It’s time for a public preview of my next upcoming book! A novella to be released this spring, The Curse of Ankhu, Book I is around 30k words of adventure and mystery, set in the deserts of the Far South in Wulfgard, inspired by the cultures and mythologies of ancient Egypt, Persia, and more. It is the first of 3 novellas that will tell the full tale of the ancient curse of Ankhu…
A rough draft synopsis of the upcoming novella:
Deep in the mysterious desert of the Red Land, Deshret, lies an ancient tomb, the resting place of one of the greatest evils the world has ever known: Pharaoh Ankhu the Endless. Long did he reign and oppress the people of the Black Land, Kemhet. So great and terrible was his power that the gods themselves descended, defeating and cursing him, burying him in foreign land deep in a labyrinth never to be found by mortals.
Now Ankhu rises again with each darkening of the moon, a walking mummy, searching for that which he may never find… his own still-beating heart, denying him passage into the afterlife. Over the untold ages, Ankhu’s tomb remained undiscovered, a secret protected always by the loyal Medjay, an order serving the many pharaohs of Kemhet who came after.
But now a new threat has arisen— Lord Tefnahkt the Red, cultist and warlock, drives his many slaves to uncover Ankhu’s resting place, unlock his evil power, and unleash him upon the world once more. While a small group of Medjay work to stop Tefnahkt’s plans, one slave may become the key to stopping Tefnahkt – and putting an end to his and Ankhu’s evil once and for all.
In a race against time, five Medjay and the rebellious slave Djedar Rath must stop Tefnahkt from opening the tomb before the coming of the new moon, when Pharaoh Ankhu the Endless will awaken once more. For if he does… he will be unstoppable.
Expect to see the cover art reveal soon, and the book will also feature two illustrations, as well as a map of the regions in which the story takes place. This will occur with a much larger announcement, including a synopsis of the series.
Coming this spring!
Enjoy the preview!
Citizens gathered before the approach of a great temple where statues of the gods once overlooked every aspect of their lives. Those statues had been torn down and hacked to pieces, their stones scattered across the city. Many of the colorful hieroglyphs along the base of such statues had been slashed through and otherwise defiled, their images broken, while only desolate feet stood where mighty monuments were meant to sit or stand.
Now came a new ruler: one who did not tolerate effigies of this land’s ancient and still-reigning gods, nor of the many pharaohs who had come before him: he who defied the sacred order of all things, including the duties of Men to maintain balance and the natural cycle itself.
Down the middle of the streets marched a procession of men and horses. A chariot gilded in gold and jewels, pulled by the most beautiful of steeds wearing attires of precious metals and gems, rode in the center of the army. The wealth on the chariot alone may have amounted to more value than the accumulated possessions of every conquered soul in the crowd.
The chariot came to a halt at the far end of the cowed audience, and the man who drove it stepped out before his people. He was tall and elegant, with a face like chiseled stone, his every severe feature rivaling those of the nearby toppled statue of the god Osiris. He wore only some robes about his waist and gold ornaments around his arms and neck and ankles, freely showing much of his body. The form of a living god was something to be eternally admired… though Ankhu’s sinuous muscles and prominent veins hardly held the majesty of the perfect-bodied statues his soldiers had destroyed.
The people did not cheer for him. Silence spread across the crowd as Ankhu stepped up to a pedestal, one hastily erected by his warriors for such an occasion.
Speeches were for weak men, however. Ankhu gave no speech. He stood and looked out across his latest conquest, needing no words to prompt all those before him to kneel. Every man and woman under his stare lowered themselves to their knees, bowing until their noses touched the earth. They swore loyalty – and swore to fear him, as he commanded of all under his rule.
But still there were those who did not fear.
As he looked over his subjects, one of his own warriors lunged with sword in hand. Barely three feet separated them, giving the soldier an easy opportunity to stab his long-time ruler in the back and at last defeat Pharaoh Ankhu the Endless, God-King, Demon-Sired, High Priest of the Black Temple and oppressor of Kemhet.
Ankhu kept his gaze forward, looking out at the people. He would not even regard the man who dared stand against him. With but a wave of his hand, the soldier fell to his knees, dropping his sword and crying out in pain. Slowly, Ankhu turned to face the man as he suffered, clutching at his chest, his soul writhing within him.
Ankhu said to the denizens of the conquered city, “Gaze upon this man. He is one of your own neighbors who turned traitor to serve me in my conquest of your home. Now he raises his sword against me: a pitiful, mundane weapon.” Ankhu did not kneel to pick it up, as Ankhu knelt for nothing. Instead he gestured to another soldier, who ran over and scooped up the fallen blade, bringing it to his pharaoh.
Ankhu took it – and then, with but a glance, turned it to dust that blew away in the desert wind.
“No weapon can harm me,” said Ankhu. “No mortal can end the reign of Ankhu the Endless.” He looked out across his latest conquest – and scoffed. “When he joined my forces, this man begged me to show mercy. He pleaded with me that I might spare your homes, your families, your souls. And so I did, for I can be merciful… But now his actions have forfeited all your lives.”
Terror spread through the people before him. While some knelt frozen in confusion and fear, others began to scramble. They hoped to escape or at least hide, or even to reach the nearest horse and set off in a random direction into the mercy of the desert. Compared to Ankhu, even the bleakness of the dunes seemed welcoming.
Once again Ankhu lifted a hand, and from it flowed power unspeakable. Within moments, the skies began to blacken. Swarms of a black, swirling mass blotted out the sun – and then descended upon the city.
They were insects of hell, a plague never meant to be seen by Men. They would devour all in their path: flesh and bone, animal and crop, and their touch would spread a pestilence that couldn’t be identified nor cured.
Such was the will of Ankhu.
Alas, the will of Ankhu was all but forgotten. Eventually, the Endless found his end.
Over the course of untold years, perhaps even thousands or more, Ankhu’s reign fell into ambiguity. Statues of his might erected by the empire he had built were since torn down or otherwise defaced by his former subjects, and the passing of ages had its way of forgetting or distorting history. If anyone short of a truly learned scholar did know Ankhu’s name, they knew him only as an ancient evil pharaoh and little more than a legend… but one ancient order remembered everything.
Those whose oaths bound them to preserve such history and to remember the greatest of evils above all else were now the only force standing between past and present – standing in the face of history repeating itself. They were the order known as the Medjay.
Or so legends claimed. Not that the slaves working in the middle of the desert would know.
Day had long since passed into night, and like every night, the master kept slaves working. None would dare defy Tefnahkt the Red, owner of every slave present. But one slave’s time to rest had come at long last.
Djedar Rath finally dropped his well-worn pick. Even after being driven for so many years under the same orders and whips, this felt exceptional. So much as fetching a drink of water resulted in harsh glares and reminders to get back to work, especially for him.
