The gods have agreed to a divine contest and prepared the Grand Arena. Now each god must choose a champion from among their mortal followers. The champions have one thing in common: all of them were extraordinary, well before they gained a god’s attention. We have already met Lysander, Champion of Light.
Today we meet Neferu, who will become the Champion of Death.
Chapter 3: Neferu’s Origin — Blessed Rest
by Kelly Digges
Neferu marches in time with her squadmates, her sandals crunching on dry soil that once belonged to her ancestors.
They’re singing a bawdy marching song about a fellow whose horses were too small for his chariot, an old favorite of Anubian soldiers. Harnakhte, a lean young man with a rich baritone from far up-river, knows more verses than Neferu has ever heard.
The column of soldiers crests a hill. The song unravels, thread by thread, as the soldiers spot their target in ones and twos. The drums still beat, feet still march in time, but the merriment is gone.
“That’s it, isn’t it?” asks Mayati, a barrel of a woman who talks sometimes about her kids back on the wheat farm.
Below them, where the desert gives way to the sea, is a sprawling harbor town whose architecture is distinctively Olympian in style.
“That’s it,” says Neferu. “The Olympians call it Munos, but its real name is Mukhnod. They took it from us after the Battle of Red Sand.”
“Here comes another history lesson,” groans young Inebni a few rows back, loud enough for her to hear.
“I’ll spare you,” says Neferu, smiling. “I’ll play tour guide instead. See up there, in the highlands above the city?”
Her squadmates crane their necks, trying to see where she’s pointing without falling out of formation.
Twin sandstone obelisks rise above the city with a narrow gap between them. From here their size is impossible to guess, but Neferu knows from old pictures that the “narrow” gap is wide enough for three people to lay down head to toe.
“Those are our monuments, and they’ve been here for a thousand years,” says Neferu. “At the summer solstice, you can stand in the city’s central plaza and watch the sun rise directly between the obelisks.”
“Why didn’t the Olympians knock ‘em down?” asks gruff Penemun, who favors simple solutions.
Neferu shrugs in time with the march.
“Wasn’t worth the effort, I suppose,” she says. “I assume they at least rubbed the carvings off. But if anybody needs proof that this is our land… look up there. We were here first.”
“Yeah, well,” says Penemun, “I don’t think the Olympians’ll see it that way.”
Neferu’s hand tightens on the handle of her sheathed sword.
“No,” she says. “I don’t expect they will.”
The two armies crash together on the plains outside the city in the shadows of those Obelisks. They’re not far from where Pharaoh Webensu II lost his army, and the coast with it, staining the sands red with blood. Neferu’s own ancestors had been among them, according to family legend. Now, at last, redemption is at hand.
“For Anubia!” shouts Neferu, echoed by the rest of the squad. “For the pharaohs!”
The Olympians fight like cowards as always, shields locked together, swords biting from between them. But the heavy chariots at the fore of the Anubian host shatter the Olympian defensive line, and Neferu and her squad pour into the breach in a roaring flood of bronze.
Neferu’s long, curved khopesh lashes out again and again, trapping a sword on its inner curve here, slicing deep into muscle there. Her small shield shifts constantly, keeping enemies guessing. She keeps moving, dancing to an unseen rhythm. To her squadmates it must seem she is everywhere at once, blocking a high strike or disemboweling an enemy before twirling away.
A few blows skid off her bronze armor, but she is moving too quickly for a solid hit to land. Her slower companions are not so untouchable. Harnakhte is first, his throat slashed, pumping blood. Neferu wonders if anyone else knows all those verses to The Charioteer’s Lament.
No. Don’t get distracted. I am Death—unknowable, unstoppable.
They’re facing the elite guard of Munos now, the best trained and the best equipped. Gods, how had that happened? They were auxiliaries, second-line troops hoping to work their way up. Had they cut that deeply into the Olympian formation? Or had the Olympians cut that far into theirs?
No. Focus. I am Death.
Mayati goes down next, a spear through her shoulder. She might recover, might yet return to her farm and her children. But Neferu can’t pause to find out. Certainly not to help. She hardly registers it except as a tactical reality.
I am Death. I will fight.
Then Inebni goes down in a spray of blood, and Neferu’s battle-trance begins to waver. Young, sweet Inebni, who always talked about “after this is over.” Gods.
Neferu and Penemun fight back to back now, the Olympians closing in around them with their horse-hair plumes and their gleaming bronze. Neferu has never liked Penemun. Far too cynical, and not a good enough soldier to make up for it. But now he is her lifeline, the wall at her back, the defense that must not falter.
