Ashira hurried down the dark, empty street and shot a look behind her. A tall hooded figure plodded after her, carrying a large urn whose contents sloshed after each methodical step. He was large, menacing, and terrifying in his lack of urgency. Nothing would stop him, but nothing would hurry him. He would follow her no matter where she ran, and he would reach her eventually. It was only a matter of time.
“Every night with you!” she huffed. “It’s a wonder we haven’t gotten caught!”
She marched back to her slow pursuer, inspected his wrapped face and readjusted his hood. He looked like any other man from a distance but if his face were revealed, disaster would be upon her. Sergeant Tepmeth had been dead for over a month but he could still be useful.
She held the heqa scepter at her side as casually as she could. She didn’t want to appear to be concealing it, but she also didn’t want to display it for all to see. The embalming arts, its creations, and any of its trappings were punishable by death. She had trouble hiding the long staff, with its pronged end and wedge-shaped head, but she needed it to command the Sergeant. She had made trips to the river like this before and knew when to go.
The merchants in Uftem all packed up their wares well before sunset. No one wanted to be out past dark, no one wanted to be in the cold but most importantly, no one wanted to look suspicious. Most everyone had learned it was best to keep their heads down while the soldiers were stationed in town.
She hadn’t worried much about the soldiers. Most of the occupying Legionnaires in town were drinking and celebrating some victory or other and she avoided them easily. She just needed to escape the attention of Eshmedi, at least for a little while longer. He would eventually know she had journeyed to the river, but it was all a gift to him. She had stockpiled two other jars and was going to present him with all three once she got home to the catacombs. Giving him such a valuable resource would lessen the scolding and she would finally learn how to distill the blackness out of the water.
The Neferamtat river flooded every year but only once every seven did the black slime come too. Khemu was vital to the embalming trade. She wanted to learn more about how to distill it but there was so little in reserve for a novice to use for training. Eshmedi was too old to continue getting water for himself but he had absolutely forbidden her from leaving the temple at night while the soldiers were stationed. She knew the khemu vanished with the receding water levels, but the soldiers weren’t set to return home for another week. The temple could not afford to wait.
Ashira pulled her hood further down her head. She looked like any Khemari girl, dark as a tree nut. Her eyes were earthy brown, and her short black hair curled around her ears. She was no great beauty in comparison to the rest of the women of the town, but most knew her on sight. Only one girl lived with the dead.
Ashira tapped the Sergeant and continued through the empty streets. As she passed by the mud brick houses, she heard snippets of laughter and smelled spicy bean soup as it simmered over a fire. Suddenly lonely, she picked up her pace.
High on a hill farther away from the main residential area stood a very different house. It was made of mud brick like all the rest but there was a feeling that it wasn’t happy about it and would be something else if it could. A tall wall surrounded the two-story house but that didn’t make it any less square or blocky than the rest of the buildings in town. Ashira had heard tales that somehow, through either magic or engineering, the inhabitants of the villa had access to running water. Prefect Trebonius had been sent years ago to keep Ptalyat Province orderly and compliant. Such a task demanded a regal estate. She let herself feel a moment of hatred for Trebonius but continued her way. She had better things to do than to curse the Prefect.
“Hey!” a raucous voice called out. A soldier of the Legion emerged from the alley. His leather chestpiece and tasseled skirt were scratched and marred and his metal helmet bore a massive dent in the side. She feared she had been caught until she saw the sloppy but amiable smile on his face. He staggered and swayed his way to her. He was drunk.
“Why are you all covered up like that?” he slurred, “It’s hot as Argos’ asshole out here!”
“I’m used to it, sir,” she replied. “And really, the robes help keep you cool. Try it if you don’t believe me.”
“Leave your friend there and come have a drink with me. We’re headed back home tomorrow; five days sooner than we had been told!”
“I am happy for you, sir.” Ashira kept walking. “You should rest and prepare for your journey.” Leaving tomorrow? Ashira thought. She could have simply waited instead of sneaking about.
“Hey now, I promised my mates I’d drink all the wine and fuck all the whores before I left for Arcma.” He grabbed her shoulder with a rough hand. “Come on, girl. Let’s see what you have to offer.”
“No. I have to go, sir,” she said. She tried to continue her way, but he held her fast. She struggled to get free but could not escape his merciless grasp. Thinking fast, she turned to him and smiled.
“How long have you been stationed in Khemeret, soldier?” she asked in her most alluring voice. It squeaked in her ears, but he didn’t seem to notice.
“Three years.” He relaxed his grip but didn’t release her.
“Oh, that’s time enough.” She placed a gentle hand on his cheek.
“That’s more like it,” he murmured.
She closed her eyes and felt for what little khemu was in the man. It didn’t matter if he was native-born or not. Drinking from the Neferamtat, eating the wheat she watered, breathing in her cool breeze...it was enough to get a trace amount of the sacred black substance in his body. Sensing the essence, she worked her special spell, the one that protected her from those that might do her harm.
