Part 1: The Balance in Blood
By Kelly Digges
The broad-bottomed Anubian merchant boat has finally docked and cleared customs. Neferu, Champion of Death, looks around warily as she steps off the boat and into enemy territory.
This city’s people call it Syrapolis, named after its conqueror, but Neferu’s maps call it by its traditional Anubian name of Djafu. Neferu wonders if there are any in the city who still know that name, after a hundred years of occupation.
The oldest buildings in the city are made of Anubian stonework. Many of the people in the streets are Anubian, but all of them dress like Olympians. The place is a hodgepodge, and it makes Neferu’s hair stand on end.
Neferu is wearing a nondescript white cloak, but it does not fully conceal her Anubian armor, and Olympians and Anubians alike turn their heads to gawk at her.
You might have disguised yourself a little more thoroughly, says a voice in her head. Takhat the Forgotten, the first woman pharaoh of Anubia, whose statues were smashed and her name erased from history after her death. Also a necromancer, a murderer, and Neferu’s constant companion since they escaped together from the land of the dead. Neferu owes Takhat everything, but they are not friends.
Like hell, thinks Neferu. I should be sacking this place, not skulking through it like a thief.
Neferu has entered three Olympian cities now as a conqueror and liberator, but this is her first time visiting one as a civilian. Her sword-arm twitches at Olympian faces, Olympian voices, Olympian symbols.
We have a job to do, Takhat replies smoothly. And indeed they do—to find the First Pillar of Creation somewhere in the deepest desert and defeat the dragon that lives atop it. An encounter with the Champion of Magic had supplied Neferu with the clues she needed to find the Pillar’s location.
We have an errand to run, says Neferu. It’s a waste and a distraction, and the sooner we’re done with it, the sooner I can get back to my real work.
We face a sacred trial, given by the gods, says Takhat, gently scolding. I’ve no love for this task either, but don’t get any of your blasphemy on me.
Neferu grunts and lets the matter drop.
She heads for the city’s market, not far from the docks, to buy supplies for the journey ahead. Stalls line a busy market street, selling everything from fresh dates to camel saddles. Many of the wares are familiar to her, more Anubian than Olympian—the Anubian coast yields what it yields, whoever might currently claim it. But the food is prepared in a mix of styles, and the clothing and jewelry are nearly pure Olympian, with only a few grudging concessions to the sand and heat. And the soldiers who patrol the streets in scattered two and threes… their swords and shields are certainly Olympian.
Neferu browses the stalls, buying dried fruit and meat, a spare pair of sandals, some climbing gear, and an expensive compass. Water will come last, along with a donkey or a camel to carry it. The merchants eye her clothing with suspicion, but they take her coin readily enough.
It almost doesn’t feel like occupied territory, thinks Neferu. Most of these people look… happy.
Neferu feels Takhat’s shrug ripple through her shoulders as she watches a pair of Olympian soldiers step into an alley.
They probably are, says Takhat. A city’s memory stretches only as far back as its people’s, and these people were all born under Olympian rule. Probably a lot of them consider themselves Olympians.
Well they’re wrong, replies Neferu, giving a glare and a coin to an Olympian fruit-seller. This is Anubian territory. We built this city. They stole it. A long time ago, sure, but that doesn’t make it theirs.
I’m just wondering—
Takhat breaks off as the sound of yelling reaches Neferu’s ears. A woman and two men… coming from the alley where the Olympian soldiers went. The sound pierces the din of the market, but everyone looks away, pretending not to hear.
Not wise, says Takhat, but Neferu is already stalking toward the alley.
She rounds the corner to find two soldiers with their backs to her, and a young Anubian woman cornered against one wall of the alley. The woman’s basket is on the ground, its contents scattered. She is yelling at them to stop, to leave her alone, to bother someone else.
Before Neferu realizes what she’s doing, her khopesh is out and swinging toward the nearest guard’s back. The woman’s eyes go wide.
“Don’t!” she yells, just in time.
Neferu adjusts her grip and strikes the man on the head with her pommel, shooting the woman a glare. He groans and falls on his face. The other soldier, an Olympian, whirls to face her, but Neferu sweeps his legs out from under him and whips her khopesh down to rest against his lips.
“Not a sound,” she tells him.
“Are you out of your mind?” the woman growls at her. “These are the Archon’s soldiers! Do you know how much trouble I’ll be in?”
