|This is my entry for the Dragon's Keep Contest. It is 5996 words and uses the prompts: "Egypt", "A king without a kingdom" and "a Time Warp that holds an object in stasis until a time prophesied in the stones of the cave in which it was discovered."
The Nile wind surged, knocking the reeds in the shallows flat to the water line and propelling boats effortlessly against the current. Meresh smiled. It was a good day. The floods had cleared, leaving the fields dark and rich. The world smelt fresh and Ra rode high in the sky. Even the wind felt warmed by his touch. Relaxing back, Meresh wiggled his toes to dispel his only discomfort. His sandals were tight again; the third pair this year.
At the pad of footsteps, Meresh’s gaze flicked back to the inscribed tablet he clutched in his hand. He sought any nick or deviation that might mar the work. He saw none but eyes more critical than his were taking to the same task. A hand squeezed his shoulder in greeting. Without turning, just with a mild bite of his lip, Meresh held the tablet up. The hand took it, in a grip both firm and immaculately spread.
“Good form and a steady hand. You’ve done well.”
Meresh smiled, turning to meet his father’s gaze. The gods favoured him today. Suddenly, all those periods of hand cramp and sore sight felt worth it.
“Your Ibis still needs some work, though.”
Meresh’s smile turned rueful. He could feel the next bout of cramp, already; still, he knew one day there would be no “but”.
His father laughed at his disappointment. “All in good time. Come. Let’s celebrate by buying you a new pair of sandals.”
Meresh turned sharply.
“You think I hadn’t noticed? You can hide the discomfort, but you can’t hide the redness of your toes.”
The golden brown of his skin was blushed a little red. Meresh wiggled his toes again. He’d been hoping to stick it out until work picked up, as it always did after the floods. Not that they wanted for money, but still…
His father held out a hand to help Meresh from his perch. “You’re quiet today. Did the floods wash away your tongue?”
“No. I just…” Meresh turned back to look out over the Nile.
There was something in the silence today. Something warm and yet… distant. He searched for an answer but the Nile just sparkled back.
While still busy, the boisterous atmosphere of the market, the past few months, was gone with the workers now back in the fields. Traders called out their wares as they passed. Pots, tools, rare spices, everything you could ever want lined the street.
Meresh saw his father’s eye catch on a stall of fine woodwork; particularly, on a small wooden mixing box. It was a tool used only by scribes. He could see his father’s own poking from a leather pouch at his side. It was dented and worn, the patterning almost rubbed smooth.
“My sandals can wait.” Meresh looked to his feet. They weren’t so bad.
But his father shook his head. “Bloodied feet are most unbecoming for a scribe. There will be time enough for extravagance, yet. I need you to undertake a job for me, this afternoon.”
Meresh nearly tripped over his own feet. “On my own?”
His father nodded. “Just take your time. Perform as well as this morning and you’ll not disappoint.”
But Meresh’s steps faltered, falling behind that of his father’s. Then a scream rent the calm of the market. Meresh saw a man charging down the crowded road, his clothes dripping red. Was it paint or dye? But as the man collided with his father, he saw a woman collapsed beyond, her blood seeping into the compacted sand. Then he saw the knife.
With a cry of horror, Meresh dived out of the killer’s way. Turning back to his father, he saw his side patched with blood but his eyes were wide and he stood firm.
His breath catching, his first thought was that his father had been stabbed but the blood wasn’t his. His father’s skin was unbroken. Before Meresh could catch a breath, more chaos broke loose. Two soldiers muscled their way through the gaping crowd. After a single gaze at the murdered woman, passing on over his father and the bloody knife discarded nearby, they grabbed his father, forcing him to his knees.
“No!” Meresh dashed towards them. “It wasn’t him!”
Barely looking up, one of the guards loosed a kick, striking Meresh hard in the stomach. “Back Dog!”
Meresh hit the ground, breathless. It felt like his lungs had been kicked out, still he raised another protest. “It wasn’t… Someone… Tell them!”
But the crowd stood silent as the other soldier drew his sword. “By order of the Pharaoh, murder is punishable by death!”
“No!” Meresh reached for his father with gaze. “Tell them!”
His father just shook his head, his gaze heavy. Reaching down, he hooked the box from his pouch and slid it across the ground towards Meresh.