I am Death. I will not surrender. I will fight forever, if I must.
“It was a good run,” says Penemun, gasping for breath.
“Shut up and fight,” says Neferu. “It’s not over!”
“Oh, I think it is,” he mumbles.
Then Penemun falls backward against her, knocking her off-balance, and she has just enough time to glimpse a shining bronze sword swinging toward her head.
I am Death.
The last thing she hears is the sound of her own skull giving way.
Neferu walks alone through the darkness. A sun shines in the sky—she feels its heat—but it is not the sun she knows. It is a pale imitation of the god of the sun. It illuminates nothing, and stars shine in the blackness that surrounds it.
Her sandals crunch on soil that is not soil. Her khopesh is heavy in her hand. How did she get here? Where is here?
None of that matters. She has to keep moving.
Something is howling in the distant dark behind her, many somethings. The howling seems to grow closer with every step she takes, but if she stops, they will catch her.
Then they are in front of her too. Daemons of every possible description rush out of ruined towers jutting from the sand and climb down enormous chains that reach into the sky. Some of them mix human and animal parts. Others are just bones jumbled together, rattling and clattering.
And all of them are trying to catch her. To devour her. She does not know how she knows this, but she is as certain of it as she has ever been of anything.
There is an oasis in the distance, a pool of glittering water. She runs toward it.
There are more of them now, and she has to cut them down in her path, to weave and dodge and duck. Their leader is a great crocodile-headed monstrosity. Sothek, Barrer of Paths, who loves life but torments the dead. Sothek laughs as he directs his monstrous children.
I am Death! I am dead.
Finally, the endless starlit sand gives way to bright, clean water. With one last push, she flings herself toward the oasis. She plunges into the cool, crystal water, tumbling down, holding her breath.
Then her feet settle on stone, and she can breathe. There is nothing here, not even stars.
A massive ogre-thing looms over her. Anhotep, Embalmer of Souls. He judges the dead, to find who is worthy of the Blessed Rest and who will be cast back out into the darkness. He shows no emotion as his massive hand reaches into her chest and pulls out her heart—her own heart, she would know it anywhere. It bleeds, but it shines.
Anhotep clutches the heart in one hand. With the other, he plucks a tail feather from a great black vulture, which squawks at the indignity. He closes his eyes as he holds his arms out—the heart in his right hand, the feather in his left.
His eyes shoot open, twin orbs of green light.
WORTHY, he says, and then the light in his eyes consumes her.
Neferu opens her eyes.
She’s lying on her back, staring up into a blue sky. Is the battle over? Did she survive?
Neferu reaches up to touch the right side of her face, expecting to find either bandages or a mass of blood and agony. But no. Her skin is unmarred, her skull intact. She has eyes, plural.
I really am dead, then.
She takes a deep breath—dry, but not too hot, and scented with flowers—and sits up, ready to face whatever trials await her.
Palm trees line a plaza of polished gray stone shot through with veins of silver. There are people in the distance, relaxing on lounges and pillows, but they are too far away to speak to, and she ignores them for now. Beyond the trees is the River, the only River, steady and wide. And all around, on every side, are monuments she has never seen before.
She is sitting on a slab of unadorned sandstone, out of place in this paradise. She stands up, trying to look in every direction at once.
The plaza is surrounded by obelisks and pyramids, statues of both human and beast, all made from different stone in different styles. There are small busts and towering steles, and there, in the distance—
“The Arch of Amenmose!” she breathes. She’s heard stories about it—a gleaming stone arch, impossible by any known principle of construction, that supposedly once spanned the entire width of the River.
She looks around, eager to share her excitement, but the people lounging in the shade of the palm trees look bored. Some of them are asleep.
A servant in plain white garb walks past her carrying a tray laden with fruit and a clay jar of wine.
“You,” she says. She tries to grab the man’s arm.
He shrugs out of her grip and keeps walking, the tray hardly wavering. She never even sees his face.
She follows the man across the plaza, over a bridge across a small artificial stream, and at last to a portico where half a dozen figures lounge on chairs. The servant kneels before one of them, who takes a few grapes.
The lounging figures are finely dressed, with regal bearing. Some of them look familiar.
“What is this place?” asks Neferu. “What are you all doing here?”
The lounging people look around at one another, until one of them deigns to speak.
“The Blessed Rest,” he says.
“Hence,” says another, an older man, “the resting.”
The Blessed Rest. The afterlife of the honored dead.
“You’re dead,” says a woman.
“I’m… I’m worthy?” says Neferu. “But I’m so young. I had so much more to do.”