Heavy arms aching and sore, Djedar finally left behind the secluded little chamber he had chosen as his personal project. The dig site where he and the other slaves worked seemed so vast they could never uncover it all, and new walls were discovered every day. They had been given orders to search every chamber for an entrance into some mysterious, larger complex. The order had been issued a week or more ago, and despite working every day and night since, they’d found nothing but more dust-coated walls and obelisks colored in hieroglyphs. Master Tefnahkt the Red was growing impatient.
False doors dotted every ruin they tried to enter. Empty rooms stood everywhere, leading to nothing. So far, they hadn’t found a way inside whatever greater structure rested deep beneath the sands. The room in which Djedar had worked all day was yet another pointless chamber, every wall lined in symbols and other sandy, almost worn-away images he hadn’t yet deciphered.
Cold night wind chilled the sweat covering Djedar’s almost naked form as he stepped into the open desert air, making him shiver. Other slaves continued to work in the light of the tall torch poles and braziers scattered over the massive dig site, but Djedar’s time was done – at least for tonight. He didn’t speak to any of them, stalking through the various projects toward one of the many camps where slaves were allowed a few hours of rest.
He passed by the current center of interest in the dig site: a treasure room, a chamber locked away behind bars golden in hue but sturdier than true gold – or any other metal they’d ever known. Warnings on the wall told of how the treasure was cursed and never to be disturbed; Tefnahkt, of course, did not care. The slaves worked there day and night, though Djedar was not allowed to do so, for fear he would sabotage the efforts due to being a ‘traitor.’
Apparently something in the room was structurally unsound. Djedar always kept his ears open, and he overheard a slave-driver shouting orders to the workers to be careful digging in the chamber, as an integral support pillar had weakened and could collapse at the smallest provocation. Interesting, but not of any importance. Not to him. All he wanted was sleep.
But as he prowled past groups of slave-drivers and armed guards, Djedar paused. Some of Tefnahkt’s men had gathered not far from his resting place. One nudged a sleeping old man with the butt of his spear.
“Get up,” the slave-driver ordered. The old man barely stirred, letting out a confused sound, half a cough and half a groggy grunt. “Get up!”
Djedar approached, though he stood just beyond the reach of the nearest torch’s light. “Enough,” Djedar said, drawing their collective glares. He didn’t balk. “He’s been sick for days.”
“Sick or no, he’s slept for six hours now,” the slave-driver retorted.
“Do you really expect a sick old man to work this time of night?” Djedar asked calmly.
His interruption drew attention away from the elderly slave, who huddled in his blankets, pulling them over his splotched, bald head. Djedar didn’t so much as glance his way, keeping his eyes trained on the slave-driver who turned toward him.
“If he’s too sick and old to work,” said the slave-driver as he took a step nearer, long whip dangling from one hand, “tell me why we shouldn’t throw him out in the desert and let him start walking. Tefnahkt the Red doesn’t waste food on the weak.”
Djedar didn’t miss a beat. “Tefnahkt the Red also doesn’t waste slaves. You don’t give the orders here.” He lifted his head higher, looking down his face at the guard. “I’ll take his place for the night.”
The man barked out a laugh. “Taking the place of a dying old man, are you? Fine. You’ll work his shift and we’ll let the useless sod take your sleep.” He nodded back to where Djedar had come from. “Go.”
With that, Djedar left. Every throbbing muscle in his body asked him why he would be so stupid. Why would he work himself to the bone even more than the masters demanded already? But he was beyond caring. Besides, he had a personal project to continue.
Making a beeline through the dig site once more, he returned to the same chamber, taking up a shovel and lantern from beside the entrance. He ducked low under the half-broken doorway before rising to his full height again in the secluded room which led nowhere.
If he didn’t have work to show the next slave-driver who checked on him, he would be punished for it. Whipped, most likely. For now, however, Djedar put aside his other tools, carrying the lantern to look along the walls again.
He couldn’t read all that incredibly well, being a mere slave essentially all his life, but he’d seen enough buildings and scrolls to teach himself a few things. Stealing the occasional text for himself also helped. Familiar symbols dotted the walls, but they only seemed like sections of the full story.
Depictions of the Old Kingdom gods lined all sides of the chamber: the many animal-headed deities of Kemhet, the Black Lands – Djedar’s homeland. Falcon-headed god Horus the Younger worked alongside the fearsome lion-headed goddess Sekhmet as they subdued a man who wore the royal headdress, the menes, like the gods themselves to indicate his divine status as pharaoh.
The first images had been scraped off the wall. The second showed the divinities putting the pharaoh in black chains to bring him before the god Anubis, judge of the dead, a deity depicted as a man with the head of a black wolf. Presiding also was Set, god of chaos – but why would Set be there?
What story did they tell?
“Rath!” another of the slaves, one who often wanted to gossip, called from the half-collapsed doorway to his left. In the corner of his eye, Djedar saw a dark shape with a familiar face look in at him. “Are you alright? Why’re you still working?”
“I like working,” Djedar answered lightly. That wasn’t true, of course.
“Weren’t you digging in here all day already? Why do you dig in there, anyway? Looks like it could collapse on you any second.”
Talking so much would draw attention to them. “I guess it could. It’s very exciting.” Djedar flashed the man a quick smile. “What’re you doing?”
The other slave scoffed, shaking his head and leaving. Flippancy usually had a way of sending off annoyances. Djedar returned to work, running his fingers along the walls, searching for any lever or button. He paused occasionally to knock the flat of his pick against the stone, listening for hollow openings behind the facade.
His curiosity went unrewarded. The chamber was a dead end. Every wall stood thick and sturdy, hiding nothing, and deterioration destroyed the colorful stories the stones once told. Still he had only the partial tale about the strange pharaoh the gods themselves put in black chains and, seemingly, judged before his mortal death.
A need to know the full story drove him to return to work – not for any slave-driver and certainly not for his master, Tefnahkt the Red, but for himself. A soft portion of the wall tempted him with potential secrets underneath, so he resumed his digging there. After the day’s work and several more hours into the night, Djedar had created a hole so deep he could nearly stand in it.
Unfortunately, that left him vulnerable. He couldn’t see the entrance anymore. Experience told him never to have his back to the door, even in the best of circumstances… but he had no choice. Exchanging his pick for a shovel and putting his lantern at the edge of the pit, he descended into the hole under the wall once more to shovel into the deep, hard earth.
Eventually, he dug deep enough that he could fit his entire tall frame into the hole and work almost upright under the stone walls of the chamber. Maybe he could even dig a tunnel out of the dig site itself and escape again. Every moment he worked, however, fear of an ambush bit at the back of his neck…
Movement. Someone entered the room behind and above him. Djedar froze, listening, hearing only one set of feet – which meant it probably wasn’t a slave-driver. They were smart enough never to walk alone near him after what he’d done. But it also meant whoever crept up on him probably wanted to kill him.
“Djedar Rath,” said a voice which dripped hatred. “The one who tried to run like a coward and a weakling and got so many of us killed. Traitors shouldn’t dig alone.”