“He didn’t do it!” Meresh cried, one last time, as the soldier raised his sword but down it swept and this time it was his father’s blood.
Monsters! Murderers! Meresh could only curl up on the ground, his body weak and his chest throbbing. He felt more pain as the soldier kicked him a second time while the other dragged his father’s bloodied and wide eyed corpse away.
Why? Meresh gasped for breath. His father was innocent. The pharaoh was a god on earth. Gods were all knowing. How could he not have seen his father’s innocence? Unless… Meresh’s muscles tightened. He was no god!
Scrabbling to his knees, Meresh reached out for his father’s mixing box, now splattered with blood. His hands shook and his eyes stung. The pharaoh would pay for this. His grip tightened around the box. For murder was punishable by death!
As the wind screeched through the tight desert valley, Meresh tethered his “borrowed” mount, a small donkey. The journey had been brief but the reward he hoped to be eternal. His father had told him tales of hidden treasures, in tombs forgotten to all but the records of stone and papyrus, some even powerful enough to call forth the gods, themselves. At his father’s memory, Meresh’s grip tightened against the box he still clutched, his eyes burning.
This rugged cave, while unassuming to the casual eye, was the entrance to a hidden tomb. One of a long dead priest, his name lost to the ages, as even Egyptian records were not completely infallible. But one thing history did remember was the sacred statue buried within, said to have sealed half of Apep’s soul. It was believed the one who broke the seal could command the demonic serpent, god of chaos and destruction. Using a god to kill a god made perfect sense. He just had to break the seal and justice would be served.
Pulling a torch from a pack on the donkey’s back, Meresh lit it, his vision finally reaching the back of the cave and a roughly hewn doorway. Beyond stretched a stone block corridor, with no carvings and no writings. This opened out into a simple antechamber also free of objects or inscriptions. Normally, there would be fake doorways, one of which, while blocked up, would lead to the burial chamber but this time there was nothing. The room was bare. Then he saw it, a loose block.
Propping his torch against the wall, Meresh squeezed his fingers into the gap. A full grown adult couldn’t have managed it but his fingers just fit. Given his thin, adolescent stature, Meresh was surprised when with little effort the block slid free, revealing a crawl space into the burial chamber. His heartbeat quickened as he bent to crawl through as if expecting his head to be bitten off by the very deity he sought to invoke but the burial tomb proved unprotected. With not a single carved defender or protective enchantment, it was like the maker had wanted it found. Perhaps, this was meant to be.
Meresh smiled as he swept his light around the chamber. The burial treasures were modest. A few mortuary statues, a few gold cups, a handful of jewellery and a pile of inscribed tablets, probably bearing the religious spells and chants of the temple. But what he sought stood on a plinth at the chamber’s end, in a deep recess, a golden statue of the Nile dragon Apep. Its eyes were formed by two large emeralds which dazzled hypnotically and two curved rubies forming sharp fangs.
Meresh’s grin widened. It certainly looked fearsome. Apep was said to battle Ra on his journey through the underworld each night. If the creature was a match for Ra, it should best a Pharaoh with ease.
Taking a deep breath, Meresh reached out to take the statue. He jumped as he gripped it, expecting a powerful reaction but nothing happened.
Was he missing something? He turned sharply. A spell of releasing!
He rummaged through the tablets. Most were standard daily prayers but two stood out. The inscriptions were crude, in both form and language, but not by haste. The tablets were old, even older than the priest. They reached back to the dawn of the kingdom, perhaps, even beyond.
The first tablet spoke of a sealing, both from time and space. Of a power so great it was destined to bring an end but also a beginning.
This was it. Meresh leaned closer. An end to the reign of Seti and the start of another. That had to be the meaning. Everything was preordained. The gods knew of his plight and had gifted him this across the ages. He truly was blessed. If only his father’s life could have been spared. A tear struck the worn script. The gods’ favour was costly. His grip on the tablet loosened, but a reawakening rage soon tightened it again. This was for his father as well as the gods.
Meresh turned to the next tablet which spoke of breaking the seal. There was no chant or spell, just an instruction to cast the statue into the Nile, the moment Ra’s boat, Mandjet, exited the mortal world. Meresh looked up as if his gaze could pass through the rock to the day beyond. Time was short. Already, Ra travelled for the horizon.