“You’ll get used to it,” says the woman, looking at her for the first time. “Being dead, I mean. What’s your name? What did you do?”
“I’m Neferu. I was in the army, fighting to take Mukhnod back from the Olympians, when I… when I died. Who are you?”
“Takhat the Forgotten,” says the woman. “That’s Iusenheb IV behind me, and over there a ways, if I’m not mistaken, is Webensu II, the Hero of Mukhnod himself.”
“These… these are pharaohs?”
The woman shrugs, rising up onto her elbows.
“Most of them,” says Takhat. “Some high priests, some great warriors, and… you, apparently.”
“What about the servants?” asks Neferu. “Who are they?”
Takhat gestures for the servant to attend Neferu. As he rises and turns, Neferu sees that he has no face, just a blank expanse of smooth brown skin. She stumbles backwards.
“They’re not anyone,” says Takhat. “Nobody but the worthy are allowed in, and it’s not as though the worthy are going to serve. These are just phantoms.”
“What about you?” asks Neferu. “What did you do, to… to be worthy?”
“I was a pharaoh too,” she says.
“I know the Recitation of the Pharaohs,” says Neferu. “You’re not in it.”
“That would be why they call me ‘the Forgotten.’”
“How is that possible?” asks Neferu. “And why?”
Takhat rises and gestures for Neferu to walk with her, beneath the palms.
“I was the first woman pharaoh,” she says. “I know it’s normal now, but this was before Djehutmose changed the inheritance laws. No one ever thought I’d take the throne, and the priests in particular didn’t care for it.”
“How’d it happen?” asks Neferu.
“My father was Iusenheb II,” says Takhat. “One of my four brothers was supposed to succeed him, but… well, they all happened to meet unfortunate ends.”
Takhat smiles like a lioness.
“Iusenheb II had no living children,” says Neferu. “He was succeeded by his nephew, Iusenheb III.”
“Officially, yes,” says Takhat. “But my cousin was only three when my father died. I was pharaoh for fourteen years. Built my own monuments. Reformed the coinage. And then… well, then the priesthood assassinated me, defaced my statues, and retroactively declared that the high priest had been regent for my cousin the whole time.”
“But you were the pharaoh!”
“I was,” says Takhat. “History has forgotten me, but my monuments and I are here. Along with all the other dead pharaohs and all the other monuments lost to the sands.”
The monuments! These are the lost monuments of Anubia, the ones that didn’t make it. So many of them…
“We’re all here, you know,” Takhat continues. “All the pharaohs, even the forgotten. Even the monstrous. Don’t suppose you learned about them, either.”
“A few,” says Neferu. “Always at the end of a dynasty. Maakha the Cruel.”
“Ah yes,” says Takhat. “The unfortunate exceptions that prove that sometimes dynastic change is necessary, but that time is never now, because at least the pharaoh’s not literally serving the commoners for dinner. At any rate, they’re here too. Even him.”
Neferu turns slowly in a circle, taking in the languorous luxury of it all.
“What do you… do here?”
“Whatever we want,” says Takhat. “Usually when someone new arrives there’s a lot of debauchery at first. Fighting, drinking, orgies, whatever they couldn’t get enough of when they were alive. After that… well, the novelty fades. Don’t ask me what Maakha gets up to, though—I don’t want to know, and neither do you. Most of us just rest, which is the one thing nobody gets enough of when they’re alive.”
She gestures around the plaza at the resting people.
“Some take up hobbies. My grandnephew is building a scale model of the entire empire as it looked when he was alive. He started with the capital, but then he finished with that and just… kept going. All the little people move, the River flows. When the grain is ready, they harvest it with tiny scythes. It’s quite something.”
“What’s the point of that?”
“What’s the point of anything?”
Neferu grabs Takhat’s arm, and Takhat looks down at her hand like it’s leperous.
“I fought and died so Anubia could be free!” hisses Neferu. “Not so dead pharaohs could build sand castles and lay around in the sun!”
Takhat brushes Neferu’s hand from her arm.
“What we do here,” says Takhat coldly, “has nothing to do with what we did there.”
“That’s ridiculous,” says Neferu. “This is the point of it all, isn’t it?”
“Exactly right,” says Takhat. “This is the point of that, not the other way around. You live a good life so you can get here, and then your reward is to do… whatever you want.”
“What I want,” says Neferu, “is to keep fighting for Anubia. For my people. For our history and our future.”
“You can conjure up armies of Olympians to fight,” says Takhat, with disinterest. “Sack Parthon. Make goblets out of their skulls. Have fun.”