“You can’t betray that to which you swore no loyalty,” Djedar replied, looking up to regard a slave he did not recognize.
The other slave – skinny, as slaves were – crouched over the hole with a sneer on his young, scarred face. “Most of us disagree. By being here, we’ve sworn loyalty. It’s commanded of us, by something higher than us. All is Lord Tefnahkt the Red’s will – we should be grateful that we serve him.”
Djedar nodded thoughtfully. “Yes, I’ve heard. Most of you enjoy being made into a working dog for a man who pretends to be a god.”
Outrage widened the other slave’s eyes, huge and white. He snatched up the pick from beside the hole and swung it downward. Djedar had barely enough space to jump back and avoid catching the pointed head of the pick in the top of his skull.
Before the other slave could lift the tool again, Djedar grabbed it, pulling on it so hard it jerked the man off-balance, disarming him in the process as the pick slid from the other slave’s sweat-slicked hands. Djedar dropped the extra makeshift weapon in the pit, keeping his shovel instead. He then climbed out of the hole and rose to his feet while the other slave scrambled back, gnashing his teeth in anger. Even looking up at the much taller Djedar, the slave remained defiant.
“You’ll pay for your insolence!” he spat. “They’ll reward me when I haul your body out, traitor – surely Lord Tefnahkt will know you’re more trouble than you’re worth!”
Djedar didn’t say a word. He kept the shovel in his hand but held it down to his side, watching the other slave’s every movement. He looked like a man possessed, a true believer in his cause, his stare wild and violent.
Too many slaves here didn’t care what they were digging up – they had lost their humanity along with any good hope. Any who’d managed to retain their soul had been forcibly purged from Tefnahkt’s flock long ago. Save for the occasional old slaves well past their prime, those who remained deeply believed in some greater reward from Lord Tefnahkt the Red when they found whatever he had them searching for. They worshiped their master as a greater being, a god among men, who would uplift even the lowest of slaves with his benevolence.
This man certainly believed it. Djedar didn’t.
The other slave charged forward. Djedar swung his shovel, but the other slave caught it, wrestling Djedar back a step – toward the pit he’d dug. Trying to make him lose his footing. Djedar didn’t budge, standing his ground—
His opponent tried to drive a knee up into his stomach, but Djedar twisted to one side to escape the blow, relinquishing his grip on the shovel in the process. Before the shorter man brought the shovel back around in a wide swing at Djedar’s neck, Djedar lunged forward and backhanded him across the jaw, his hand hard as a brick.
But the slave recovered faster than Djedar expected. The point of the shovel met with his side, not quite hard enough to draw blood with its dull head – but hard enough to send pain into his ribs and force him back a step again. Djedar’s lost ground spurred the other slave into a frenzy.
He charged. Djedar saw it coming and, at the last moment, side-stepped. He drove forward once the other slave missed his mark, chopping the side of his hand into the other slave’s throat. Choking and coughing, the man dropped the shovel, clutching his windpipe. Djedar took hold of the shovel, pried it free from the other slave’s weakened grip, and then used his greater height to bodily throw him right into the hole.
He went down in a heap, sputtering and kicking up sand. As the other slave struggled back to his feet and began to claw at the edge of the pit, Djedar lifted the shovel, his gaze cold. The other slave stared up at him in bewilderment, as if he hadn’t expected recompense – just before Djedar brought the tool down on the crown of his head.
A man dying was a hideous sight. The other slave went still in an instant, going limp like a ragdoll and falling back into the hole in an ugly heap of underfed limbs. Prying the shovel free of bone, Djedar silently worked to fill in the man’s newfound grave.
Burying his crime in his night’s work didn’t bode well for the review of his progress. This would have the slave-drivers believe he’d been sitting around in a dead-end room doing nothing, but his punishment would be far greater still if they discovered a corpse. His masters knew he’d been working this chamber for a while…
“Slave!” a slave-driver called from the doorway. Djedar faced him with as impassive an expression as he could muster. The slave-driver didn’t seem to care either way. He barked without really paying him much attention, “Mistress Meresamun summons you!”
Perhaps this would allow him some distance from the corpse. Djedar followed the slave-driver through the low doorway and back out into the desert night. There, all the slaves assembled on their knees, heads down, forming great rows lining the walkways around the dig site. The slave-driver behind Djedar gave him a shove toward the line, but Djedar hesitated, watching the woman who could halt all their work with the utterance of a few words.
Behind her trailed a long, red train from the form-fitting kalasirisor sheath dress she wore. It left bare her arms, pale shoulders, and glimpses of her legs to show pristinely smooth, light olive skin. Intricate makeup surrounded her dark eyes that flicked over the faces of the kneeling slaves. Gold jewelry wound its way along her upper arms and bangles hung from her wrists while a large, shimmering pectoral covered her upper chest. Beautiful of features, with long, perfectly straight hair of raven black fixed with a golden crown, one could have mistaken Mistress Meresamun for royalty rather than nobility.
Djedar blinked, then furrowed his brow. He had never seen her before. She wore red, like Tefnahkt…
“Kneel,” ordered the slave-driver at Djedar’s back. Faces of his fellow slaves, some frightened but most simply angry with his noncompliance, glared up at him.
Djedar didn’t immediately comply, earning himself a sudden crack on the back of his skull. A whip bit him, hot blood trickling through his short hair. He cringed, vision briefly blurring from the pain, but he knew better than to react. With his brief moment of defiance over, he finally knelt like all the other slaves. Unlike them, however, he didn’t bow his head.
The woman reached him then, having apparently picked up the pace when she heard the whip. She looked at him briefly before frowning over to the man who’d struck him.
“And what,” said Meresamun, “was the purpose of that?”
“He wouldn’t kneel,” the slave-driver answered.
Meresamun stared at him. “You barely gave him time. These people are not to be harmed for no reason. Am I making myself clear?”
Though Djedar didn’t look, he heard the slave-driver’s feet shuffle in the sand. “Yes, Mistress. I apologize.”
“Your feeble apology won’t fix his head, nor the illnesses you’ve been letting sicken so many. Tefnahkt paid a hefty sum for these slaves, and we’ve had more than enough die over the years, much less those… disappearances. I won’t have you abusing his property on some petty power trip.”
Meresamun turned her attention to Djedar next, looking into his eyes. Djedar knew better than to meet the gazes of his owners, but sometimes he couldn’t help himself. She seemed amused by his defiance, taking a step forward – and then grabbing him by the chin.
It took all of Djedar’s well-practiced willpower not to react. He remained still while she hummed thoughtfully, gripping him hard and pushing his head to one side, admiring his every feature. Djedar still didn’t look away from her.
“He’s strong,” she said. “Handsome, too. Is this the one that escaped?”
“Yes, Mistress,” replied another slave-driver from nearby.
Meresamun smiled. “Tell me what happened.”
“By my understanding, he was born a slave and was later purchased by Tefnahkt…”
“The short version.”