The Nile shimmered orange, like a river of fire, as Ra touched the horizon, and Meresh stood ready statue in hand. The timing had to be perfect, just as the last edge of the disc vanished. His heart quickened and grip shook as he waited, then the moment came. He hurled the statue far into the darkening waters.
“Do it! End him!” He followed the statue with his eyes, saw it enter the waters and vanish.
He waited. Nothing. Not a ripple or a single scale broke the surface. The Nile flowed calmly on. Meresh dropped to his knees. Tears mingled with the sand as his breath shook. What about justice? His father couldn’t die in vain. The Pharaoh had to pay.
Twice he’d failed him, now. Meresh returned to his tethered mount. Again, he saw his father’s blood and his blank eyes. He couldn’t… give up. It was his duty to see justice done. If the gods would not help, he would do it himself. He took a small curved dagger from the donkey’s pack and tucked it into his belt. God or no god, he vowed the Pharaoh would not greet the next dawn.
A dark haze drifted over Memphis at Meresh’s return. The lights from the many windows seemed somewhat wilder than normal. The city danced with orange light. For a moment he saw beauty then his whole body froze. Fire! The city was ablaze.
But how? Meresh rode as fast as his short legged mount could manage, but every stride revealed more horrors. Crumbled walls and…bodies, hundreds of them. They littered the streets, hung from windows. Some were charred, others seemingly untouched but all lay frozen with expressions of horror, their bodies unnaturally contorted.
With a sob Meresh fell from his mount to the floor. It couldn’t be… It was a dream…A nightmare… It couldn’t be real. This wasn’t how it was meant to be.
Meresh staggered through the city, seeing not a sign of life until, in its heart, he saw a single figure kneeling among the ashes. His heart leapt. He was not alone! But that soon turned. The man wore elaborate jewellery and was draped in materials so fine they fluttered light as ash on the wind.
Of all the people! Why! Whose cruel jest was this!? Meresh went for his dagger and with a roar charged the bent figure.
As he hurtled towards him, Meresh’s gaze locked with that of his king. He wasn’t as expected. He was small, the size of an average man. His eyes were wide and face tight with shock.
They clashed. A wrist caught Meresh’s arm twisting the dagger loose in a single move. Seti was a seasoned warrior. Meresh was just an apprentice scribe. Still his anger afforded him the strength to strike his king across the face.
“You murdered my father!” Meresh swung at him again but this time was blocked. “This all your fault! You killed everyone!”
The king offered no denial just kicked Meresh lightly back and turned to the sky.
“Why? He petitioned of the stars. “I completed every ritual. Said every prayer. My kingdom… My People… Why were they not protected?”
Turning his gaze, Seti struck the ground. The sight was pitiful but Meresh felt no sympathy. He just reclaimed his blade from the floor ready for another charge, but at his first step the earth roared and split, vanishing beneath him.
The birds sounded strange, was the first thing Meresh registered. More a hiss than a song and opening his eyes he saw why. He started in horror. The bird had a serpent head and tail with feather wings and perched on a glowing turquoise tree. The sky was gone, too, replaced by a sharp metal ceiling which looked as if a million blades were plunging from the earth.
The underworld. Was he dead? Meresh held up his hand as if expecting it to be translucent. He didn’t feel dead nor look it. Even so, the underworld was not a good place to be. He’d read of all the dangers here. Serpent men, river monsters, corpses that didn’t realise they were dead. He shuddered. He couldn’t even remember the protective spells.
Seti sat nearby staring at the ground. Meresh looked down. His dagger lay half obscured in what looked like grass. He reached out. It even felt like grass yet glowed a pale white. In fact, everything glowed, in slightly differing hues, casting an eerily even light.
Meresh turned back to Seti, his grip tightening about his dagger and yet he couldn’t move. He wanted nothing more than to kill him where he sat but logic intervened. He was stranded in a dangerous place with nothing but a dagger and little knowledge of how to use it. He needed a warrior. Meresh stabbed at the ground savagely. The gods were playing games!
Looking beyond the immediate to the distant, he saw fields, seemingly endless, ripe fields. Such abundance knew no place in the real world. They truly were in the realm of the gods and there was only one way out of the underworld. They had to find Ra on his nightly passage and ride the solar barge free.