Neferu steps back from Takhat. Suddenly the ancient pharaoh’s skin seems too perfect, her eyes too bright. None of this is real.
“I didn’t fight the Olympians for fun,” says Neferu. “I fought to take back what was once ours. For Anubia, the real Anubia, not… not this echo.”
“We all did,” says Takhat. “I did, anyway. But once we’re here… that part’s over.”
“So you just lay here!” says Neferu.
She is shouting now, not just at Takhat but at all of them, at this whole damned afterlife full of shriveled old husks. Other exalted dead are stirring from their reverie to watch her, without much interest.
“Lounging beneath remembered monuments and chewing on the dreams of grapes! Feasts and orgies and boredom, while your people—your descendants, my fellow soldiers, me—fight and die to preserve what’s left of your legacy!”
There are a few frowns, a handful of thoughtful nods. None of them look angry, really. Why bother? What’s the point of anything? These people are ghosts.
“Shame on you!” she yells. “Shame on all of you, lying around here while the Anubia you helped build crumbles to dust! Not one of you deserves this afterlife, because anyone who deserves it couldn’t stand it here!”
None of the dead respond. Takhat at least does her the courtesy of looking guilty.
“Send me back,” says Neferu quietly.
“Send me back!”
“You’re dead,” says Takhat. “You can’t go back. If you leave here, the only place to go is out into the dark that brought you here. And there’s no escaping that.”
“Fine,” says Neferu. “Then that’s what I’ll do.”
She feels the weight of her khopesh at her hip. It wasn’t there a moment ago, but now her mind is made up.
“You’ll be devoured by Sothek and his spawn,” says Takhat. “You won’t be proving anything. Every one of us fought our way past the guardian daemons to get here, you know.”
“And all of you made it?” asks Neferu. “Not one faltered? Not one decided to turn back?”
“Not as far as I know,” says Takhat. “Not any of the pharaohs.”
“Well, that tells me all I need to know,” says Neferu. “I’m not going to spend eternity here.”
She turns, and there’s a gate at one end of the plaza now, two enormous stone doors propped open to show an all-consuming darkness beyond.
“Enjoy your pointless paradise,” says Neferu. “You deserve it.”
She turns and begins to walk toward the gate.
“Wait,” says Takhat.
Neferu keeps walking.
Neferu pauses, but doesn’t turn back to the dead pharaoh.
“She’s got a point,” says Takhat, loud enough for everyone to hear.
That elicits some mumbling, among the assembled dead. But only mumbling.
“I’ll take you back,” says Takhat.
More mumbling, at this, and now Neferu does turn around.
“Take?” she asks. “Not send?”
“There are rules,” says Takhat. “They’re not easily broken. I’ll have to go with you. Probably we’ll have to fight our way back.”
“You mean you’ll go with me through the Realm of the Dead?” asks Neferu. “Give up this place and stay in the outer darkness?”
“I mean I’ll take you out of the Underworld entirely,” says Takhat. “All the way back to your body.”
“Why are you doing this?” asks Neferu.
Takhat shrugs again.
“Because you’re right,” she says. “And it’s damned boring here.”
Neferu nods, and the two women walk through the gate together, ready to brave the guardians and return to the land of the living.
Neferu draws a ragged breath and opens her eyes.
She’s lying on her back on an uneven surface, staring up into an orange sky streaked with black smoke. Something heavy rests on top of her, and everything smells like death and burning. Is the battle over? Did she survive?
Neferu frees one hand and reaches up to touch the right side of her face, wondering if she dreamed it all. The skin is unmarred, the skull intact. What…?
I fixed it, says a voice in her head. Had to, or your brain was just going to fall out again.
“Takhat?” breathes Neferu.
I’m here with you, says the voice. I am you. We are one. And we won’t be found worthy when we die again. Not after what we’ve done.
Neferu struggles to free herself. She shoves one of the heavy things off of her, and then she realizes—
Bodies. Gods, she’s in a pile of the Anubian dead. Probably so they can be burned.
Half-panicked, she pushes and shoves until she can free her other arm, then digs herself out. She’s covered in blood and dirt and worse things.
Mayati is lying there, eyes glassy, the spear still sticking out of her shoulder.
“Get up, Mayati,” says Neferu, breathing heavily.
Harnakhte is there too, his breastplate stained with dried blood, that beautiful voice of his fallen silent. Penemun is next to him, arms cradling a gaping stomach wound. They’ve been dead for hours. She was dead for hours. She was dead.
I am Death.
“Get up!” snarls Neferu.