“Oh. Uh – he’s been a part of some strange events. Many slaves disappeared in a sandstorm, including women and children, leaving only him and a few others behind… plenty of slave-drivers died, too. Don’t know what exactly happened, though. I wasn’t there. He himself also escaped into the desert once, alone. Killed a slave-driver who’d been watching over him, killed two slaves who tried to stop him. How he survived with no supplies is beyond anyone, but we found him eventually and brought him back. I don’t know how long he was out there. He’s hard-working, he’s just too smart. And vicious.” The man sniffed. “He’s dangerous. If it’d been up to me, I would’ve killed him for what he did. But Lord Tefnahkt ordered us not to.”
“He was brought before Tefnahkt?”
“Many times. He’s one of the only slaves willing to speak to him, give reports. Most of them lose their nerve and start praying to him instead. Tefnahkt used to have this slave take care of his animals after the palace was built, but we’ve been short on manpower, so we brought him out to the dig a good while ago.”
Meresamun turned Djedar’s face the other way – then farther still, looking at the whip mark on the back of his head. Djedar didn’t move, though his thinning patience did prompt him to inhale a slow, deep breath. Surely she would get bored at some point.
At length, her grip on his chin turned to gentle cradling instead just before her fingers slid away along with her attention. Djedar swallowed, trying not to show his relief too obviously.
“Interesting,” said Meresamun. “He will join those going to the fortress in the morning, then, and tell Tefnahkt of the work done here. If he’s already escaped once, keep him in chains, but don’t beat him again unless he actually deserves it. Pointless cruelty costs Lord Tefnahkt time and money.”
“Yes, Mistress,” the slave-driver replied – but then he asked hesitantly, “Who is to lead this caravan?”
Meresamun gave a dismissive wave. “Tefnahkt wanted to see that man who calls himself… what was it? Something like Blacksword.”
Djedar couldn’t stop himself. “Blacksword has never led a caravan to the fortress.”
The other slave-driver moved behind him; he heard his whip slither in the sand, preparing for another strike. But Meresamun lifted a hand and stopped him, looking at Djedar where he knelt and fearlessly met her gaze.
“Why’s that a concern?” she asked.
“We lost a caravan not two weeks ago,” the chatty slave-driver behind her put in. “And we lost another one a few months before that.”
Meresamun ignored him. Her only focus was Djedar, waiting for him to respond.
“The fortress,” Djedar answered calmly, “is beyond the border of the Blasted Wastes.”
She nodded. “I know; I’ve been there. Magnificent, isn’t it? Tefnahkt took me there himself more than once.” She smiled, as if this was a friendly conversation – she didn’t even seem patronizing. She actually seemed genuine. “If Blacksword doesn’t get practice now, he won’t ever be able to lead caravans to the fortress. You seem to have a lot of experience surviving in the desert. I’m sure you can offer advice.”
Djedar scoffed but didn’t answer. As if any slave-driver would listen to advice from a slave, particularly a slave who had killed some of their own. He enjoyed the journey to the fortress well enough, being strange in his own ways and having made it a few times, but every man knew each trek could be their last. The Blasted Wastes were no place for any mortal, not even one who knew how to survive the harshest of ordinary deserts.
A dry smile tugged at Djedar’s lips. He lifted his head and asked, “And who are you, Mistress Mereasmun? I’ve been a slave of Tefnahkt for years… but I’ve never seen you. I’d certainly remember if I did.”
Meresamun laughed. “Well, you’re not likely to see me again, I’m afraid. I came to visit in case Tefnahkt himself was here, but he spends most of his time at the fortress now. That’s far too perilous a journey for me without him by my side to protect me. Crossing the Blasted Wastes, even only a few leagues, with naught but these slave-drivers to protect me is unacceptable.”
Djedar intoned a thoughtful hum low in his chest, nodding. “I see… a consort, then. His favorite, I imagine.”
She only smiled and moved away. “An impressive mouth on that one,” she commented to the slave-driver who had answered her questions earlier. “In more ways than one, too. I like him. Try not to let him die in the cursed desert.” As she walked away, still looking over the other slaves as she went, Djedar heard her continue: “I’ll return to Waset in the morning— wait. What about this one? Why was he beaten? Stop groveling for just one moment, slave…”
She stepped off the path again to examine another slave. Djedar stopped paying any attention, letting his eyes wander up to the stars instead.
They said the stars were signs from the gods, a promise they would always be there watching over. Stars showed the eternity of the deities of the Black Land. Right now, though, not even the stars nor the sliver of a moon Djedar so enjoyed brought him any comfort. Death frightened him, even if he would never admit it. Staring death in the face by wandering the desert or challenging his owners was one thing, but setting foot in the cursed desert was something else entirely.
Another caravan dared to enter the reaches of the Blasted Wastes… the arrogance of Tefnahkt the Red knew no bounds. Building a fortress out there was more than arrogant enough, outright insane in fact, but to keep sending caravans through these deserts and losing over half of them felt incredibly wasteful. It was no small wonder Tefnahkt currently possessed so little manpower, relatively speaking. How long would it be before he ended up in one of those lost caravans, instead of one of the few that actually made it?
And yet, the more he thought about it, Djedar found himself looking forward to the journey. Any chance to leave the dig site and return to the open desert once more might be worth it… even if dying one day in the Wastes wouldn’t surprise him, with Tefnahkt carelessly pushing everyone’s luck.
Starlight cast a strange glow upon the desert, lighting the bleak sands in so deep a blue that the flowing dunes looked like a painted ocean. Not so with the sprawling activity far below, however, where slaves worked themselves to the bone in the middle of those seemingly endless sands, the torchlit site of their work nestled deep within the middle of unlivable desolation.
The slaves toiled night and day uncovering ruins so ancient most never would have believed them to be real. Great blocks of sandstone erupted from nowhere in the dig site, and they had already uncovered several statues of various Kemheti gods, particularly the wolf-headed Anubis, standing watch over the long-buried structure hidden deep beneath the desert.
Others would have thought time alone had hidden the structures away. But the one who watched them from afar knew differently: these ruins had been buried on purpose, hidden from the world, sealed away and inaccessible.
From where he rested flat on his chest, the dwarf Buharum stared down at the faraway dig site, watching the slaves go about to and fro like ants.
He perched his bearded chin atop his folded hands. These Men he watched were not like him. Buharum was what they called a Bes–ak – those derived from the bearded god Bes, shortest of all gods but an important figure in the pantheon of the fertile Black Land, Kemhet. The Besak–ha, his people, had lived here for many ages.
Most people called his kind a simpler, perhaps less savory name… a dwarf.
Northerners would have jumped to the conclusion that a desert was no place for a dwarf, but not so for him and his unusual people: he had grown up here all his long life, spanning the lives of many mortal Men, and so had his ancestors. Buharum wasn’t ancient, by any means, but even he and his people considered this tomb ancient. He never imagined Men would suddenly want to dig it up. How did they even know about its existence at all?
