The scribe, head bowed, entered the candle-lit room. The old man who called for him lay on the immense and luxurious bed. Curiously, the bed was positioned in the darkest corner of the room. Far away from the muted light of the full moon. He knew the enormous room was richly appointed, gold-leaf decorations being one of its rumored hallmarks. Lumeri, son of Ani, had heard descriptions of the grandeur and opulence of the richest man in the city. A dying rich man.
Lumeri went to the chair set beside the bed. His bag was placed beside him. It was a comfortable high-backed seat and the scribe knew its value was at an amount half of his yearly income.
“Em hotep nefer weret, shana we ranna Khamet,” greeted the scribe. The dim light obscured if the old merchant was asleep or awake.
“Good. You’re here,” the abrupt greeting came from the awakened man. “Come, scribe. Take your seat. Time waits not for me.”
“Why me, great Khamet? I am but an ordinary scribe. The son of a scribe but still a struggling one. There are more erudite and better-known ones in the city. I have heard you have already put your affairs in order. Temples of the city proclaim your beneficence and say prayers to the gods in your name. Wouldn’t a priest or a physician be of more assistance?”
“No. Those greedy priests will get their gold and the physicians have gotten enough wealth from me. And I don’t trust your well-known scribes with snake tongues afflicted by a fishmonger’s discipline. My time is now. My journey nearly over. And no more questions!” said the old man, followed by a long hacking cough.
The reprimanded scribe sat still and held his tongue.
“I apologize, scribe. An old man’s temper. And time is short,” said Khamet after his coughing subsided. “Now harken. Prepare your stylus. Write down what I say. After everything is said, leave me. Bring the papyri with you and do with it what you will. I have already sent your payment to your wife. It would enough to settle your debts and then some. And some gifts you will find useful.”
“Dua netjer enek! You are very gracious, O great one!”
“I just told you to be quiet, didn’t I? Men. They listen when they ought not to and don’t hear when they should listen,” sighed the old man. “Now write this down.”
The scribe readied his stylus. The papyrus was already on his writing board.
“My real name I know not. Nor do I remember. I do know I was a warrior. A royal commander. An imey-er-mesha. Of the minor nobility. These memories have come back to me in the past few hours as I wait for death. Thus, I know my time is near.”
Lumeri was startled. The revelation was a momentous one. The mere news that a royal commander of noble birth was coming normally would shake the city to its decadent foundations. And a general! The elite and high officials would be all over themselves preparing for such a visit.
“But that’s all in the past. Know that I awoke just outside the city many years past. I was around forty years of age then, if I am not mistaken. My memory gone, dressed in a merchant’s attire, with a sack of gold coins beside me. I was driven to live in this city. A border city, whose lungs depend on trade and whose neck is always at a knife’s sharp edge. A settlement full of the riffraff of the world. Adventurers, expelled mages, criminals, mercenaries, rogues, and all the scum of the earth. The reason for that is one even my returning memories do not answer. A compulsion made me find a living as a merchant of precious stones, rare spices, and jewelry. It was easy to succeed. Doors of opportunity opened. Competition dried up, their caravans destroyed by bandits or natural calamities. People couldn’t refuse me. In a year or so, I found myself dominating the trade. And further expanded my business. Life was good.”
The scribe waited while the old man took a short break from his narrative, a pause punctuated by coughing fits. A reprimand from a living and cantankerous old rich man, powerful enough to dictate who the governor of the province will be, is not to be courted twice.
“Though I enjoyed the comforts of women, something in me prevented me from choosing a wife. My nights were filled with strange and frighteningly vivid dreams. Dread attended the twilight hours, gripping me with its promise of the strange and unsettling images which awaited my sleeping mind.”
The old man stopped and reached for a glass of water. Lumeri went to the bedside table and helped the old man drink.
“Then one evening, with a gibbous moon such as that greeted this unfortunate world tonight, I found myself taking a wagon and journeying to an isolated oasis a few miles from the city. Beasts of the wild bothered me not. Fearsome creatures of the night scampered away. For some unearthly reason, I was not afraid. But my body moved under the direction of another. A spectator I was, as my bare hands dug through the shifting sands until they uncovered a great wooden box. I saw myself lift the box easily, as if it was but a small container, and put it on the wagon.”
The old man looked at the moon as he continued.
“As I carried the box up to my room, no servants greeted me. Nor the guards at their posts. I put down the box and opened it. It was full of old maps and small gold trinkets. They were of ancient design, of various civilizations. And when I touched them…”
The old man sighed. While waiting, Lumeri pulled out more papyri from his bag.
“The memory of a journey made in my proud prime arose in my mind. An expedition. Ordered by the Glorious Pharaoh of Kemet, Ruler of the golden sands and fertile plains of this land. We were running along a narrow forest trail. A priest-mage, a scribe, six warriors, and me. I remember we left three warriors behind. One dead and two crippled by the attack of an enormous lizard-thing. All that remained of a thousand-strong host that was dispatched to explore the way west. Warriors and mages from the Great Pharaoh’s own guard. Ah! The battles we fought as we made our way through the Great Desert and the Death Lands. They’re not really barren, you know. Once you get past the dead trees and field of gray hills separating it from the Great Desert, you would find a land of jungles, wide open spaces, great winding rivers, deep lakes, and mountains high enough to attract giant flying serpents.”
The old man paused and was quiet for a while. Evidently reliving long-lost memories.
“The great beasts, monstrous creatures, and eldritch beings infesting that land make it unfit for man, be he mage or warrior. And the shifting landscape of the Great Desert! The further north you go, giant worms with enormous jaws wide enough to swallow whole a camel and his rider prey upon the unwary. Savage creatures, mockeries of men, erupt from the desert sands and bring my soldiers down with them to their burrows. Large caricatures of birds keep watch in the sky, picking off the rash and careless. Old and mysterious ruins suddenly come into sight after cresting a solitary sand dune. We learned to avoid them after losing men to skeletal warriors, slimy and tentacled monstrosities, and other abominations. We lost more than half of our expedition’s strength when we finally reached the edge of the Death Lands. We thought we had left the worse behind when we saw below us, from the top of the tallest hill, the green jungles, the wide-open plains, the crystal lakes, and the winding rivers. It was a great valley and yet it was but the beginning of the lands of death. The gods must have named it for no man before us could have gone there and lived.”
The scribe put the finished parchment aside and prepared a new one. He noticed his hand was badly shaking. Never in his wildest dreams could he have imagined hearing what the old man had said. The Great Desert was just beside Kemet but all travel was to the south, nobody went north in the direction of the Death Lands. And until now, no knowledge existed about what awaited in the northern part of the Great Desert, much less the Death Lands. Part of him wanted to deny what was heard as an old man’s ravings. But Lumeri knew, in the innermost depths of his soul, that he was hearing the truth.
“Now, scribe. We come to the true horror of my journey. My memory is getting stronger. That means my time is indeed nearing. Al-mawt awaits. But it will have to bide its time until my tale is told. I will not die while the story is unfinished. Death! Bah! It throws its tantrums before the power that holds it at bay. See the moon? Its abominable light waxes strongly, giving me strength! That I know in my black and corrupted soul.”
(to be continued)
Em hotep nefer weret – Ancient Egyptian. A greeting meaning “in very great peace.”
Shana we ranna – Ancient Egyptian. Great and famous.
Dua netjer enek – Ancient Egyptian. An expression meaning “thank the gods for you!”.
Imey-er-mesha – Ancient Egyptian. A general.
Kemet – Ancient name for Egypt.
Al-mawt – Ancient Egyptian. Death.