The ruins of Isheru were slowly crumbling into the desert.
In ancient times, the people of Kemet had built the temple out of the most durable material they had had at their disposal. Still, the monolithic structure that had been meant to house immortal gods had not exactly been made to last an eternity. In modern-day Egypt, the place was a dilapidated wreck, with little left of its former splendour. The ceaseless desert winds were steadily eroding the stone, grinding it back down into the sand from which it had originated. Each massive block had once been perfectly square; now they were all pock-marked and irregular, haphazardly carved by the hands of countless years. The ghostly face of some half-disintegrated deity, carved in relief upon the weather-worn wall, fixed any intruders it caught sight of with a blank, disembodied stare.
This was hardly a welcoming place; yet the added scowls of half a dozen black-clad, well-armed warriors would have surely served as even more of a deterrent, if those whom they observed had been aware of their disapproving gaze.
The low crest of a nearby hill was enough to shield the Medjai from direct view of the complex. Ardeth carefully surveyed the terrain, sprawling on all fours and slinking up the side of the dune to peer over its rim. A scout accompanied him, but he didn't need to be told where the transgressors were hiding.
A tent had been pitched in what had once been the temple's walled enclosure; the fragile masonry now did more to let the desert in than to keep it out. The tent was relatively sturdy, made in a foreign design, and looked a comfortable size for a small number of occupants. An open-sided canopy had been set up alongside it. Beneath this, a portly man in a pith-helmet and spectacles was looking at charts and maps that had been spread upon a folding camp-table, his head tilted to one side in a rather ponderous manner. Ardeth instantly classified him as some sort of intellectual; an archaeologist or historian, most likely. A young woman – a slim, gangly creature barely out of girlhood – was craning over his shoulder, occasionally pointing at the page and making some remark in an animated fashion. These two looked to be father and daughter; the girl's flaxen hair was nearly the exact same shade as the man's grey-flecked moustache. The pair seemed to be the centre of their small cavalcade. A few native Fellah milled around them, performing menial tasks with a rather complacent air, but otherwise attempting to loiter without openly appearing to do so.
The group seemed to be a straightforward set of targets; at least, until another man strode out of the tent. Seeing a native servant sitting on the flagstones, staring sleepily at a pair of dusty boots instead of polishing them, he prodded the man to action with his own leather-shod foot. Then he joined the other foreigners in pouring over the maps, tracing out a route or picking out a landmark with a commanding, self-assured gesture.
Ardeth swiftly analysed this new addition, evaluating the threat that he posed.
Slouch hat, which usually but not always denoted an American; fair complexion on insides of wrists with tanned face and arms, a man of action; bandanna worn round the throat, knotted at the front rather than the back, suggesting more of a European extraction; vest cut to waist-length and worn open, likely concealing a set of holsters; no bandoliers, and therefore no chance to reload, which was unfortunate for him, but would be a small blessing for the Medjai; sheath hanging from the belt, only long enough for a standard hunting knife; possibly more weapons tucked into boots or carried in pockets.
Ardeth was able to piece this together with a single interrogative glance. Having learned all of this, he frowned to himself. A foreign soldier always complicated matters, as he well knew from past experience. They were usually mercenaries, or some other form of hired muscle; most were arrogant enough to reckon with the Medjai, and obstinate enough to dare make a stand against them. Such men tended to act unpredictably, jeopardizing the safety of everyone involved, Medjai and on their own party. This foreigner seemed to be inexperienced at desert survival, since he had clearly agreed to accompany the group into the arid lands during the hottest period of what was already an uncomfortable climate. However, Ardeth couldn't assume that his fighting prowess was as scant as his common sense.
He and his scout scuttled back down the dune to re-join the rest of the men. The Shadowed One had brought less than a quarter of his garrison with him; still, their number matched that of their quarry, and for such an underwhelming threat, equal numbers would suffice.
The Medjai looked to their leader attentively.
"A small party," Ardeth told them, "seven members all told. Four are native help who are not likely to have been paid enough, nor possess enough loyalty, to fight for their masters. A foreign professor and a young female, neither of whom should trouble us greatly. One foreign soldier, who is likely to prove a hindrance."
He paused. The men gave a collective nod, showing that they understood. The situation was by no means new to them. Their duties regularly required them to scare unwelcome visitors away from sacred sites. The sorts of targets that Ardeth had described to them were all common denominators; they had encountered variations of these types many times before on previous missions. These warriors were all well-drilled and highly experienced at this sort of work. They all – not just Deniyah – had a good idea of what Ardeth would ask of them, even before he gave them his orders.