He crumpled to the ground and lay there like a dead man. Ashira looked around, making sure no one had seen. She tapped Sergeant Tepmeth and they hurried on their way.
A spindly young man jogged towards them, as graceful as a newborn calf. In the tradition of Khemari men, he had a shaven head though there were a few nicks on his scalp from his unfamiliarity with a razor. Geb had grown much in the seven years she had known him but most of that growth had went to knobbly knees and clumsy feet.
His eyes bugged out at Sergeant Tepmeth. “I thought you weren’t bringing him! And I don’t like you walking around late at night. The soldiers are getting more and more aggressive,” he warned.
“I can watch out for myself,” Ashira replied.
“Then why did you ask for my help if you were going to be bringing that monster?”
Ashira kept walking. “He doesn’t complain.”
He sighed. “I’m sorry. The soldiers have been causing trouble for me all day. Being rude and taking fruit without paying for it...and if I tell my father, he’ll get upset. I fear his heart will give out. They all just need to hurry and get out of here, am I right?”
“The sooner the better.” She pointed at the regal estate overlooking them all, even the temple. “Let’s start with that one there.”
“Careful! Trebonius has been very impatient lately. He’s been dragging away people who owe him past tribute.”
“Careful, careful, careful. That’s all I ever hear.” She tapped the Sergeant and began walking away. “I shouldn’t have bothered you. You must get up early in the morning to run the stall. I just wanted another pair of eyes to watch out for me.”
“I know you don’t really need help,” Geb said. “And I’m not mad that you’re using the fellahin to carry your water. I was jealous. I just wanted a chance to display my manly strength for all to see!” He flexed, and a small ridge appeared on his arm. Ashira’s laughter made him flinch but he returned to his smile once they set on their way.
“You’ll have to go right back to town once we get this inside the temple,” Ashira said.
“Of course, Divinity,” Geb laughed.
“Don’t call me that!” Ashira snapped. “Not out here.”
Geb bowed low, laughing until Ashira cuffed him on the head. Together, the wary girl, the clumsy boy and the dead man began their walk to the temple of Uftem.
They arrived at the temple sitting smugly atop the cruel hill overlooking the town. A narrow stone staircase led up to the wide front pavilion. The temple itself was made of great stone blocks that looked older than the oldest mountains. Rows of pear-shaped columns lined the entrance and statues of the gods loomed alongside the columns, looking regal and proud. She knew them so well, they were almost like friends.
There was Neferamtat, the goddess of fertility, desire, ambition, and providence. She was wrought as a voluptuous woman holding a sickle and staff. Most people sacrificed to her more than any other. Everyone relied on the river for water, transportation, growing food and the bounty of fish it provided. Ashira smirked. Eshmedi had told her the heathen dogs were always confused about her. They didn’t understand she wasn’t the goddess of the river. She was the river.
There stood Ghuris beside her, the god of conflict, struggle, war and change. He had the head of a lion, the horns of a ram and the body of a man. His thick arms were crossed over his chest and he held a scimitar in each hand. As ferocious as he seemed, Ashira knew he also protected the righteous and brave as well as small children. All along the temple were more gods, each as imposing as the next.
“How come there isn’t a statue of Enu-Bal?” Geb asked.
“How do you carve the empty spaces? How do you shape the void?” Ashira replied. “The Final God has no need of statues. That is the god I serve.”
“I think people would like Enu-Bal better if he had a statue. They’d sacrifice to him and you’d get to eat better. Maybe the statue should be a scary bird with hyena teeth,” Geb said.
Ashira just laughed. “This is why you’re my vizier.” They walked to the eastern side of the temple until they reached a large angry plant. It had thick broad leaves and vicious little spikes along their edges. It grew against the wall and hid perfectly the opening into the temple.
“Are you sure you’ll be fine?” Geb took the jar from the fellahin and set it on the ground.
“Of course,” Ashira said. She took off her cloak and flung it over the spiky bush. Ashira pulled aside the leaves, her cloak protecting her hands from getting sliced. She slid through the opening, feet first. After ensuring Sergeant Tepmeth squeezed through, Ashira produced a large wooden bowl and another urn. Geb poured out the water a little bit at a time. Ashira collected it in her bowl and deposited it into the second urn. Ages seemed to pass and by the time they were done, both of their arms ached from the labor. Geb pushed her cloak through the opening, cursing as another new cut opened on his hand.
“When we’re all done here, can I set this bush on fire? It must be an evil spirit by now, having tasted so much of my blood,” Geb said.
“Of course, you may,” Ashira said. “But only once I win my kingdom.”
“I understand,” Geb said. Ashira thought he rolled his eyes but decided it must be the darkness making it look that way.
