Another set of picked-over ruins. Fourth time in a row I hadn’t been able to find so much as a scrap of burial linen. If I couldn’t find something of worth within the next few weeks, there was no way the museum would continue funding me. I suppose I should have picked a slightly better location, perhaps someplace a little less traveled. Though, for a lone explorer like me remote locations were a massive gamble.
After packing up camp, I flopped down onto a fallen obelisk and gazed up at the mostly sand-covered stepped pyramid. The winds could cover and uncover ruins of all kinds. Sometimes someone would come across something never before seen, or walk right over the top of a would-be familiar landmark, if it wasn’t buried.
I’d hoped that this find would be packed, or at least not stripped clean. Mainly because of my little shadowy friend that’d appeared shortly after I began poking around. I shot a casual glance over my shoulder, but even with my face wrap on she knew I was looking at her and darted behind a pillar.
Typically if ruins had Khepri around them, one could be assured that treasures and/or riches lay within. They liked to collect all sorts of things and could act as protectors or guardians, driving everyone away until they happened to take a liking to someone and made them their king or queen. As to what made a group of Khepri like someone, that remained a mystery.
This particular specimen kept her distance, and at first I thought she was simply waiting for her brethren to arrive so they could chase me away. But, no brethren ever arrived, and she simply watched me from afar as I clomped around dark, empty chambers. Far as I could tell, she didn’t have a ball of dark energy with her either.
Well, as much as I’d have liked to figure out why she was by her lonesome, the museum wasn’t paying me to be a monstergirl entomologist. Dusk was settling, and I wished to be someplace with cover by morning. Saddling up on my trusty camel Joe, I continued my journey west.
Night brings with it a chill; not something people expect from the desert. Out here, away from cities that trap the heat of the day, the temperatures can get rather cool. Cold, even. Clear skies, bright stars, and the only sound of soft, cloven hooves plodding through the dunes.
And the unmistakable glint of gleaming, golden carapace following at a distance.
I couldn’t believe it at first – I mean, who’d heard of Khepri leaving their ruins to follow someone? Though perhaps she was a little different, since she was alone as well. She followed along, attempting to hide amongst the dunes and depressions, always keeping a safe distance. Whenever I paused to glance at her she’d skitter away, then peek over whatever crest she’d concealed behind.
This little game of chase continued through the following morning, through the day, and into the following eve. While I had plenty of supplies, I wondered how Cleo – ah, that’s the nickname I gave to her – was fairing. Truthfully I didn’t know much about Khepri in regards to their daily lives. As a desert animal she could probably go at length without food or water, but could she while following me like this? I did know they usually kept to ruins and oasis and the like.
I suppose after spending so much time together, she wasn’t quite so shy. As I sat on my bedroll, looking over the expanse of sands, Cleo wouldn’t scamper off and hide when our eyes met any longer. She even came a tiny bit closer than usual. In groups they may be a threat, but this loner was amusing.
Breaking a bit of jerky off, I held it up in her direction. I’m not sure why; perhaps I’d just like someone to talk to besides my camel. As great of a conversationalist as he was, I felt like we needed to see other people. Typical relationship problems, you know.
Cleo didn’t budge, but I thought I could make out her gaze shifting from my face to the bit of food.
“Don’t be afraid,” I said, beckoning her over with my other hand.
“Playing hard to get?”
Ah, that at least got her to tilt her head. I was mostly certain she could understand my words, though their meaning may have been lost on her.
“Women, eh?” I said, shrugging at Joe. From the look in his eyes I knew he agreed with me.
Shaking my head and laughing, I wondered if I’d spent just a little too long in these deserts. Solitude was a blessing and maybe just a little bit of a curse. Well, not that it was ever truly solitude, I thought as I silently apologized to Joe.
Chewing up the bit of jerky I’d offered to Cleo, I followed it up with a swig of water and tucked into my bedroll. The little Khepri would be again be my little guardian tonight.
So I did feel a bit bad about faking sleep as I felt Cleo’s presence grow close. Nothing gets a shy critter to come to you like pretending to be completely defenseless.
She picked through my carefully left-out supplies, holding each item up in turn and sniffing and even licking them. Mental note to wash that cup out once I got to a place with more plentiful water.
