Worse Monsters

The loose wrappings at my wrist and neck flutter like flags of war in the wind. Hand over hand I turn and face the rocky wall of the precipice. I have to pull up; but my sinews do not remember how. I look down again and wonder if that too will be my end.

(This story first appeared in Antipodean SF, November 2021)

~*~

When the earthquake came, shattering the silence of my sleep, she was there. I awoke in the wrong place: not among gods but trapped in the darkness, pinned under the weight of fallen granite. And a child heard my cry. She risked getting crushed. Piece by piece she cleared the rubble. With the edge of a shovel, she broke the seal, opened the casket and pulled me out.

As the earth trembled again, she gathered Xapi, Imsety, Duamutef, and Qebehsenuef and held them close to her heart; and I understood when she said, “We need to go, hide deeper.” Her heart gave me the strength to crawl until the angry bellows were muted to a whisper by sand and stone. And there we waited and there we spoke. Her name is Elektra.

Why am I here?

“You are here for me,” she replied with certainty beyond her years. “I need you.”

Where is Nefertiti?

Her face told me she knew the name but the words that took shape in her heart and then came forth said it all… She is gone, long ago.

I tried to hide the pang of despair and the memories. But she too can feel my heart through the jars, the four sons of Horus. And she gasped at the sight: “She killed you?”

That was not the plan. I turned aside. But I remembered again the thrust of the knife; in vain tried to hide the wound from this child.

“You saw her do it!” She shot back.

Nefertiti could not have betrayed me… willingly. I insisted.

Her eyes softened, and I saw in her heart that she understands the irrecoverable. Looking back at the way we had come, she nodded at my chamber somewhere in the darkness, and spoke again. “Hoping for love, all you found was betrayal. What kept you going on?”

I don’t know.

“I think there’s a greater purpose.” She lit another one of the torches from her bag by striking its head, and tossed it on the ground to keep us company with its flickering light. And then she explained what the moving images in the tablet she carried testified. “Invaders.”

The scenes showed large vessels in the sky raining fire on great cities; roaring chariots on the ground striking back in vain. Like the Hyksos, I said. They subdued my forefathers, burnt cities, destroyed temples, and led women and children into slavery.

“These enslave the dead,” she said, “and set them loose to feed on the living.”

Despair stirred in her heart when she spoke of the walking corpses, and I had to state the obvious, I too am dead.

“You are not like them, I know.” She swallowed and went on. “There are worse monsters. They came dressed in rags, dragging broken-down carts, asking for asylum. A horde of eaters, they said, was but a mile away. We had mercy and we were deceived. They were deserters, bearing weapons. They took over the compound and cast us out, families, friends: fodder for the plague.

“I escaped out the back. There were bridges from the old excavation to these caves… one of them is left. It can still support my weight. My dad and I — we dug here. I ran. I hid.”

What would you have me do, Elektra?

It took her a minute to reply. “Help me find my dad. He went to Cairo before the attacks started.” She said no more. She would rather let the weight of the loss smother her into a fitful sleep than utter the word revenge.

I found I could walk again, even if dragging a leg behind. So, I let the child sleep and tried the bridge, and it held. The compound’s doors were barred from within. But the scent of bitumen revealed a stock of large metal barrels by the side; and I knew how to draw them out.

The plagued are clumsy and dull. And they can only smell the living. Even if stiff fingers wouldn’t work, my fists have always been strong. You have to crush their heads, she had said.

Hidden by the darkness of the overcast night, I propped bodies of the twice dead at every window and side door: scarecrows. Then I rocked two barrels over to the front. Strips of windings from my arm served as wicks, one long, one short. I struck a torch into life, stuffed it into my right fist and lit the cloths, and then limped my way to the back.

The first explosion awoke them. Someone ran for a side door and stumbled back screaming under the weight of a falling cadaver. And the panic started. Only the back doors had no looming shadows of the undead. They were flung open. And I, bearing the only tame light in the madness, waved at them to follow me to the tall stanchions of the main bridge that once spanned the ancient river far below.

They came, in a stampede.

I meant to step away. But I’m too slow. And they ran like the cowards they… were, carrying me along.

Fingers that had held nothing for more than thirty centuries reached out in desperation, and grasped — what? Not a tree branch, branches don’t grow through rock. A root, yes, a root jutting out the side of the precipice, from the sycamore on the edge.

Hoping for water, all it found was empty air. What kept it going on? “It had a purpose,” she would have said. “So it could be there for you.” Maybe she had been right. Maybe I was sent here for this child.

~*~

How long can I cling? The second clap of thunder rocks the night: I hear more screams. The light of the torch I had held still flickers on the ground somewhere above me. They will seek it.

There it goes. The last shadow crosses over me. The sudden vastness turns his howl into a whimper, and he falls, like the rest, to rock and water and death. Ammit has fed well tonight on liars, killers of orphans, encroachers of fields.

“Hold on.” I hear her; and she casts a snake over the side of the cliff. No, not a snake, a rope. “Grab it, I’ll pull you up.”

How can she, she’s only a child? But the night roars, and the cloud of dust and smoke of bitumen explain. She has brought one of their roaring chariots to the edge of the cliff. And I stand again on solid ground.

“Tuthmose, I thought I lost you.” She says no more and just clings to me, her arms encircling my waist.

They are strong, for the arms of a child.

They set me free.

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