Seti stirred. Rising to his feet his gaze followed Meresh’s.
“Come.” The king offered his hand, but Meresh just stared in loathing.
“And do what?”
The king blinked, clearly not used to his orders being questioned. “I will find Ra and see my kingdom restored. He holds the power of creation. There is no other option.”
Meresh bit his lip. As much as he hated the pharaoh, he couldn’t condemn the whole of Egypt for his revenge. They had to work together. He held the knowledge and Seti held the blade. Still, the thought made him sick. That he was set to restore the kingdom of a man who’d already proven undeserving of it.
They crossed fields of every crop and orchards of ripe exotic fruit but, all too soon, the ground turned boggy and the crops to reeds and then to deadened stalks. The smell turned rank of rotting decay. Every step became a danger, the ground threatening to consume them. Meresh’s feet dragged. He missed the air of the Nile. Cattle dung had a fresher smell to this.
As Meresh walked, his gaze fixed on the pharaoh’s back, his hand twitching around his dagger. With the ground growing wetter still, their pace slowed to a near halt.
“We need a boat,” the king growled in frustration and as if by magic Meresh saw one poking through the reeds ahead. Without a word, he took off towards it.
“No!” Seti reached to restrain him but it was too late, Meresh was already up to his knees in mud.
With a cry, he struggled, trying to raise his feet but they were stuck and sinking further.
“Do not struggle!” Seti reached towards him. “Just take my hand!”
Meresh stared at. And let the man who murdered his father save his life? He sunk lower.
“Take my hand!” Seti ordered again, and swallowing a ball of anger Meresh raised his arm.
The king pulled him free with seemingly inhuman strength, the mud giving way like water.
“How can you hate me so?” Seti looked more startled than angry that someone would rather die than accept his aid.
“My father was kind, honest and innocent, yet your soldiers slew him like a dog for a crime he didn’t commit while the real culprit fled.” Meresh’s hand shook, consumed with the desire to plunge his dagger deep into the king’s heart.
Seti’s gaze darkened. “Then I truly deserve it. I will repent and make amends. To you and the Gods.”
“How? Can you bring him back to life?”
The king remained silent.
“Then there are no amends!” Meresh stalked off, albeit with caution to the ground this time.
The boat proved rickety and barely large enough for two. With the age of the flaky wood, it was wonder it floated at all, let alone with not a bead of water in it. It seemed luck wasn’t completely done with him yet and while Meresh couldn’t find a smile his frown weakened.
“Wait!” Meresh blocked Seti with his arm.
The king froze, his foot over the boat as a scarab scuttled down the boat’s length.
“You could have stood on it.” Meresh peered into the boat.
The scarab was the first normal looking thing he’d seen in this place.
The king shrugged. “It is merely a scarab. There are plenty more.”
“So it’s fine to step on? Is that what you think of your subjects, too?”
Seti’s face tightened but he didn’t respond, just climbed in. Meresh followed and soon they were using the crude oars to paddle down the widening channels.
Neither spoke, with both of them uncomfortable in the other’s presence, and the mood, like the swamp, grew oppressive. Reed stumps rustled, occasionally, but nothing emerged. Hisses sounded but only ever at a distance. But Meresh did finally get a fright on dipping his oar into the water to see a snake half the length of the boat swimming past. It had two heads, each the size of a fist. Thankfully, it took no interest in them but Meresh dreaded the moment something did.
He was just starting to relax as the cavern world narrowed towards a tall passage, sheared through the rock, when he saw their first true horror. Mutilated corpses floated in the way. Some had three arms, others two heads, others no heads. Their eyes were glazed and bloodshot and their skin white.
Meresh stopped paddling, his hands shaking.
“We must continue.” Seti moved to paddle both sides.
“Please, no!” Meresh scrabbled back as much as the boat allowed. “We must turn back! Those are the cursed damned, forsaken by the afterlife. They will drown us!”
But Seti did not falter. “There is no way back, only forward. Courage.”
It was easy for him to say. He had a sword and the ability to defend himself. Meresh had a dagger and a shaky grip.
As the boat drew near, the corpses jerked into life swimming with flailing, contorted limbs and unnatural squirms.