Having lived so long, few things ever came to truly concern him. This, however, did.
“Brother,” said a voice at his back, and Buharum craned his neck to regard the speaker, “Solon wants you.”
Kukrum, Buharum’s brother by clan but not blood relation, stood just beyond the crest of the dune. Like Buharum, Kukrum was also a dwarf, not a mortal Man. Also like Buharum he had ruddy skin and a massive black beard of thick, intricate braids and bronze ornamentation covering his entire front. His suit of lamellar armor perfectly matched Buharum’s own, bronze in hue and light in make. At least, such armor was light for a dwarf. The clan-brothers also wore matching headdresses, so they almost looked like twins.
“Very well,” said Buharum as he rose up from his place in the sand, only halfheartedly dusting himself off before trudging back toward the encampment. His companions sat in a rough circle, though they had no fire around which to gather. Light would draw unwanted attention.
Three Men waited for the pair of dwarves. Kukrum chose to make himself look unimportant by standing off to the side, letting the three humans present turn their full attention to Buharum, who folded his arms over his mighty beard.
Mortal Men and immortal dwarf alike had come together in this little group, all part of something greater: the Medjay, an ancient order meant to protect the land of Kemhet, guarding its pharaoh and its people… and keeping safe its ancient secrets.
The Medjay, of course, were a much larger organization than this trio of humans and two Besak-ha. But they were the only ones who had been available to undertake this particular mission – and the Medjay as a whole remained unaware just how desperate a situation this had become. Someone actually uncovering the Tomb of Ankhu seemed impossible.
Back to the matter at hand, however, Buharum looked over his other companions. Rarely did Buharum ever see any of the Men of their group lighten up, but right now they looked so grim that he almost wanted to kick sand in their faces. Worrying themselves to death would hardly help the situation, and their lifespans were short enough already.
Their leader rose to his feet. Solon Sun-Eyes was an Imperial born in Kemhet and wholly integrated into their ways, as good as a Kemheti himself. He wore only simple white clothing, a composite bow and quiver on his back, and knife at his side. His revealing attire showed off his skin bronzed yet still fairer than many Kemhetis, as well as his heavy muscles and his sizable gut from too much Kemheti beer. Every hair on his body he kept shaved so body was perfectly slick, save for his dark eyebrows. This only served to highlight his bright hazel eyes, as well as his still more unusual tattoos.
Black, jagged tattoos covered his body in strange, disturbing, winding patterns. They touched all his limbs, his neck, and even his head and face. Runes written in the same black ink nestled between the assorted curves and prongs of the sundry designs.
Even Buharum had no idea what any of it meant, including the runic letters. Supposedly, the Dwarves had long ago mastered the art of ancient runic magic, said to be the language of the creator gods themselves. However, Buharum had never actually bothered studying it, in spite of his dwarven heritage. Far too complicated – and probably a drag.
“Buharum,” said the incredibly tattooed Solon in his voice like thunder and grinding stone, “what did you see?”
“Plenty of movement, even now,” Buharum replied. “They’re always active. I can’t see their faces from here, but I’d bet they’re as exhausted as you lot look.”
“This is no joking matter.”
Buharum shrugged. “Oh, I know it’s not. Of everything we protect, this is the most important. But…”
“But nothing,” cut in the only woman present, a knife-wielder by the name of Farrah, clad in robes of deep crimson. She hailed from Deshret, the Red Land. She flipped her long, black hair away from her swarthy face, eyes gleaming with hatred. “I watched the camp earlier. There are guards, but we’ve faced forces their size before. We could split them up and pick them off – then we go into the camp and take out the slaves.”
Solon glared at her then, his face like stone. “No. We do not harm slaves under any circumstances.”
Farrah scoffed. “Even if those slaves are helping to end the world?”
“Here now, they haven’t even found the blasted door yet, and the world’s not gonna end. You’re just catastrophizing early,” Buharum remarked. Everyone ignored him – lost in their own arguments, as usual. Leave it to them to not listen to a dwarf.
“Yes,” Solon snapped back at her.
Farrah threw her hands in the air. “Fine.”
“It wasn’t by their doing that they serve those with evil in their hearts,” Solon went on like some kind of poet, straightening the quiver on his back.
Next, the tallest and darkest figure among them spoke: the third human in the group, one who called himself Dunewalker. “Inspiring words,” he said, “but all men carry evil in their hearts.”
Everyone fell silent then, at least for a moment. Dunewalker was the eldest of the mortals present, a few years older than Solon, leaving Farrah the youngest of all. Buharum wasn’t sure of his exact age, but if Dunewalker didn’t keep his head and his face perfectly shaven like Solon, Buharum guessed he would’ve had a decent touch of grey in his hair.
Dunewalker was an impressive man, particularly given his lean musculature left largely visible in his simple outfit of a leather harness, a vest, and a metal plate strapped over his heart, along with trousers and boots. Dunewalker’s skin was darker than anyone else present, a rich ebony in hue – a rare sight in Kemhet, Deshret, or indeed anywhere outside his faraway homeland of Axa, in the deepest south. His people had no desire to travel so far as to mingle with the folk of other lands, and Dunewalker seemed to feel the same way, especially since he never shared his real name.
Everyone looked grimmer than ever, their thoughts turning inward.
Buharum rolled his eyes. “Is it a quality of not living very long that makes you all so damn serious?”
Dunewalker flashed him a quick, bright grin, though Buharum didn’t read mirth in it. “I’ve never met a Besak who loves to flaunt his immortality as you do, Buharum. What made you thatway?”
“We are all immortal, Dune,” Solon put in. “The Besak-ha aren’t taken by age, but our souls will continue their journeys when we leave these bodies behind.”
“Great,” Farrah muttered, “another sermon…”
But Dunewalker straightened up and said, “He’s right. And that’s what concerns me most – the creature and its immortal soul still trapped in that… labyrinthian tomb.”
For the first time since the conversation started, Buharum’s fellow dwarf Kukrum spoke up from the edge of their sad little camp. “Do you think those poor slaves even know what they’re digging up?”
“Would it matter if they did?” Farrah remarked. “They’re slaves. They have to do what they’re told.”
Solon went to his horse and removed a bedroll from the saddle. He returned to their sitting circle to toss the blanket to the ground, spreading it pointedly over the sand.
“Get comfortable,” he ordered. “We’ll take turns watching the dig site. You’re right, Farrah: slaves must do as they are told. That’s why we’re going to wait until a convoy leaves, bound for their master. Then, we follow that back to whoever is behind uncovering the tomb, and we put an end to this.”
An ‘end’ to what, exactly? Buharum wanted to ask as he sat down to clean his mighty crescent axe, just for something to do. But he didn’t bother voicing his question.Why anyone would want to dig up the tomb of Ankhu seemed unfathomable. The only thing in that place was death.
Death – and one of the greatest evils the world had ever known.