“I… I thought they were accosting you,” says Neferu.
“Of course they were!” says the woman. She hurriedly gathers her wares back into her basket. “Happens all the time. Raise enough fuss and they’ll go bother someone else. You don’t actually pay them, do you?”
“I’m from out of town,” says Neferu. “I’ve never dealt with them.”
“Then maybe you shouldn’t have interfered.”
“Why didn’t you want me to kill them?” asks Neferu.
“Good gods, you are from out of town,” says the woman, staring at her. “If a soldier turns up dead somewhere and they can’t find the killer, they round up five civilians from that district and execute them.”
“That’s barbaric,” says Neferu.
“It’s the law,” says the woman with a shrug. “Hardly ever happens, these days. Do they still blind commoners in Anubia for looking at the Pharaoh uninvited?”
The man on the ground reaches for his sword. Neferu kicks him in the head, and he goes limp.
“I don’t know,” says Neferu. “I’ve never seen the Pharaoh.”
“Well, look at him sometime and find out!” says the woman. “If you really want to help me, give me a boost so I can get away. And do not follow me.”
Bewildered, Neferu lets the woman use her as a support to tuck her basket up on the roof of the adjacent building and climb up after it.
Neferu hears shouts from outside the alley. Not much time.
“Wait!” says Neferu.
The woman peers down at her from the roof.
“Help me up at least,” says Neferu. “I don’t want to fight my way out of here.”
“Sure seemed like you wanted to fight,” the woman mutters, but she reaches down. “Hurry.”
Neferu sheathes her khopesh, tosses her own basket of goods up onto the roof, and runs up the wall to grab the woman’s hand. The woman pulls her up onto the roof with a grunt, then shoves her away.
“Go,” she says. “You’re trouble, and I want none of it. You run, I’ll hide, and may I never cross your path again.”
The woman turns to leave. In the alley below, someone has found the unconscious soldiers, and says a prayer of thanks that they’re both alive.
“You won’t have to hide for long,” says Neferu.
The woman turns back.
“What in the hells does that mean?”
“I’m going to liberate this city,” says Neferu. “You’ve—you’ve heard of the conquest of Mukhnod?”
“The butcher of Munos!” hisses the woman, drawing back. “Good gods, you’re her?”
“The butcher—what? My name is Neferu.”
“I know who you are,” says the woman. “You massacred the Munosians. Brought in Anubians to replace them.”
“Olympian lies,” says Neferu. “We killed only those who fought us, ejected the Olympians who surrendered, and left the city in the care of its rightful inhabitants. We liberated Mukhnod.”
“Liberated,” says the woman. “Under an Anubian governor, no doubt.”
“Of course,” says Neferu. “Don’t you want to be part of Anubia again?”
“We already have an archon,” says the woman. “Why should we trade him for a pharaoh, and pay the balance in blood?”
Neferu pauses at that.
“What if I liberated this city and let its people choose?” she asks finally.
“Choose what?” asks the woman. “Their governor?”
“Whether to rejoin Anubia or remain independent.”
“You’re not serious,” says the woman. “Your pharaoh wouldn’t allow it.”
“I am,” says Neferu. “I will guarantee your independence. Against the Olympians, and… against Anubia, if necessary.
What in the gods’ names are you saying? Takhat’s voice demands in her head. Neferu ignores her.
“Tell the people here,” says Neferu. “Say that I’m coming, and the choice will be yours.”
The woman stares at her.
“I have to go,” she says finally. “I’ll… I’ll think about it.”
The woman turns, vaults across another alleyway, and ducks down into a courtyard.
You shouldn’t make promises you don’t intend to keep, says Takhat.
“I didn’t,” says Neferu.
You all but declared yourself pharaoh back there, says Takhat, and there is a hint of admiration in her voice.
“We can talk about it later,” says Neferu. “For now, let’s get out of here.”
Takhat says nothing, and Neferu bounds across the rooftops, toward the city’s edge.
Part 2: An Impossible Task
Neferu, Champion of Death, trudges across the desert, her sandals crunching on sand that is already hot in the midmorning sun. Behind her walks her donkey, an irritable creature laden with the bulk of Neferu’s water and food. White robes billow around Neferu, protecting her from the worst of the sand and sun.
Ahead of her, an edifice of red sandstone rises from the desert sands. This side of it is natural rock, but the far side—she hopes—will guide her way.