“Take the urn with you. Go home and say nothing of this,” Ashira said, popping a baboon-headed lid onto her urn.
“I know how it works,” he said. “Just...just be careful.”
“My blood and my name protect me,” Ashira said. “You be careful going home too. Don’t give your father any more reason to be sad.”
“I’ll be careful. Can...can I come see you tomorrow night?” he asked.
“No. I will present the water to Eshmedi tonight. He will be so grateful that he will teach me how to separate the khemu from the water. I’ll be very busy,” Ashira answered. She saw how his face fell, even in the darkness. “Come over the next night.”
“I’ll bring some apples!” She watched Geb’s gangly form lope away into the darkness.
Now she was well and truly alone. One by one, she watched the Sergeant lug the jars down dim hallways, heft them down flight after flight of cruel stairs and finally deposit them outside the heavy stone door of the catacomb. Ashira fought to catch her breath after following him during each trip. She trusted in his strength, but she wanted to be sure he did the job right.
She took a deep breath and steadied herself. She mustn’t appear weak now. She must be firm and resolute when she confessed she had been sneaking out of the temple at night. Eshmedi would be wroth, but he was also old and tired. His punishment, if anything, would be a vicious tongue-lashing and not much more.
There were only a few torches placed to guide the way and she knew her destination had no light at all. Khemu needed to be stored in complete darkness once distilled. But those dark chambers were far away, feeling like miles down the hall. They were known officially as the Chambers of Soothing Darkness but Ashira had no idea who was so pompous to name it that. For the sake of time, Eshmedi just called it the khemu room. The three lightless rooms used to be full of jars full of the stuff, he had told her, but they all got smashed during the Emperor’s edict seven years ago. They were lucky to have the five jars they had managed to hide away from the soldiers. Ashira was proud to help build up their reserves.
One by one, she used the heqa scepter to command the fellahin. Without resting or tiring, he picked up each of the heavy urns and marched them in front of the door. He was hefting the last urn when his left arm went limp and dropped to his side, like he lost all strength in it. The jar dropped to the floor and shattered. Thick black slime exploded across the floor along with jagged clay fragments. The camel-headed lid rolled to a stop, intact and grinning up at her like it was all a joke.
Ashira heard the footsteps before she saw him. Eshmedi. Priest of Enu-Bal, Master of Khemu and Embalmer of the Dead stood before her. Though he was old, he stood straight, challenging the weight of ages to try harder. His head was shaven, or perhaps he was simply bald. Ashira never asked. The passing of time had been kind to him due to his strict diet and physical regimen, but the long years of tireless discipline and unrelenting devotion left a deep strain etched into his hawk-like face and added brittleness to his already intense features. Rough, crisscrossing scars covered the lower left side of his face, stopping just before his eye. Eshmedi had been burned for as long as Ashira could remember.
“Explain yourself,” he said.
Be strong. Speak and do not stammer like a fool, she thought. She opened her mouth to tell him how hard she had been working but under his terrible gaze, her throat tightened with the threat of tears.
Eshmedi bent down and touched the spilled water. “Such a waste.” He watched the thick black slime drip off his fingers back onto the floor.
“I have two other jars,” Ashira said.
“Damn the jars. I was talking about you.”
He stood and turned all his righteous fury onto Ashira. Under his intense glare, all her skin felt like it was being blasted off her bones. All the nights of hard labor and stealth collapsed upon her and she staggered against the wall.
“I told you to stay in the temple at night while the soldiers occupied the town.” Eshmedi did not raise his voice but it pierced all the same. “I told you to stay where it was safe. Do you know why I told you these things?”
“To keep me safe,” Ashira replied.
The slap was too quick for her to see.
Heat flashed across Ashira’s face and for a moment, she thought she would scream at him, hit him, do something to clear that scornful look off his face. Ashira gritted her teeth, forbidding her tears from spilling down her cheeks.
“Do you still fancy yourself a pharaoh?” he accused. “I told you I was wrong back then. You are a vessel for his soul. Nothing more.”
“I...I’m sorry,” she muttered, “I just wanted to help.”
“Jeshed was a very fine priest. He was more a son than an apprentice,” Eshmedi said. “You wanted to help back then too, and he is dead because of it.” He peered at the jars that were still intact. “Clean up that mess and bring the other two urns into the chamber. We may as well make use of your helpfulness.”
He snatched the heqa scepter out of her hands and beckoned Sergeant Tepmeth to follow him. “I don’t know why you stole my heqa scepter. You don’t even need it. You can just command any fellahin, but you felt the need to take my only method of controlling them?”
“I just thought...”
“No. You didn’t just think. I’ll have to fix this arm now,” he sighed as they disappeared down a corridor. “You overworked it.”
She went to find a rag and a washbucket and start cleaning what should have been her glorious gift.