"The objective is to scare and scatter, not harm. A car waits by the temple's northernmost wall, with several horses beside it. You are to herd the natives and the two low-risk foreigners towards the transport; with luck, they will immediately take flight. I target the foreign warrior. Assistance will only be required at my urgent summons. Direct attack is also only permitted under utmost duress. We offer them a deterrence, not death."
He looked along the file of men; they all gazed back with silent acquiesce. As usual, Ardeth felt pride swell within him to see the diligence they displayed, even as he sternly gave them their instructions.
"To your mounts."
In practised unison, the men untethered their horses, pulling reins free from the stakes they had driven into the sand, then swung astride.
Ardeth's own horse, Reshep, seemed ready to ride. With ears pricked forward in alertness, the black Arabian stallion snorted softly; perhaps he picked up the familiar scents of canvas, candle wax and motor oil, all of which he knew only emanated from foreign campsites. Ardeth wheeled him around, turning to face his fellow warriors and their mounts. He gravely saluted the company assembled before him.
"As you go, may Allah smile upon you."
These were always Ardeth's final words to them before they rode into battle, regardless of whether they faced a small skirmish like this one, or as great and perilous a battle as Ahm Shere. No matter the occasion, the Medjai knew that as their duty may require it, their deaths could come upon them at any time.
The words were as much a signal as they were a genuine sentiment. With their leader instated at their head, the warriors urged their horses forward.
The Medjai were all talented riders; they needed to be, in order to guide their mounts over any treacherous terrain that the desert's variable ground might throw at them without a moment's notice. They rounded the dune in tight formation; then, without a single sign or command to denote the change, save for conventions that had been long-established by exhaustive training, they fanned out wide, riding abreast in order to present a more intimidating front. They rode almost together in step, travelling at a moderate pace and practising stealth over speed. The sand muffled the noise from the horses' hooves; except for the dull drumming on loose earth, the only other sounds were the jangling of bridle bits and the occasional slap of a saddle-flap against horse-hide.
A native servant was the first to spy their approach. He uttered a scream, which was quickly echoed by several other throats. As if this itself were an agreed-upon signal, Ardeth drew his scimitar; it slid from the sheath with a harsh metallic ring. He heard the sound repeated six times alongside him. Now the warriors' silence turned into a cacophonous din. Whooping like an oncoming horde of bloodthirsty djinns, whirling their swords in the air and spurring their mounts into a flying gallop, they surged upon the tiny encampment. Hoof beats rang out like thunder as the sand beneath them was replaced by clattering stone.
Ardeth drew rein. Reshep fought him for a moment, eager to continue the onward charge beside his fellows; then he reluctantly obeyed.
The Shadowed One swiftly scanned the ruins, gauging the progress of the onslaught and determining what sort of tact he himself would take. His men were already performing their allotted task with aplomb; they swung their swords close enough to the natives to panic them, but came far short of actually touching them, funnelling their flight towards the northern side of the temple forecourt. The scholar and his daughter, caught up in the tide of panic, were jostled along amongst them, clinging to each other and stealing fearful glances back at their attackers as they stumbled towards the car.
Whilst Ardeth noted all of this, the foreign soldier remained at the forefront of his mind. He had seen the man stoop to avoid any possible gunfire and sprint behind the cover of a large stone pillar. Ardeth knew that he was still there, though he remained out of sight; he no doubt had plans to defend himself from this position.
Ardeth nudged Reshep's side, and together they surged forward. It was his turn to flush out the foreigner, driving him towards the car and the open desert. He held his scimitar low alongside him, ready to strike at an adversary on foot; however, he turned it with the flat of the blade facing outward, so that it would only deliver a non-lethal blow.
He knew that the foreigner must be armed; he was therefore quite prepared when a barrage of gunfire split the air, passing near his right ankle. The man had fired low, hoping to hit the horse and fell its rider with it. Ardeth adeptly swerved Reshep to the left, out of harm's way. The sound of the report was loud and irregular; he was able to discern two shots within it, fired almost in tandem. He guessed that the foreigner was armed with a pair of pistols, most likely semi-automatics. He would have to ride quickly and cleverly in order to evade such a sustained burst of firepower.
Having lived and patrolled in the area all his life, Ardeth knew Isheru's layout as well as he knew the design that was tattooed upon his own wrist. He wove Reshep in and out of a crumbling colonnade of pillars, expertly navigating the field of rubble and making himself as elusive a target as possible. Dust showered over him as a bullet obliterated the stonework just above his left shoulder. He tugged the reins abruptly to the side, sending himself and Reshep careening behind the cover of a low wall. Then he brought them circling wide and approached the stone structure at speed, prompting the horse to jump it.