You really think this is where your friend’s nursery rhyme is pointing? asks Takhat, the forgotten pharaoh whose soul resides within Neferu.
“Yes,” says Neferu. “And they’re not my friend.”
Pallas, Champion of Magic, had given Neferu the clue that now guides her. She is still not quite sure why. Pallas is not her friend, and she gave them nothing in return.
By the time they round the outcropping, the sun is high in the sky. They see, in profile, the weathered but still recognizable face of an Anubian pharaoh.
“The Eye of Nakhtorheb,” says Neferu reverently. “Eighth Dynasty. After your time, I suppose.”
I told you, I know Nakhtorheb, says Takhat, her irritation evident. He and I played shakh, back in the Blessed Rest.
“He had delusions of grandeur, claimed to be the son of Thaeriel and Malissus—”
I know all that.
Neferu nods toward the monument.
“After he conquered the coast, he had this monument built. The Eye of Nakhtorheb, a huge bust of himself made out of stone. One eye socket was hollow, just like one of his—the eye he claimed he had given to Malissus. The other eye was made of gold, to represent how Nakhtorheb’s vision was blessed… blessed by Thaeriel. Of course.”
Of course, Takhat replies with distaste. Even the directions to our trial bring glory to the God of Light.
As she approaches the giant stone head, Neferu sees that the gold has long ago been plundered. But the broken pharaoh’s empty eyes still point out into the desert. Where the pharaoh’s gaze pierces the serpent’s heart, Pallas had told Neferu. Somewhere out there, in the deepest desert Anubians called the Serpent’s Heart, stands the First Pillar, and this statue’s eyes are locked on it. She is certain of it.
Neferu rests in the shade of the outcropping until the worst of the midday heat has passed, then prepares for the difficult journey ahead. She turns to the donkey, who has finished its allotted portion of hay and is trying to fish more out of the saddlebags.
“Let’s get going,” says Neferu. The donkey brays in protest, but follows.
The Serpent’s Heart has no boundaries as such, but by the end of the second day of travel Neferu knows that she is deeper in the desert than she has ever been. There is nothing out here, the Eye of Nakhtorheb long since vanished behind them, only the compass needle keeping them on their path.
On the third day, the donkey lies down and does not get back up again. Neferu swears and begins to unload what remains of their water.
You’re far too soft-hearted, says the pharaoh in her mind. If you’d killed and raised this beast as soon as we got it, we wouldn’t have needed to bring hay.
“There isn’t much left to carry,” says Neferu. “Let’s just let the dead… rest.”
You need to save every bit of your strength, Takhat counters. And the dead don’t need to rest. They are your allies, Neferu. Let them help you.
Neferu calls upon an upwelling of death magic, and feels the right side of her face twist into Takhat’s mummified grin.
The donkey’s corpse rises, eyes glowing green, and follows Neferu further into the desert in silence.
On the morning of the fourth day, Neferu glimpses something in the distance, a tall, straight slash from the ground to the sky directly in their path. There is nothing to compare it to, no other point of reference in this endless desert.
“You see it?” she asks, voice hoarse. “It’s real?”
I see it, replies Takhat. I can’t tell how far away it is.
By nightfall, the thing in the distance is clearer. Dark shapes that seem to be birds wheel around it, lit by the setting sun, their size impossible to judge.
It is midday on the sixth day when they finally reach the First Pillar of Creation. It is impossibly tall, made of gleaming white stone. The shapes flapping around the Pillar have resolved not into birds, but into dragons with gleaming white scales that circle the Pillar several hundred feet up.
“Climb it,” croaks Neferu, “Sure.”
It can be done, insists Takhat. The trials are fair. The other gods wouldn’t allow Thaeriel to pose you an impossible task.
“Seems like they allowed him to pose me a damned difficult one,” says Neferu.
She changes back into her usual clothing, eats and drinks more than her daily ration, and prepares the climbing gear. After some hesitation, she straps her khopesh to her belt. She has to fight a dragon once she’s up there, after all.
The surface of the Pillar seems to be ordinary white stone, weathered by the years, with plenty of cracks where she can put her hands and feet. She can only hope it stays that way as she ascends.
“I’m ready,” says Neferu, and begins to climb.
Part 3: Strength, Even in Death
Neferu doesn’t bother to keep from looking down. She can feel how high up she is, in the wind whistling past her, the dragons wheeling behind her, the distant flat horizon encircling her.
