
When he awoke, and that alone had been a surprise after the bloody carnage he had walked into, he had found a sea of legs on all sides. Looking up he saw the queen, the prince, and several of the royal servants. Each torn, mutated and covered with blood and gore. There were smells that were worse than death.
Yet, he was whole.
He climbed slowly to his feet, knowing that at any moment they would fall on him and tear him open in the manner done to them. His heart thundered as all who surrounded him turned almost in unison toward him. At first, none of them moved.
Neraphatte held his breath. Partially to avoid breathing in what could only be the most pure essence of what was death. But also, because he was so frightened that he momentarily forgot how. Finally, he gasped and sucked in a lungful. This made him gag. A shuffling sound of several feet moving had caused him to close his eyes in preparation for the violent death sure to come.
That was when he had opened his eyes. They crowded in, but none of them attacked him. There were no teeth ripping into his flesh, no hands tearing him open to feast on his innards as had clearly happened to some who stood close by.
Blood, sticky and cool, smeared his face, arms, and robe as more and more they seemed to push at one another in an effort to be close to him…to touch. For several moments, Neraphatte stood in the center of the room. Finally he had to move. Either they would fall on him and kill him or they would not. No matter what, he could no longer stand still.
He waded through the bodies. Their hands continued to reach out and grasp, but then, as he continued to walk, they would let go. They would follow.
Kherfin reached the top stair. Below him, a hundred or more just like him were climbing up. As a whole, they could sense that what they sought was very near. Their moans seemed to grow louder. Throughout the city, the smell of fear began to mask the stench of death.
Neraphatte glanced at the heads of those he had once called brothers. Only he remained of the Pharaoh’s magicians. He had done what each of them had failed to do.
He, Neraphatte, had overcome the final and most devastating plague of the God of Moses. The Pharaoh would have no choice but to acknowledge his power. Perhaps he would be granted his own temple, or even better, a city.
He reached the large double doors that led out of the palace. Behind him, the queen, the prince, and all those servants, still followed. Pulling the doors open, the golden light of the sun flooded in. Light and warmth rushed to meet his face.
Standing before him was his favorite assistant. Blank eyes stared out of a face empty of any sort of recognition. For a moment, Neraphatte once again feared for his life as cold hands reached out and grasped his arms. Looking past Kherfin, he saw perhaps a couple hundred more on the stairs and in the main street that led to the palace.
A low moan grew for just a moment, then faded in a sigh from the throng that sought him. Neraphatte smiled. Yes, the Pharaoh would indeed be grateful.
The dust cloud grew nearer. It seemed very small if it were indeed Pharaoh and his army. Neraphatte stood at the gates the Pharaoh would enter, victorious from destroying the rebel Moses and his Hebrews.
Finally, the individual chariots could be made out. Something was very peculiar indeed. There were so few. Perhaps things had not gone as smoothly as expected. Perhaps this Moses and his god had more tricks at the ready.
Oh well, at least he, Neraphatte, royal magician, had succeeded. At his side, the small figure seemed to grow restless. The prince began to pull away. As the Pharaoh’s chariots drew to a halt in a cloud of dust, Neraphatte let go his hold on the young prince’s shoulders.
Over the din of the pounding on the gates at his back, Neraphatte announced, “I present your son, my Pharaoh!”