Just as Ardeth had calculated, their ascent took them quite literally over their target's hiding place.
The man had been waiting for them to emerge a few yards away, where the wall degenerated into a rough pile of loose brick; he certainly wasn't expecting an assault from above. Using one hand to keep Reshep in check and winding his feet into the stirrups to steady himself, Ardeth brought his scimitar down. It took incredible skill to match the trajectory of the horse's leap with the arc of the weapon. Bending low in the saddle, he used the back of the blade to strike at the man's right wrist, neatly knocking the gun out of his hand.
A moment later, Reshep's hooves struck the earth, sending him lurching forward; he quickly righted himself and peered back at his adversary. The foreigner was picking himself up off the ground, having thrown himself down out of the horse's path; he was nursing his right hand, but still managed to clutch one pistol in his left. He was mouthing what Ardeth could only assume were curses in a foreign tongue. Ardeth wondered whether he was yet in a cool enough frame of mind to reason with; the man looked significantly humbled after their brief tussle. Ardeth much preferred to talk than to risk striking at the foreigner again; he knew that though he was accurate enough with a blade, there was always a chance for error, and he didn't wish to threaten his opponent any more than he had to…
His train of thought was abruptly cut short by the harsh screech of metal striking metal. Sparks dazzled Ardeth's eyes, and the scimitar was wrenched from his grasp.
He was lucky that Reshep spooked at the first gunshot, skittering sideways; a second bullet passed close enough for him to feel the fatal breeze that followed in its wake waft against his cheek. It successfully revived his stunned senses. He nudged Reshep onward, just in time; a large chunk of stone was blasted out of the pillar behind him, much the same size – and at just the same height – as his head had been a moment before.
Horse and rider dashed through what had once been the temple's antechamber, followed by a barrage of bullets which marked their passage with an ear-splitting impact and an explosion of debris. All the while, Ardeth was praising his mount for having unwittingly shifted him out of harm's way; thanking Allah for having bestowed him with such a fortuitous escape from a very near brush with death; and furiously rebuking himself for having been so complacent. Judging by the slight delay he had heard in the gunman's fire, he had deduced that his opponent had a favoured shooting hand; he had assumed, as a matter of probability, that it was the right one. He had obviously been quite wrong in his assumption, since he had done little to diminish the amount of gunfire that he was now forced to dodge.
He might as well have taken the pincers from a scorpion but left it with its poisonous sting, for all the good it had done.
A blast of successive gunfire peppered the stonework behind him, missing him by less than a second and spurring Reshep to quicken his pace without Ardeth's prompting. The man was a decent left-handed shot, and with his concentration no longer split between two guns, his aim was getting better.
Ardeth gritted his teeth in silent frustration, feeling disconcertingly vulnerable without the reassuring weight of the scimitar in his hand. This was the second time that he had let a foreigner's well-aimed shot rob him of his weapon; though the first had been almost a decade ago, he remembered it as vividly as if it had been just the previous day. That fight had soon degenerated into a tense stand-off over a lit stick of dynamite. He was only lucky that unlike O'Connell, this man didn't have much of a back-pocket arsenal. All the same, it would now be very difficult to disarm him. He didn't seem to be taking a charitable view of the fact that Ardeth had simply deprived him of his weapon, when he could have just as easily lobbed off his head. The only reason they were managing to elude the gunfire was that they were managing to outrun it; Ardeth felt doubly blessed that his opponent seemed to have had little experience at fighting a mounted warrior, not realizing how much he had to lead his target. If he was allowed enough time, however, he might figure it out.
Before that happened, they would have to employ a very carefully-played manoeuvre.
Another shot split the air behind Ardeth; shattered stone struck him, strengthening his resolve. He quickly slipped his arms out of the sleeves of his burnoose, then disengaged his feet from the stirrups. He laid the reins across Reshep's neck; it was a signal that the stallion knew well. Winding the ends round the pommel of his saddle, he dropped the reins completely, instead taking a firm grasp on the horse's mane with one hand.
Timing was crucial.
Ardeth took a steadying breath, listening carefully for his opponent's movements. Seizing a pause in the gunfire, he guided Reshep with his knees, turning him slightly and positioning him adjacent to the foreigner's hiding place. He treacherously presented the shooter with a conspicuous broadside target.
His opponent took the opportunity in a trice. A bullet whistled over Reshep's empty saddle.