“They’re coming!” Meresh pressed back against the boats confines.
“Keep them from getting purchase. I’ll row us to safety.”
What? Meresh stared at the approaching horrors. He could barely draw breath, let alone fight them off. Yet as the first lunged for the boat, he instinctively swung his oar, knocking it away.
Meresh swung again and again but for every one he struck, three surged forward and his arms already ached and shook.
It was too much! One made it half over before it could be knocked free but then more had grip. They were being overwhelmed! Panic afforded Meresh a surge of speed but it soon faded. Then from ledges either side of the looming passage more beasts pounced. These were serpents with wings and human heads, armed with spears. Meresh buried his head in fear. If only he could remember those spells! But no spears hit him, and looking up, he saw the flying serpents plunging their spears into the corpses.
They were saved! Meresh slumped back against the boat edge, exhausted and still shaking.
Entering the passage, all direction was lost. It turned and turned, always in the same direction. It felt like they were going in circles and back really was wasn’t the way Meresh wanted to travel. Just the memory of those damned corpses made his skin crawl. But finally they emerged at a bank of sand. He could just make out more water beyond.
As Meresh climbed from the boat, Seti lifted it, balancing it on his shoulder. Meresh stared. A pharaoh doing his own lifting? He almost offered to help but then his anger crept back.
It was hard not to admire the king’s strength as he carried a heavy boat with little discomfort. Perhaps, he was a god after all. Not that it lessened his previous crime.
The sandbank rose and rose and then dipped in the middle. Looking into the bottom, Meresh tripped in panic. In the dip lay a massive crocodile as wide as a cart and as long as two.
Please, let it not be hungry! At the thought of hunger, Meresh’s stomach growled. But eating was far from his mind. He was more worried of being eaten.
The beast didn’t stir as they passed. Its eyes were closed and its massive sides expanded and contracted rhythmically. It seemed it was asleep. Another blessing of luck, but even once they’d passed, Meresh could not stop looking back in dread, in case the beast chose to chase them. Reaching the next stretch of water Meresh was in the boat the moment it hit the surface.
More half submerged passages followed but, at least, they were straight with little threat of returning to the horrors behind. Crystals glowing in all the hues of the rainbow hung from the rocks above. They were beautiful and Meresh found himself staring up more often than paddling, causing the boat to list to one side. Soon, rocks came up from the water as well, their crystals mirroring those above. The light glimmered across the water, leaving it a blanket of colour. It seemed the underworld held as much beauty as it did horror but the best was still to come.
As they travelled on, more and more crystals surrounded them until, finally, they emerged into a cavern, covered wall to wall. Twin waterfalls plummeted from either side. But the cavern was not vacant. Bodies floated just beneath the surface, but Meresh didn’t fear these. These were perfectly formed. Their skin had colour, their eyes were closed and their faces serene. This was the realm of the drowned, who were accepted as the blessed dead even without rite or ceremony. Here, they were gifted a peaceful slumber for eternity.
As they paddled towards the centre, the haunting call of an owl echoed around the chamber as, from the vaulted ceiling, it plummeted on silent wings. Perching upon the boat, it struck first Seti and then Meresh with a piercing gaze. Meresh shuddered. He’d never felt anything like it. The gaze caught everything, his past, his present and every intention he’d ever had, including… he turned to the pharaoh terrified. The owl was Thoth, the judger of souls. Suddenly, Meresh could recognise the darkness in his heart and feel the anger as a black ooze, suffocating and evil. Tainted souls were turned back and would eventually be consumed by their sins and turned into the damned. He shook under the bird’s scrutiny.
“Enough!” the pharaoh knocked the side of the boat. “You judge the souls of the passed. I judge the souls of the living. Leave him!”
The bird averted its gaze, ruffled its feathers and took off. “Then watch your back.” Thoth called in a human voice. “For you protect your own.”
Seti turned to Meresh who averted his gaze, ashamed. Perhaps, taking a life for a life was not justice, after all. That was how everything had begun. Perhaps, they both needed to learn the same lesson. His anger softened. The pharaoh turned back and took up his oar once more and Meresh followed suit.