She is hundreds of feet up the sheer side of the First Pillar of Creation, with hundreds more to climb. She does not know how long she has been climbing. The sun has not moved in the sky since first touched the Pillar, as though time is standing still, as though Thaeriel himself wishes to watch her climb. And to watch her fall, no doubt.
Not a chance, you shining bastard.
Just keep climbing. Move a hand. Move a foot. Check your footing. There. Now the other hand.
Ignore the fact that your hands are numb. Ignore the fact that each movement seems harder than the last, that your strength is failing, that the dragons are making closer passes as you rise higher.
Neferu’s foot slips from its place, and she barely catches herself with one hand, her scalp prickling with the rush of adrenaline.
I can’t do this.
The thought hangs there for a moment, hundreds of feet above the desert sands, before Neferu forces her hands and feet back into position.
Yes, you can, says Takhat—Takhat, who was told she could never rule, who killed her four brothers and became Anubia’s first woman Pharaoh despite at all. Takhat, for whom each supposed impossibility just another obstacle to overcome. Takhat, who died for it in the end. You can do anything.
Can’t murder our way out of this one, says Neferu ruefully. This is stupid. My body doesn’t have the strength to do this. I don’t think anyone’s does. I’m going to fall, and we’re going to die again.
Neferu has been dead before. She met Takhat in the Blessed Rest, the afterlife of the worthy dead, and the two women escaped the underworld together and returned to Neferu’s body. Now they are blessed by the Goddess of Death, and Neferu has no idea what will happen if they die.
Neferu grips the Pillar tightly, thinking of the generations of Anubians before her who have died in this desert. Of their resolve, their strength, even in the face of death.
Their strength. Even in death.
Takhat, she thinks desperately. Call them.
Who? asks Takhat.
All of them, says Neferu, grinning wildly.
Takhat cackles inside her head.
Yes. Now you’re thinking like a pharaoh.
Neferu again feels the rush of death magic, the twisted grin of Takhat’s mummified face replacing her own.
Her arms are shaking now with the effort of holding herself—or is that the Pillar shaking? She risks a glance down and sees them coming. All the desert’s dead, human and otherwise, rising hundreds of feet to meet her in a massive, ever-growing column, a monument to rival the Pillar itself.
She lets go of the Pillar as the column of dead rises to meet her. Mummified hands catch her gently and bear her up toward the sky.
The dead used to wait on us, in the palace, says Takhat. People competed for the glory of eternal servitude to the pharaohs.
This isn’t servitude, Neferu replies. They lend me their strength.
Ah, says Takhat. Not thinking like a pharaoh quite yet after all.
We’ll see, she replies in her mind.
The desert stretches out below them. They are up so high now that Neferu can see its boundaries—the coast to the west and south, the rocky hills of the outlying Olympian states to the north, the blue ribbon of the River far to the east, surrounded by farms and monuments. From up here it all looks so small. Neferu draws her khopesh and steels herself for battle.
The dead bear her to the top of the Pillar, where a huge gold and white dragon awaits, bigger than the others. It roars at her, and Neferu yells a battle cry and leaps onto its neck.
Neferu’s climbing sandals hook between the dragon’s scales, and she wraps her arm around one of its horns. The dragon shakes its head viciously, trying to throw her off, but she holds firm. Its claws and wings cannot reach her.
With a roar of rage, the dragon vaults off the Pillar and into the empty sky, whirling like a windblown seed.
Neferu grits her teeth against the rush of air and focuses on the dragon, ignoring the sickening blur of ground and sky around her. She pulls herself forward against the wind and lodges herself between the dragon’s horns.
With a grunt, she drives her khopesh into the dragon’s brain. Its gleaming body goes limp.
The nauseating spin becomes a plummet, the dragon’s dead wings catching the air just enough to keep it from falling straight.
The ground is still very far away, but rushing up to meet her at terrifying speed.
She grips the dragon’s temples and speaks the words of living death. The dragon’s eyes turn green as strength returns to its dead limbs. It levels its flight, Neferu’s khopesh still lodged in its skull.
Finally thinking like a necromancer, at least, says Takhat. Well done.
“To the Grand Arena,” Neferu tells the dragon. “That way.”
The dragon turns and flies, steady and silent. Behind them, the Pillar glows golden-red as the brooding sun finally sets.