Ardeth had already thrown himself out of the way; he was hanging precariously, clinging to the stallion's neck. Reshep ran on as though nothing had happened.
When Ardeth had first devised this trick, they had practised it tirelessly for months on end. Reshep had spent most of that summer sprinting back and forth across the plateau with Ardeth splayed against his side, one fumbled white-knuckle grip away from being trampled beneath his hooves. That had been years ago; they were now dab hands at this.
Shielded from his enemy's sight by the horse's bulk, Ardeth uttered a sharp cry, and at the same time shrugged the burnoose off his shoulders. He felt it flutter out behind him. The next moment, a shot deftly punctured the centre of it. The gunman had mistaken the garment for a falling black-clad warrior; just as Ardeth had intended him to.
In the split-second that his adversary's attention was held by the decoy, Ardeth swung himself upright and reached for one of the many knives that studded the bandolier he wore across his body. The foreigner spied the deception; the muzzle of the gun turned its aim toward him, but it was just a fraction too late.
Ardeth knew he only had time for one throw before the man could pull the trigger. He wouldn't be able to dodge a direct shot at this range. Despite knowing this, he didn't even think of checking Reshep's onward charge.
He was used to living his life on a knife's edge. One throw was all he needed, so long as he made it count.
He had a clear view of the gun, and the hand that held it; if he could graze the man just above the wrist, he would do enough to disarm, but not wound him enough to seriously injure or permanently maim…
It was then that it happened.
Reshep had run on without so much as breaking his stride whilst his rider performed his acrobatics; their path ran alongside a row of crumbling idols. At the very moment that Ardeth aimed the knife, a shaft of sunlight broke through a gap in the sparse cloud above; the temple complex was flooded with a sudden brilliance which reflected blindingly off the pale-coloured stone. A sunbeam refracted off the statue they had just drawn level with; it shone square in Ardeth's eyes-
He knew even as the knife left his hand that in that split-second of disruption, he had misjudged the throw.
The foreigner let out a horrible yell; the impact sent him back several feet and knocked him clear over, laying him out spread-eagle in the dust. The pistol clattered on the stone, still held convulsively in his left hand. He didn't move a muscle.
Barely aware of what he was doing, Ardeth reined Reshep in and walked him over to the fallen man. With an encroaching sense of horror at the realization of what he had done, he looked down.
The handle of the knife jutted out of the foreigner's throat. There was no question as to whether or not it had been a lethal blow.
Nearby, the doors of an automobile slammed shut. The Medjai circled the car, harrying its occupants enough to induce them to run; then they got out of the way, giving them a clear exit from the ruins. The vehicle lurched into motion and sped out toward the open desert, churning up a cloud of loose grit. The natives, mounted on horseback, flanked it on either side, as much for their own safety as that of their masters.
With their quarry successfully expelled from the ruins, the warriors regrouped around their leader.
Ardeth was still looking down at the dead man; he only roused himself when the echoes of horses' hooves reverberated off the pillars around him. He looked up to find that the garrison had assembled alongside him. They too gazed at the fallen foreigner. Expressions of bewilderment were plain upon each of their faces.
"Shadowed One?" Deniyah asked cautiously at his elbow. "The foreign soldier… did he pose such a threat that you had to…?"
Ardeth looked around. He could see the confusion in the faces of the men. He realized that he had directly contradicted his own orders. He needed to explain himself, as well and as quickly as he could. He scoured his mind, sluggish with shock though it still was, searching frantically for something to tell them.
"There have been… too many foreign trespassers in our region of late," he began haltingly, trying to sound more confident. "If we had been… less lenient a year ago, the battle of Ahm Shere could have perhaps been prevented, not to mention the release of the Creature. An example was needed… to show others who would dare ransack our monuments, that the prize they seek is not worth… exchanging their lives for."
He made himself to look back down at the foreigner, though it made the bile rise in his throat; shame raked him, its touch as palpable as a cold sweat. The gaze of his men upon him only made his affliction worse. He regained his composure with a supreme effort. The words he uttered were distasteful; he had to force himself to speak them, though there was not a shred of conviction in a single one of them. "Those whom we spared today will tell others of the danger that lies in wait for them out in the desert. Would-be invaders will now know how steep a price they would pay for desecrating a sacred site, when it is protected by the likes of us. Not just our nation's heritage, but the very fate of all mankind may well depend on how diligently we carry out the role we have sworn to perform. The slightest interference from an outsider can have consequences of a catastrophic nature, as we well know. Our allegiance is to the safe-keeping of all the world. The odd… casualty… is worth it… for the sake of our cause…"
His words died away into an uneasy silence. Ardeth could hear the gentle filtering of windblown sand through the various holes in the temple wall, it was so complete.