Finally, beyond the chamber, the passages opened into plants and flowers, reeds and trees, just like those in real world, and yet between them poked those of the underworld. They’d reached the edge, the murky divide. Meresh felt hope that finally their journey was drawing to an end which froze as they rounded a twist in the channel. Bodies were scattered along the shore, bloodied and beaten. The golden armour and weapons identified them as members of Ra’s procession. To have killed so many whatever had struck the procession had to be powerful.
“Faster!” the pharaoh barked, doubling the pace of his strokes. “We must protect Ra or all is lost!”
It already was, Meresh’s heart sank. Ra’s procession was made up of the most skilled warriors across the ages. If they’d been beaten, what chance did a single warrior and scribe have? They would never see the Nile again. But he increased his strokes regardless. His father wouldn’t want him to die here. Perhaps, Ra wasn’t himself so helpless.
The trail of bodies continued until after two more corners, the culprit came into view. Meresh dropped his oar, his body turning numb. A giant serpent rose from the water. Thick bodied and with enormous fangs, it stood the height of a large tree. At its hiss the ground shook and cracked. That was Apep, the monster he’d unleashed upon the world. Beyond the creature, the golden hulk of the solar barge lay upturned, floating in the shallows, its mast broken. There was no sign of Ra. Perhaps, he’d fled on foot with the rest of his procession as none in sight were alive.
Seti drew his sword and stood.
Meresh just stared. He could not be planning to attack the creature alone? Apep would barely have to open his mouth to swallow the pharaoh whole.
“Wait!” Meresh petitioned the king. “Let’s at least come up with a plan.”
“I need no plan. The monster destroyed my kingdom and killed my people. It will die by my hands.” Seti leapt from the boat into the shallows and waded for the bank. “Face me, monster!”
Meresh shook his head in despair. The creature turned to face the king and with a single hiss sent a shockwave through the ground, knocking the king flat.
Please, Meresh begged the gods silently, clutching his hand to his chest. We’re in your realm. Send us something! Anything!
A growl erupted from behind and turning Meresh saw the humongous crocodile from the sand bank, surging up the river.
Not that! Not that! Meresh threw himself from the boat, stumbling from the creature’s path. A massive wave struck him as the crocodile passed, throwing him face first into the sandy bank.
Spitting out sand, Meresh turned to see the crocodile collide with Apep. The water turned white as the two wrestled. The crocodile twisted, trying to get a grip on Apep’s neck with its mouth of razor sharp teeth whereas the snake sough to wrap its body around its pray.
As the battle continued, Meresh looked on the giant crocodile with less terror and more awe as it beat back all Apep’s attempts to subdue it. To stand against Apep it had to be a god and therefore had to be Sobek, the crocodile god of protection. No wonder he hadn’t tried to eat them.
As Seti struggled to rise, Meresh dashed over taking his hand to aid him. Soon Seti was on his feet and just in time as a savage swipe of Apep’s tail finally got the better of Sobek sending him flying backwards into the trees. Apep then went straight for them.
“To me!” Seti commanded.
Taking his sword up single handed, he pulled Meresh in tight against him with the other. Meresh stared at him in horror. Just what was he planning? The creature was about to eat them!
Seti braced himself as Apep lunged and Meresh closed his eyes in terror. He felt a blast of hot breath as the creature’s mouth slammed down around them. They were being swallowed whole. Then came a deafening cry and Meresh opened his eyes. It was dark but he could still see Seti with his sword buried to the hilt in the creature’s mouth. The head surged up and then Apep thrashed back and forth and then with a final weakened hiss, fell to the ground twitching.
Meresh stood stunned. They’d done it. The monster was slain and by a mere mortal’s hands. Had that been the pharaoh’s plan all along? Could you call getting eaten a plan?
“Come,” Seti gestured onwards up the river. “We must find Ra and right his solar barge.”
The pharaoh’s pace was so brisk Meresh had to run to keep up but they didn’t go far. Around the next turn, he saw a figure on the ground, old and wizened with a ram’s head. It was Ra. Meresh’s heart sank.
Seti knelt down at the old god’s side and soon drooped further. “He’d dead. Ra is dead.”
“But there’s not a mark on him!” Meresh protested. “He must just be sleeping. Wake him.”
But Seti shook his head. “We must continue alone.”
“But only Ra can cross the boundary.” After all that, they were stuck here, anyway. How could it be?