She takes a step backward and trips over another body, tumbling to the ground. Inebni. Young Inebni, limbs bent at odd angles, face half-covered in blood, eyes staring at nothing.
“Get up and fight!” shouts Neferu, shaking Inebni’s body. “Why won’t any of you get back up?!”
Neferu weeps hot tears that fall onto Inebni’s silent body.
They’re dead, says Takhat. What you’ve done… You can’t expect it of everyone. But I can help you.
Neferu stands. There’s shouting in the distance, Olympian soldiers coming to investigate the noise she made. Neferu’s fist clenches.
“Get up,” say Neferu and Takhat together.
Pale green light pours out of Neferu’s clenched hand. The light drifts like smoke, down into the mouths of the dead—Mayati and Harnakhte and sweet Inebni and hundreds more.
As she uses Takhat’s power, Neferu feels the right side of her face twisting and tightening, taking on some horrifying aspect she cannot see.
That’s my face, says Takhat. It’s the only one I had to give. I’m afraid it’s a little past its prime.
Hundreds of eyes open, shining with pale green light. Hundreds of mouths draw ragged breaths. The Anubian dead rise to their feet, and Neferu-and-Takhat smiles.
“I am Death.”
Neferu steps into her tent, closing the flap behind her. Her troops, the living ones, are settled for the night, gathering around campfires to eat their rations, drink beer, and sing bawdy songs. The rest of her soldiers… well, they need their rest too. The priests will repair their wrappings and apply new sealant, then stow them in racks for the night. The past is a powerful weapon, and like any weapon, it must be cared for.
Neferu and Takhat are one, and Neferu does not often hear the forgotten pharaoh’s voice in her head. The mummy’s face is hidden too, except when she draws on the deepest and darkest power that Takhat once wielded.
Mukhnod is Anubian again, fallen to those who died in the initial Anubian assault. Moving inland, her army took Mokhtar, Setau, and Ankhef. Now she and her troops are marching across the sands of the Thanakris to catch the rest of the Olympian coastal colonies unawares. Neferu has stared at the map of the desert so long that she sees it when she closes her eyes, tracing the careful routes between hidden oases that her people have kept secret for centuries.
Something shifts in the darkness, and a chill overtakes her. Her hand flies to her sword hilt.
“Relax,” says a voice in the shadows. “You know who I am.”
The lamp in the tent springs to life on its own, giving off a strange greenish light, and Neferu sees a figure in the far corner. A woman, with horns.
Malissus. The Goddess of Death.
Neferu draws her khopesh.
“Lady Malissus,” says Neferu. “I’ve been wondering when you would pay me a visit.”
“Mmm,” says Malissus. “Not a lot of souls have done what you two did, you know. Giving up the Blessed Rest. Clawing your way back to the world of the living. It’s impressive, I’ll grant you that.”
“But now you’re here to collect,” says Neferu. “Well, I’m not going back without a fight.”
Malissus laughs, a silvery, delighted laugh that reminds Neferu of funerary bells. Neferu’s hand goes numb, and her khopesh drops to the ground with a clunk.
“It wouldn’t be a fight, dear child,” says Malissus. “But I don’t want to return you to the Realm of the Dead, either of you. On the contrary, I applaud your dedication.”
“Then why are you here?” asks Neferu-Takhat.
Malissus smiles wide.
“I need a champion,” she says. “A mortal to represent me among the gods.”
“You’re offering me the job?” asks Neferu.
“Indeed,” says Malissus, smiling even wider. “You see, you did break the rules. Keeping souls in the Underworld is my domain. My nature. I can’t have anyone escaping, not even for good reasons. Not even if I agree with them.”
Neferu is still in fighting stance, even without her khopesh. Of course Malissus can snuff her in an instant. But that doesn’t matter.
I am Death. I will fight.
“But if you were my champion…” says Malissus, “then the rules would not apply. You see?”
“So you’re not really giving me a choice.”
“Quite the opposite,” says Malissus. “I’m giving the two of you a choice no other escaped soul has ever had. Return with me to the Underworld for a notably less luxurious eternity—or, wield my power with my full support, in pursuit of both your goals and mine.”
Malissus holds out one hand.
Neferu takes it, and green fire burns through her body.
“You are my champion,” says Malissus.
Neferu-Takhat smiles, and the right side of her face twists, for a moment, into a mummy’s grin.
“I am Death,” she says, and knows that it is true.
Kelly Digges is a narrative designer and creative consultant for games, with 90 credits across more than 50 products for Magic: The Gathering and other games. Find him on Twitter at @kellydigges.