Then the warriors slowly nodded, murmuring amongst themselves. They were grudgingly agreeing with him, even if they still remained unsure. He was the Shadowed One; they didn't dare question him, though he could sense their festering discontent.
"We still have work to do here," Deniyah said crisply beside him, suddenly dispelling the discord that had fallen over the entire company. "Shadowed One, perhaps the rest of the complex should be searched, just in case…?"
"Quite so. You have predicted my exact orders yet again, Deniyah." Ardeth snatched up his second-in-command's suggestion gratefully; a sense of normalcy was restored, much to his relief. He managed to give his instructions in something which resembled his usual tone. "Scan the temple, checking for any stragglers who may have managed to conceal themselves. Start at the foreigners' tent, then fan out from there. Don't forget to check the hidden niche at the back of the inner sanctum. Claim any supplies of water and other essentials that you may find. If you should discover anyone, capture them only. We have… made enough of a point here already."
These last instructions were spoken with added emphasis. Against his will, his eye was again drawn to the man whom he had just killed.
His men obediently turned their mounts and filed away, set upon performing the task he had given them. He suspected that they knew such a cursory errand was little more than a diversion. They did not complain aloud, though the subtle signs of doubt that he saw in their otherwise impassive faces wounded him deeply. He was glad when he no longer felt their scrutiny upon him; he needed a few minutes to collect himself, and to come to terms with what he had just done.
In a paroxysm of self-reproach, he scrubbed at his face with rough hands, feeling grit from the desert scrape against his skin. The tiny digs of pain were welcome, slight though they were; they were almost like some paltry, inadequate form of penance.
What little good it did… nothing could possibly make any difference to the dead man now…
Ardeth raised his head, nerves jangling.
Deniyah had remained; for once, he had managed to catch his leader unawares. He seemed to be aware of how momentous this was in itself; he looked at Ardeth with something that bordered on alarm, his eyes wide with visible concern. "Are you alright, Shadowed One? You are very pale."
Ardeth dropped his hands from his face, feeling increasingly ashamed of himself. "I am unharmed, my friend. But as you see-" he gestured despairingly at the sprawled-out corpse of the foreigner "-I am not exactly 'alright'."
Deniyah looked down at the body of the dead man, scratching his chin perplexedly. "It was wise of you to bluff before the men, Shadowed One, but this is very unlike you. I could understand it, perhaps even expect it, if it had been Malikeem-"
"I am not at all like Malikeem."
Deniyah actually flinched. Ardeth's words seethed with a cold, quiet rage which he barely held in check. The warrior realized just how severely he had insulted his friend, and took great care with what he said next. "Of course you are nothing like Malikeem," he vehemently assured his chief. "You are quite the opposite of him, which makes this-" he waved towards the corpse "-all the more astounding. Of course, if it was done for the sake of self-preserva-"
"Deniyah, I did not aim to kill."
Ardeth's words came out in a desperate rush. He had been wanting to say them. Wanting to no longer be misunderstood.
Deniyah blinked at him in surprise. Ardeth took a deep breath, commanding himself to calm down, and began again. "I didn't intend to kill. The man had one pistol left; he took my scimitar from me, as you see-" he pointed to where it lay in the dust about twenty feet away "-and I had a knife prepared, ready to disarm him. I targeted the wrist; yet at the last moment, I -"
He broke off dejectedly. It was painful to have to admit to such a weakness; almost as painful as having had to claim that he had done it on purpose.
Deniyah fidgeted nervously. "It is rare for you to make such an error," he said slowly.
"I have no real excuse to offer. The man was dangerous, but by no means an unassailable threat. Not so much as to justify his death." Ardeth sighed deeply; then as an afterthought, he added: "There is one thing. In the moment that the knife took to the air, the sun struck that statue and shone right in my eyes. For just a second, I-"
"Then surely it is excusable," Deniyah interrupted, "for all that it is greatly unusual for you. I had long thought that you possessed the eyes of a hawk. It is almost comforting to know that you have ordinary – if still somewhat overly-keen – powers of sight, much like us mere mortals."