“Perhaps the solar barge still carries some of his powers.” But even the pharaoh sounded less than optimistic.
Still it was better than giving up. Meresh helped his king right the barge and then climbed in. Despite being upturned the boat was dry inside, clearly the work of magic. Perhaps Seti was right. They may yet escape after all.
Taking up a golden oar, Meresh began to row.
“Ha!” Meresh barked in amazement as a scarab skittered past his leg. “Are you coming too?”
Seti took one look and shook his head, turning back to his rowing. “I told you there are thousands of those things.”
But Meresh decided to view it as the same one. He’d never seen the two side by side; therefore it was just as logical that it could be the same one.
A few more turns and they reached an open expanse of water that ended in darkness. This was it, the end of the underworld. If they managed to cross the boundary they would return to the human world. Meresh quickened his strokes. They had to reach it before Ra’s magic ran out.
As they rowed the world grew darker about them but, strangely, their boat remained lit. Then Meresh looked down to see the scarab beetle glowing. It glowed a bright yellow just like… the solar disc! This was…
The light expanded suddenly and at the centre of it appeared a youth the same age as Meresh only with a ram’s head.
“My thanks,” the god spoke. “I knew you would prove a worthy convoy. You slew the monster and ensured the birth of a new dawn.”
Meresh lowered his gaze in guilt.
“Feel no shame in loosing the beast.” Ra placed a glowing hand on Meresh’s shoulder. “Every night Apep is released unto the world and every night he is slain. It is the sacred cycle. You have performed a great service and this is your reward.”
Ra raised his hand and light erupted all around; a perfect pure, white light. “Behold the greatest power of all. This is the power of creation. A point beyond time and form, an instant of raw existence.
Meresh had never felt anything like it. The power set his skin buzzing and his spirit soaring.
“Next you see the sun rise, remember this night.” The god continued. “Remember the fear, the toil, the danger but especially the courage. This is the source of a new dawn. Seal the light in your souls. Take it with you and spread it throughout the mortal realm.”
The light became blinding, forcing Meresh to shield his eyes.
“Just take your time. Perform as well as this morning and you’ll not disappoint.”
Meresh stared at his father’s back. He was… He didn’t stop to think any further. He knew what came next. The scream sounded and launching of his back foot Meresh dived between his father and the escaping murder. The murder collided with his back, knocking Meresh to the ground as the knife clattered to the ground.
“Meresh! Are you hurt?” His father pulled him to his feet.
Meresh shook his head.
“What got into you?! How could you be so reckless?!” His father shook him.
Meresh didn’t answer. The soldiers were already muscling their way towards them. He thanked Ra for giving him this chance. Even if it proved the end for him, at least he’d saved his father.
The soldiers went to grab Meresh but were blocked.
“No! You will not touch my son!” His father pulled him close. “He did nothing.”
The two soldiers looked at each other.
“He’s little more than a child,” spoke one.
“It’s the pharaoh’s command!” The other drew his sword.
“By command of the God-King!” Called a voice from up the market. “All criminals are to be brought for divine judgement!”
The two soldiers turned back to Meresh and caught him, pulling him roughly from his father’s grip.
Seti appeared far more regal on his golden throne, wearing his crown and holding his was-sceptre. The pharaoh looked startled at seeing Meresh dragged in but then smiled.
“So, you took his place,” he met Meresh’s gaze warmly.
The pharaoh then turned to Meresh’s father. “You have raised a courageous and selfless son. Be proud.”
“Yes, God-King.” Meresh’s father dropped deep into a prayer position.
“The boy is innocent! Release him! And bring me the real culprit, with his head!”
The guards released him as commanded, bowed and left the room.
“Well,” The pharaoh turned back to Meresh. “I believe must make amends.”
He held out his hand and beckoned Meresh forwards. Meresh approached, dropping down before him.
“I am short a royal scribe. Would you service me, scribe?”
Meresh gasped and bowed his acceptance. A royal scribe! And still an apprentice!
“Then I look forward to talking more.”
Meresh bowed and withdrew. Beaming with pride, his father caught him in a hug.
“I could not be more proud!” he offered Meresh his mixing box. “You’ll be needing this. It seems the time has come for me to buy a new one.”
Smiling, Meresh took it.