Sleep was all but impossible to find in a slave camp. Somehow, though, Djedar managed enough rest to awaken alert and ready to face his fate. He went with silent reservation, herded with a handful of other slaves across the eternally bustling dig site.
Day had not yet broken as they prepared to leave. Torches and lanterns still chased away the shadows throughout the dig, and exhausted slaves toiled with glazed-over eyes everywhere Djedar turned, the whips of their drivers and blind loyalty to their master keeping them working. A thin veil of early morning light, pale against the dismal deep blue sky, had only just begun to chase away the stars. It crept into the far edges of the horizon and offered hope of respite to the night-working slaves.
The walk was long, given the size of the dig. When they at last reached the convoy, Djedar didn’t find it impressive. Five horses were assembled, each intended for a slave-driver. One enclosed wooden wagon stood at the ready, two horses pulling it; the wagon was shaped almost like a small ship, not unlike some Kemheti funerary barge, which immediately put Djedar ill at ease. But it seemed at home in the sands, given its broad wheels and design suitable for desert travel.
Behind the wagon trailed a camel loaded down with supplies, tied to the hind of the wagon by a single rope. Camels were a rare sight in Djedar’s homeland of Kemhet, as the people of Kemhet considered them unclean and unfit for use even as a pack animal, preferring donkeys or oxen. Here in Deshret, however, camels were used for all sorts of purposes, even as mounts.
The slave-driver who called himself Blacksword hadn’t yet mounted his horse, marching around barking orders while spittle flew from his thick, black beard. Long curly hair of the same color hung past his shoulders, and dark, beady eyes set under a heavy brow made him look meaner than a serpent. His deeply ruddy skin told of his Deshreti birth and heritage of desert wanderers, as did his attire of robes to protect from the sun and several belts holding blades.
“Kemheti,” Blacksword barked, wheeling to glare at Djedar, “I was told you’ve traveled this way before.”
“Yes,” Djedar answered.
“I was also told you’ve survived in the desert alone for days.”
“And no one knows how you did it.”
This time, Djedar didn’t bother responding.
Blacksword continued anyway, undeterred. “I come from a tribe not far from here. My family has walked the Red Lands since long before you and whatever slave spawned you were even lifting bricks. I do not want your advice unless I explicitly ask for it, is that understood?”
Djedar replied with a smile, “I’ll remember that.”
Blacksword spat a thick wad of saliva in the sand at Djedar’s feet. Had he asked, Djedar would’ve advised him promptly that wasting his water in such a way wouldn’t get him far, no matter how long his ancestors had lived here. As it was, he didn’t say a word.
“Good,” Blacksword snapped, turning away. “Put him in chains, as Meresamun ordered!”
Two more slave-drivers came forward, heavy chains rattling in their hands. One knelt to shackle Djedar’s ankles while the other tightened irons around his wrists, connecting those to a metal ring enclosed about his neck. Djedar, like all the other slaves, wore nothing more than a shendyt, or essentially a civilized Kemheti loincloth, and the many chains bit into his bare skin.
Such elaborate restraints drew the eyes of his peers, the slaves watching from the wagon. From the looks on the faces of one or two, they knew why he wore such shackles.
But Djedar merely flashed a quick smile to the men who had put him in chains and said, “Thanks, it’s impressive. Quite the fashion statement for seeing Tefnahkt.”
“Lord Tefnahkt,” one slave corrected harshly. Djedar ignored him.
“You’ll walk alongsidethe wagon for now,” Blacksword said, motioning Djedar forward with a swing of his arm. To another slave-driver, he said, “Tie a rope so he can’t wander off.”
When a rope had been fastened around his chains, the other end tied to the side of the wagon, Blacksword was finally satisfied. Djedar didn’t comment all the while, already at work figuring out how he could escape his bonds if the need arose.
They set off in silence, save for the creaking wagon and shifting sand around the horses’ hooves. No road stretched before them for their travel as they set off in a seemingly random direction away from the dig site, into the vastness of the desert. The sand beneath them had been packed only lightly, subtle but noticeable, telling of other caravans that had come this way before – others belonging to Tefnahkt, over half of which had been lost in the desolation of the Wastes.
Hopefully they wouldn’t meet the same fate.
Resigned, Djedar walked alongside the wagon, chains rattling with every step. At least they hadn’t put a muzzle on him, he supposed, though it almost surprised him given Blacksword’s attitude. The shackles on his wrists cut into him almost as badly as the ones on his ankles, so he turned his attention outward.
Emptiness surrounded them, a sea of seemingly endless sand in all directions. Soon the dig site disappeared over the rolling dunes that still carried a faintly blue hue, so early was the morning light. The convoy moved between the dunes at a slow but steady pace. As they traveled, the sun came all too soon and lent its golden light to the desert, turning the sky a brilliant blue.
Civilization was a foreign concept to these timeless red deserts of deep Deshret, so far from anything that even the wandering tribes of the Deshreti people dared not set foot here. These lands rested on the doorstep of the Blasted Wastes, a place no mortal man should tread after its accursed fate.
Djedar didn’t know many details of its fate. He knew little of history and culture, though he learned whatever he could when he got the chance. Still, most everyone in the Southron lands knew at least some of the tales… though apparently there were those who still hadn’t heard them.
Several hours into their trek, around the time Djedar’s legs began to ache from shuffling in chains beside a horse-driven wagon traveling treacherous sands, one of the slaves riding on a seat jutting from the wagon’s side gave him a long look and said, “Are you the man who almost escaped?”
Djedar feigned ignorance, regarding the other slave with a look of wonder. “Someone almost escaped?”
The slave stared at him briefly. “They say he killed several men.”
“Well, I hope we don’t meet him. He sounds dangerous.”
“They say he wandered the desert and no one knows how he survived. No one goes out in those dunes and lives.”
Djedar shrugged, manacles clinking loudly. “We’re in those dunes right now. Are you expecting to die?”
“What? No. We have supplies and— ” He paused and stared again, then blurted, “Are you simple?”
“Relatively. I’m only a slave, after all.” Djedar side-eyed his would-be interrogator, the faintest hint of a smile playing on his lips. “What about you?”
He scoffed. “Tell me about the Wastes, if you’re so smart.”
“You’ve never made this journey before, then?”
Suddenly the other slave balked, shrinking like someone had raised a whip. “No. Is it true there are monsters that don’t feel the bite of steel?”
Djedar almost considered actually telling him what he knew: great wars long ago had corrupted the region with so much magic that it seeped into the very spirits of the land, changing them forever – everything from the sands themselves to the wildlife had become abominations, immune to most mortal weaponry. The Wastes were a place where directions made no sense and living nightmares hunted in the night, longing for the sweet taste of human flesh over all else.
But he said instead, testing the waters, “Don’t you trust the power of Tefnahkt to protect you?”