He walked his horse a few paces to bring it level with Reshep, stopping close enough to rest a hand on his leader's dust-strewn shoulder. When he next spoke, he called his friend by his given name, something that he seldom did now that they were no longer clansmen of equal standing. "You are only human, Ardeth. You are liable to make mistakes now and then. It is just unfortunate that in our line of duty, a single mistake can be fatal." With a grimace, Ardeth dropped his gaze to the stone floor; Deniyah gave his arm a comforting pressure. "Have you not heard the way the men speak of you? Even the young ones refer to you with such awe in their voices, as they would normally reserve for heroes of legend, perhaps even for gods. You have brought such glory to the Medjai, unequalled by any leader who has ever gone before. When one considers that you defeated the Army of Anubis-"
"I hardly achieved such a thing alone," Ardeth protested. "I had allies-"
"If you are referring to the American nuisance, I will not listen to you." At this characteristic outburst, Ardeth managed a wan smile; heartened by it, Deniyah continued. "You have achieved much, Shadowed One; more than our great leaders of the past would have dared to dream of. You must not forget, however, that you are still just a man, and all men are somehow fallible, each in their own way. Do not punish yourself too much," he added, as kindly as he could. "We are all equal before the eyes of Allah, and when it comes time to face his judgement, he will forgive that which we sincerely regret."
He turned his horse, walked it across the antechamber, then stopped. He dipped low in the saddle, leaning almost out of his stirrups; he was just barely able to snatch a skein of black cloth from the ground, dangling it by one threadbare corner. As he lifted it, it exuded a billowing cloud of dust. Deniyah turned it over and held up a single fold to the light, so that a beam could shine through the bullet hole that interrupted the burnoose's intricate tendrils of silver embroidery.
"This old scrap of yours will need attention, though considering how many times it has been repaired already, it is scarcely fit to make Reshep a saddle-cloth."
"He deserves a far better one than that," Ardeth declared, patting the stallion's neck; he certainly hadn't forgotten how the horse's timely side-step had saved his life. There would be a lot of extra oats in his feedbag that night.
"He certainly does," Deniyah agreed with a derisive snort, shaking out the burnoose's ragged hem. "I shall have to see which of the men is willing to be your seamstress this time."
"You mean tailor," Ardeth corrected him, managing a bit of joviality despite the circumstances.
"Just be thankful that it is not a surgeon you need to stitch things up this time, nor an undertaker. I suppose I should go check the niche behind the inner sanctum, in case a few foreign interlopers are still about." So saying, Deniyah tossed the damaged burnoose to him, then turned his horse in the direction of the temple forecourt, heading over to see how the men were progressing with their search.
Ardeth was once again left alone with the fallen foreigner. He took in a deep breath of scorching desert air, then forced himself to look at the glassy eyes of the dead man unflinchingly, facing up to what he had done. He seemed to have managed to compound one sin upon another, and in quick succession. Accidentally killing an adversary was hateful enough; almost worse was having had to lie to his men that he had done it gladly. He knew that his performance had been far from convincing; Deniyah had certainly seen through it.
But then, he had lied to his best friend as well.
Perhaps it hadn't been an outright falsehood. Still, it had been only a partial admission. Since Deniyah had interrupted him before he had been able to fully explain, he could perhaps deflect some of the blame. But then, if he had been allowed to speak on, he doubted he would have fully shared the revelation, even with his right-hand man. He had scarcely come to terms with it himself.
The sun hadn't dazzled his eyes. At least, his vision hadn't been impaired by it. He had lived in the desert all his life; rays that would have blinded an average man didn't even make him blink. That certainly wasn't what had happened today, although what really had occurred…
The cloud had shifted overhead… the sun had struck the statue…
Ardeth turned, looking at the towering stone idol curiously. He clucked to Reshep, and the stallion obediently walked over to stand before it.
The complex of Isheru was dedicated to the Lady Mut - a deity who, in ancient times, had been credited as the primordial creator of all life on earth, making her the goddess of highest standing amidst the vast feminine ranks of the Kemetic pantheon. The temple contained many likenesses of her, portraying her in her various forms and aspects. This particular statue was a gargantuan carving of a woman, standing at least fifteen feet high. The sculpted figure was swathed in the tight-fitting, ankle-length gown. Heavy braids, carved as a single row of stone rivulets, were moulded to her head like a domed helmet. Broad, squared-off bangs framed a face…
A face with a distended snout and fleshy lips that curled up over fierce jowls, creating a curve which was not so much a smile as it was a vicious snarl…
The vigorous studies of ancient folklore that Ardeth had undergone long ago, as a child during his years of Medjai training, furnished him with a name, as well as a memorable legend. The earthly incarnation of Amun-Ra's vengeance… the vicious, lion-headed goddess of war…
This fact disturbed him almost as much as anything else that had occurred that day.
Too much had happened of late for him to deny the existence of the old Kemetic gods. Had he not swung his own metal-forged, mortal weapon at the heads of many demonic jackal-warriors? If Anubis still commanded an army, what of his female counterpart? Would a combatant so renowned for her relentless rampage, for her much-feared ferocity and utter lack of mercy towards mankind, be content to slumber through the ages, watching from afar as men fought out their petty squabbles in the very deserts that had once been her own favoured hunting ground?
Ardeth eyed the statue distrustfully. He full remembered what had happened just minutes ago.
In that split second, as the knife had been about to leave his hand, the beam of light had indeed hit the statue, then struck his eye. But instead of crippling his vision, it had somehow enhanced it. He had seen much too clearly… as though, as Deniyah tended to flatter him, he really had the eyes of a hawk…
The eyes of a predator…
The light had focused his gaze directly on the foreigner's exposed neck… the path of the knife had automatically followed his line of vision… the hilt had departed from his hand, by which time it had been far too late for him to check himself…
In truth, he hadn't been lying to his men at all, which was what had made his speech to them so truly horrendous. He really had targeted the man's fatal point on purpose.
Why had he done that?
Yes, he had done it on purpose; but he certainly hadn't done it willingly.
When he had first become the Shadowed One, some of the elders had complained that their new commander was too much of a pacifist. They hadn't dared say as much to his face, but such remarks had filtered through to him from faithful sources (Deniyah, besides having a wise mouth, also had very receptive ears). Certainly, compared to his predecessor, his approach had perhaps seemed overly conservative; and he would gladly admit as much. His reaction to Deniyah's mere mention of Malikeem demonstrated how much he still deplored the former Shadowed One's bloody methods. After he himself had inherited the title, he had managed to prove the justification of his approach, he had thought. His cooperation with those who would have been traditionally considered to be their enemies had borne such beneficial results. Ardeth's words to Deniyah on the subject had been entirely true; he did not regret having let that lone Legionaire live, though in truth, he had wondered at the prudence of his compassionate sentiments a number of times, once the Creature had been released. Luckily, O'Connell and his associates had been not just the cause, but also the cure for the Creature's blight upon the earth. He had given his allies the benefit of the doubt; luckily, in that instance at least, his trust had been repaid.
That aside, regardless of circumstance, it was against Ardeth's own personal code to wantonly sever a life from its root. After his ascension as the Medjai's overruling chieftain, the rest of the company had adopted his own moral philosophy as their own. They knew that he would not tolerate callous bloodshed.
Which was what had prompted his men's disbelief, when they had seen their leader standing over a foreigner with his throat cleanly speared by a Medjai knife.
Ardeth still didn't understand it. It was just another incident in a growing inventory of things that had perplexed him of late.
He felt a growing sense of revulsion, directed squarely at himself. For the past while, he hadn't been acting as he should; what had started as an undue restlessness had now turned into a grave transgression of his own moral standing. Yet he had no explanation for why he was going through such uncharacteristic tracts of uncertainty and self-doubt.
Did the exhilaration of battle really still inflame his senses, even this long after Ahm Shere? It was one thing to dispatch a demonic warrior back to the nether realms; quite another to slay a mortal man without proper justification. Had it just been an isolated moment of misjudgement, a rarely-occurring misstep, as Deniyah had ruled it to be? Or was it something far more sinister than that?
What was happening to him? Was the very essence of his being going through some horrendous transfiguration? Was he actually becoming that which he had always abhorred – a man who enjoyed killing?
Was he actually becoming more like Malikeem?
Or perhaps… was something more other-worldly at work…?
Ardeth considered the statue again, glowering up at it from beneath darkened brows. It gazed back at him innocently enough, coated in many centuries' worth of grit and grime. It looked so innocuous, with its limbs partially eaten away by the ravages of time, its impressiveness diminished by the onslaught of countless years.
Ardeth had seen mere sand give rise to the deadliest threat he had ever faced. Perhaps stone could be just as potent…
Whatever suspicions he may have, he knew he would learn little from simply staring at an immovable object. Nor would blaming an absent god do anything to ease the guilt that assailed his conscience.