The slave perked up in an instant, puffing his chest out and answering immediately, “That’s true – you’re right. Lord Tefnahkt commands these lands. He’ll watch over us, won’t he? He watches over all who serve him, even the lowest slaves.”
Djedar snorted. “I never said he’d watch over us.”
The slave stared at him for speaking blasphemy. “Then you don’t believe?”
Well, that concluded the conversation. Djedar let his gaze wander over the horizon, watching the waves of heat shimmering in the air and focusing on putting one foot before the other.
The slave added after a moment, sounding angry, “You should believe. He’ll see us safely to the fortress – it is his bidding.”
Djedar said nothing. The dig site and beyond were in Set’s lands, the red deserts away from Kemhet’s borders, but not even Set’s merciless reach extended into the Wastes. Whatever dark god exerted his bidding over the place they were going, Djedar didn’t know, but he knew for certain it wasn’t Lord Tefnahkt the Red.
Shame the slave who spoke to him was yet another zealot. In a way, he wouldn’t have minded a conversation. Something to take his mind off his suffering, the way his feet ached and his legs burned, his throat pleading for a drink.
Then he almost collapsed.
But he didn’t. Djedar only stumbled, his assortment of chains trying to deafen him once again with their incessant clinking. He righted himself quickly, straightening up and dismissing his pained grimace to replace it with a grim stare instead.
Blacksword slowed his steed, throwing Djedar a look. He was the only slave who’d been forced to walk, so he stood out with or without restraints.
Another slave-driver looked also, then shot Blacksword a confused glare. “You let him waste away and our heads will roll for it. Lord Tefnahkt won’t hesitate to punish all of us if we let his animal-keeper die. I’m not feeding that damn elephant or anything else in his menagerie.”
“Then maybe he should be keeping the animals instead of digging,” Blacksword answered, taking a long pull from an animal skin doubtlessly full of heqet: essentially, nutritious beer.
“You know Lord Tefnahkt wants the slaves helping with the dig.”
Another moment of silence passed. Hooves beat gently in the sands, the wheels creaked on rhythmically. Djedar thought about letting himself fall just to see what they would do, but pride kept his legs moving and his head high.
“Blacksword,” the other slave-driver hissed again, insistently.
“I won’t die just because you don’t like this stupid slave,” a third slave-driver snapped. “You know Lord Tefnahkt favors that one. Whether you see his reasons or not, it is his will that the slave lives.”
Rolling his eyes, Blacksword finally gave another wave of his hand and ordered, “Put him on the wagon – and give him something to drink. We don’t need him slowing us down.”
The convoy’s pace slackened long enough for the other slaves to help Djedar. No one had lifted a finger to help him all the while, but now the slaves hurried to grab Djedar’s arms and haul him up onto an exterior seat, apparently still not warranting a resting place inside the wagon itself. One man then passed Djedar a skin of heqet, which he took and uncorked without a word, forgetting his long-fought-for dignity and drinking deeply.
Djedar lost track of time as they went ever deeper into the desert, as was wont to happen when one neared the dark magic of the Wastes. Time didn’t matter, anyway: all that mattered was staying alive. The struggle for survival took his remaining focus, as Blacksword occasionally ordered him down from his seat, forcing him to walk himself numb before his fellow slave-drivers reminded him that Lord Tefnahkt wanted Djedar alive and capable of speech.
Eventually Blacksword lost interest in him, which told Djedar they neared the Wastes. The looks of resolve and general annoyance on the slave-drivers’ faces steadily melted into fear and concern – all except Blacksword, who remained confident. Djedar couldn’t decide if that worried him more or less.
Then, things changed. The land around them became something different. Slow at first, Djedar picked up on even the subtlest hint that they neared the Blasted Wastes. It started with a strange sensation in the air, almost like humidity: not something a desert often felt. A sticky, cloying sensation settled onto his skin thicker than the sweat already coating him.
“Djedar Rath,” Blacksword called, catching his attention. “Is that your name, slave?”
“Yeah,” Djedar answered wearily. “What?”
“Consider this me asking for your whatever wisdom you’re supposed to have. Are we going the right way?”
Djedar allowed a pause before answering, “You don’t know which way you’re going?”
“I’m navigating,” snapped another slave-driver. “I’ll take care of it, Blacksword. We’re going the right way.”
Blacksword didn’t say another word, looking away from Djedar; that meant he wasn’t supposed to speak. Djedar fell silent once again, slipping back into thought.
Next, the sands began to change. The red sand steadily deepened and grew pale, becoming very faintly grey. Then, every grain around them suddenly looked ashen, until all the various blues, greens, reds, and whites worn by the convoy stood out in an almost frightening way, like they entered a world where color did not belong.
As if the utter desolation of the unforgiving red deserts in Deshret hadn’t been terrible enough, the Blasted Wastes made any man long for the comfort of at least the familiar, no matter how arid and dangerous. Because, for every peril in an ordinary wasteland, the realm that had once been the Empire of Sinkarya so long ago held ten perils more… none of them familiar.
Worse still, perhaps, was the fog. The longer they traveled, the heavier it became. As day fell into night, clouds settled around them, just as colorless as the sand under their feet. The other slaves wore masks of terror, while every slave-drivers’ hands rested on his weapons. Djedar steepled his fingers together before him and stared off into the distance, his brow knit, silent as the grave.
“Is night falling?” asked one slave, keeping his voice low like disturbing the stillness might kill him. “I can’t tell.”
“Shouldn’t we be resting by now?” said another. “I feel like I could fall off the cart.”
“Blacksword,” a slave-driver called from horseback, “let’s make camp before we go even deeper into this accursed place.”
Blacksword roughly pulled his steed to a halt, wheeling to face the convoy he led. “Make camp!” he shouted. “Tomorrow we ride day and night! See that the animals are fed first and keep the slaves together!”
The wagon halted on a flat patch of sand away from any dunes, the slave-drivers dismounting and motioning the slaves off their seats to help set up camp. Djedar leapt down and watched everyone hurry around him, bringing out supplies for the horses first while others set up a perimeter.
No one paid him any heed; he couldn’t help, shackled as he was. Djedar wandered to the back of the wagon and looked at the camel standing there chewing gods-knew-what, as they hadn’t passed even a thorny shrub for days. Djedar lifted a hand, and the camel lowered its nose into Djedar’s touch.
“You wouldn’t get far on that beast,” remarked a nearby slave, “if that’s what you were hoping, traitor.”
Djedar gave a low chuckle, but he didn’t answer.
Everything seemed reasonably alright until Blacksword gave another shout— “Asan, get over here!” The slave beside Djedar immediately went to answer the call, but Blacksword kept issuing orders. “All of you, set up torches around the camp! Keep them lit all night, I don’t want a single one going out!”
Those words sent Djedar’s stomach dropping so low that his gnawing hunger, which bordered on starvation, was instantly forgotten. Blacksword patrolled around the camp on foot, one hand gripping the hilt of his namesake black khopesh sword sheathed at his hip: a wicked crescent-shaped and axe-like blade, curved but still bearing a vicious point at the end despite its relatively squared-off tip. Djedar gave Blacksword such a deep stare that it drew his attention.