He dismounted Reshep, leading the horse back through the antechamber. All the while he stroked the stallion's velvety nose and murmured praises in his ear. His adulation added a perceptible jauntiness to the stallion's step; he didn't understand his master's words, but he could tell from his tone that he was pleased, and already knew that some gastronomic form of reward would likely be coming his way when they returned to camp. Satisfied that his equine friend was aware of how well he had done, Ardeth stooped to collect his sword from the rubble-strewn ground. The scimitar wasn't overly damaged, by a great turn of luck. A slight dint was discernible on the flat side, where the bullet had struck it, but that could be easily straighten out again, without losing any of the blade's functionality. He wiped the coarse dust that coated it on the edge of his burnoose – the black cloth certainly couldn't come to much more harm than it had already done – and returned it to its sheath.
As he crossed the chamber, he had to pause and gaze upon the fallen man one last time.
He looked at the stricken expression he wore in death; took in the inert posture of the stiffening limbs; considered the ineffectuality of the high-powered weapon when held in a lifeless hand. He stood utterly still, regarding the corpse with respectful solemnity. After a few moments' silent vigil, he slowly raised his finger to his lips, then touched the same digit to his forehead, then brought it to rest over his heart. This was the Medjai's ritual blessing, usually given only to close comrades and exalted allies. He offered the gesture now as some small consolation, a tribute which might go some way towards placating the man's departed soul.
He took a few more moments to ruminate upon the tragedy which he had so inadvertent caused. Then he mounted Reshep again and turned him towards the temple forecourt, going to rejoin his men.
As he rode by, he spared the statue a glance.
It looked an unlikely culprit for any sinister machinations. Surely a ray of sunlight could not be considered a weapon of the gods; not in such a circumstantial means as this. He could hardly begrudge the stone effigy for disrupting his aim. Surely it had been nothing more than an unfortunate error; an alignment of contributing, ill-fated factors.
His instincts were agitated again. A sense which went beyond all that was logical told him that something was not right here. Something made him wary. A creeping sense of discomfort came over him as he rode away from the idol, feeling its blank eyes boring into his back. He wondered if something here had been the cause of his recent disquiet.
Surely it couldn't be anything as unlikely as that. It seemed so incredible, that an inanimate object could contribute to a man's death with such perfect execution, yet in such an outwardly-incidental manner. It seemed impossible… and yet, what had occurred somehow felt as though it had been arranged by something that was more powerful than chance.
There was a fine line between coincidence and fate. Sometimes, the margin was as thin as the razor-sharp edge of a knife's blade.
Author's note: This was a very long chapter. Even for someone who normally writes long chapters, it was unusually long. There was a lot of groundwork I wanted to cover, so I figured I'd tackle it in one go.
It's strange how life sometimes imitates my stories. I once began writing a tale set in New Orleans, just months before Hurricane Katrina hit (that story never eventuated). More recently, I wrote of a demonically-possessed tree objecting to the fact that it was scheduled to be cut down. At much the same time, my local council decided to fell an entire street lined with a dozen 80+ year old fig trees (without casualty or supernatural manifestation, I might add).
Now, I write about a pacifist Muslim warrior, just as Islam comes under intense scrutiny due to religion-related violence.
I will say it, since some readers may well be wondering: this chapter wasn't my means of preaching to unwitting receptors of my own personal agenda. It wasn't even influenced by recent events. I plotted out this entire story weeks before it happened. Besides, religion and current affairs are not my key interests; I tend to avoid writing about, referring to, or even thinking about either of them too much, as it would only depress me.
I tried to downplay Ardeth and the Medjai's implied Muslim background, simply because it's a subject I'm not familiar with, and I don't want the characters to be defined by their theology. However, it wouldn't be right to ignore it completely, since Ardeth clearly mentions Allah in his final line from the first film. Perhaps his beliefs were retconned in the second film, since he clearly believes in Anubis by then, enough to raise an army against he and his jackal-warriors. Another possibility is that the Medjai are actually of the Bahá'í faith (which I only know about from Wikipedia; it is basically the belief that the God of all religions is the same god, with a number of prophets, from Muhammad to Jesus to Buddha, all acting as his earthly messengers; this would possibly allow his belief in Allah to coincide with that of the Kemetic gods). Alternatively, Ardeth's reference to Allah might be pure cultural linguistics, like casually saying 'oh my god' or 'bless you' in Western culture.
Anyway, this story is only concerned with Kemetic mythology. Current events, religious arguments and political issues have had absolutely no bearing on any of its content.
It just seems uncannily appropriate that I wrote this story while these real-life things were happening. If more people thought about peace, wrote about peace, and promoted peace, perhaps we would live in a marginally better world.
Anyway, think nothing more of it. I just wanted to clear the air.
I hope you enjoyed the story for the mere fictional escapism that it is. More chapters will come, whenever the heck I get around to writing them. Stay tuned.