“What?” prompted the head slave-driver.
“Torches aren’t a good idea,” Djedar answered.
Blacksword laughed, his yellowed teeth colorful against the grey world. “Fire drives away animals, Rath.”
“These aren’t animals. The creatures that live here understand fire; they don’t fear it. If you set up torches, you’re as good as inviting them to a banquet.”
Yet again Blacksword waved his hand. “Go to sleep, slave.”
With that, he turned away and resumed barking orders. Djedar scoffed, setting his jaw, but he said no more. He retrieved his bedroll and threw it underneath the body of the wagon, spreading it out with difficulty thanks to the chains still squeezing his wrists.
“What are you doing?” asked the same slave who’d spoken to him during the journey, the one who really thought Tefnahkt would keep them safe. “You really are simple, aren’t you?”
“Simplytrying to stay alive,” Djedar replied, flashing the slave a brief smile.
“You’re like a child hiding under his bed.”
“Under the bed is where the monsters live. Your mother didn’t tell you that?”
The slave laughed. “That makes even less sense. Why would you hide under there, then?”
“Because in the Wastes, the monsters don’t hide, so under the bed is vacant – and I’ll be taking it.” Djedar lifted one shackled hand, kissed where his thumb rested against the middle of his forefinger, and used that to motion a smooth gesture like a salute off his forehead. “Good night.”
The bewildered slave watched Djedar crunch his tall self to squeeze between the wagon wheels and then underneath the length of the cart’s body, stretching out so he wouldn’t get run over if it moved. Bending down, the slave insisted upon staring at him some more. Djedar quirked a long, dark eyebrow and stared right back.
“No, I’m not sharing, if that’s what you’re going to ask.”
“You’re insane,” declared the slave.
Djedar frowned. “I thought I was simple.”
The man shook his head and moved off, finally. Thanking the gods for his relative solace, Djedar at last attempted to get some rest.
Not long after he drifted into a faint and unrestful slumber, still plagued by thoughts, a sound pulled him from his poor attempt at sleep.
He opened his eyes to an even darker desert night, fog masking the moon and stars from view. Only a faint spill of pallid glow, distilled by the strange mist, lit the grey sands. The light of the torches around the halted convoy still burned, casting an orange haze by which one could see hints of the nothingness around them.
A whisper drifted over the camp. Djedar knit his brow and sat up as far as he could without hitting his head on the underbelly of the wagon, looking around. Everyone else still slept, various slaves and slave-drivers snoozing on their bedrolls, scattered around in the ring of torches. A few seemed uneasy, shifting now and then, perhaps partially awake – but clearly not awake enough to hear…
“Djedar,” a voice called, sounding almost otherworldly. It sounded almost like Blacksword, and yet the more he thought about it, the more he knew it wasn’t the lead slave-driver. This voice breathed his name half through his nose and half in his throat, ending it in a hiss that sent a chill up Djedar’s spine. Cautiously, Djedar dragged himself out from under the wagon, sand partially masking the sound of his assorted chains.
Nothing moved. There were still no signs of life around them. A quick gust of wind stirred the ashen sands, sending air too cold even for a desert night billowing over the camp and disturbing the many blankets and bedrolls. The horses woke, shifting on their feet, and the torchlight danced ominously.
Then two torches went out.
It made Djedar start, whirling to face the sudden darkness. But nothing moved there, either – at least, not anything he saw.
“Djedar, come to me,” the voice whispered again like someone stood right over his shoulder. His skin prickled along his neck, and he turned again to face the sound – only to see that two more torches had gone out.
They were being hunted.
“Horus have mercy,” Djedar muttered under his breath.
Finally, a few others in the caravan started to stir. Another slave nearby sat up, blinking in alarm.
Then came the voice again. “Asan,” it called. The slave beside Djedar reacted instantly, looking in the direction of the voice that sounded so like and yet unlike their leader, Blacksword.
Without a word, the slave Asan got to his feet and began marching right toward it – away from the remaining ring of torches. Djedar didn’t move, but he snapped, “What’re you doing?”
“Blacksword calls,” replied Asan. “You may not care about your duties to Lord Tefnahkt, but I do. Blacksword serves his will.”
And he resumed walking. Against his better judgment, Djedar blurted, “Go out there and you’ll walk right down a monster’s throat.”
“Monsters can’t speak,” Asan scoffed, but regardless, Djedar’s words made him hesitate…
At least until the voice called again, sounding so much like Blacksword that even Djedar almost wondered. “Asan – come. Now!” it beckoned.
And so the slave went. No longer hesitating, he strode right out into the fog. Djedar almost had to admire how the depths of Asan’s stupidity lent him such bravery—
He heard a distant crunch. No scream broke the stillness at any point, but Djedar knew the muffled meaty crack of a human neck. Such a sound was unmistakable.
Then something laughed.
It wasn’t a human laugh. It wasn’t the cold chuckle of an assassin, nor the triumphant laugh of a warrior. It was a distorted noise, throaty and undulating, first high almost like a hyena and then so low it resembled the deep baying of a hound, and yet not familiar like either. Djedar didn’t have to see its source to know such a voice was not of this world.
His blood ran cold, and for a moment, he couldn’t make his own muscles move.
More slaves awoke, and something thudded within the wagon. Blacksword came staggering out, still wearing all his gear. He looked around with wild eyes before his gaze settled hard on Djedar, but only briefly. Another slave-driver woke up nearby, and Blacksword turned to him instead.
“Who said that?” he asked.
“I didn’t hear anything,” replied the other slave-driver.
Djedar ignored all of them. He took the general confusion as a chance to search the camp. One slave-driver had a long, straight-bladed knife in a dark sheath near his pillow. Djedar scooped it up, tucking it less than comfortably behind the front of his belt. If Blacksword saw a knife on him, he wouldn’t have it long.
“Blacksword?” called one of the slaves, catching Djedar’s attention again. He started off into the desert like the first man, disappearing into the mist.
“No, you idiot – I’m here!” Blacksword bellowed after him. “Get back here!”
Too late. Up went a scream this time, piercing the night – the wrenching cry of a man’s final shout before his death. Then came the meaty crunch, this one louder than the first.
“Fools! Stay in the camp!” Blacksword ordered, drawing his blade. “Stay close to the wagon – no one is ordering you out into the desert!”
But Djedar hesitated. He watched the slave-drivers usher the remaining slaves back around the wagon. The horses snorted and stamped at the sand, ears flat against their heads. If he ever were to escape, this would be a perfect chance. But to escape out into the Wastes…
“Djedar,” the voice whispered practically in his ear. He cringed and hurried back to the convoy, though the shackles around his ankles slowed him down. No – he couldn’t escape. Not right now, not while they were being hunted—
Something lunged from the mist.