In hindsight speaking suddenly like that wasn’t a good idea. Hopefully I’d be able to find the bag of jerky she just hurled over into some dunes somewhere over there. There was also all the sand that had found its way into my sleeping bag. Zipping it up more would have been a good idea.
Instead of fleeing, Cleo had instead opted to bury herself into the sand. Mostly. I could still see her antennae sticking out and the thin layer of sand that covered her back trembled. Despite the poor quality of her disguise, I had to hand it to her – she’d managed to get herself into the sand that deep in only seconds.
Joe looked on curiously, which looked a lot like his agreement face.
I poked at her antennae. Trembling intensifies.
“You can understand me, can’t you?”
“If I’m talking to you like this, you should know that means I don’t mean to harm you, yes?”
Cleo was still now, save for her little stalks. They swiveled about, and one even sniffed its way across the back of my hand. Didn’t expect it to feel quite as ticklish as it did – it was all I could do to avoid laughing and pulling my hand away.
Sands shifted, revealing golden eyes and most of her head.
“Hi,” I said in my most cordial tone. “How are you?”
Didn’t say anything, but she began to unbury herself, throwing sand everywhere in the process. Again. Well, what’s a bit more to have to shake out of my bag?
Cleo eyed me warily, but at least she wasn’t bolting for a safe distance. I kept my patience and just smiled at her. She was kinda small, but then I had no idea how large a Khepri was supposed to be to begin with. Typical features otherwise – bronzed skin, chitinous arms and legs, black hair. Had the build of a young teen, but I knew better than to assume a monstergirl’s age from her appearance. A run in with a baphomet not long ago had made that point painfully clear.
Once she’d accepted that I wasn’t going to attempt to do mean or lewd things to her – or maybe she wanted me to do lewd things to her, hard to say – she inched in closer and ran her antennae all over me. Over my arms, body, legs, and even my face. Felt kind of like someone running the rounded end of those big knitting needles across me.
“You smell nice,” she said rather matter-of-factly as she finished circling me.
“Er, thanks? I haven’t have a shower in probably two weeks. Pretty sure I stink like hell.”
Cleo settled down on the sand in front of me on her knees. “No, nice smell.”
“If you say so.” No point in arguing with her, was there? Maybe she was into that sort of thing. I wasn’t one to judge.
“So, why were you alone in those ruins?” I asked, suddenly aware it wasn’t the gentle segue I’d envisioned in my mind.
She shook her head, her antennae waving back and forth. “Don’t know. Went to sleep with others. Woke up alone.”
“In those ruins? When did you wake up?”
“When you appeared.”
“So you were hibernating or something?”
Flat stare. So she probably didn’t know why she was asleep for so long. Her simple speech kind of made me think she was, well, simple, but maybe she just didn’t talk much. Her beetle-like wings chittered slightly as she adjusted herself on her knees.
“Well, uh, what’s your name?”
She looked down at the sand and furrowed her brow, her eyes darting side to side. If she was having trouble remembering her name… maybe she was as ancient as the ruins? Could be she was simply part of a sand dune and went undetected for centuries, assuming her kind was capable of living that long.
“Do not remember,” she said, her face returning to its mostly emotionless form.
“Is that so? Hmm, how about until you remember, I call you Cleo?”
Her antennae came to attention. “Cleo?”
“Well yeah, I can’t really just call you ‘you’ all the time, can I?”
“Okay. Cleo,” she said, pointing one of her clawed hands at herself.
“Good, that’s settled. So, Cleo, why did you follow me out into the open desert? I thought your kind liked to hang around ruins and such,” I said, standing up and shaking the sand out of my bag.
“Curious. Alone. No reason to stay.”
Satisfied that most of the sand was now back on the ground where it belonged, I slid into its warm confines. “Curious, huh? What’s curious about me?”
She opened her mouth to speak, but hesitated. Something troubled her – that much I could tell. Finally she spoke, but I assumed she’d changed her words. “Cannot explain.”
More than a little suspicious. I shot a consulting glance towards Joe. He gave his tacit approval. I nodded.
“Well, if you want to tag along with me that’s fine. It’s another two days of travel towards the next set of ruins,” I said, snuggling into my bedroll. Then a thought crossed my mind. “I don’t really have any extra supplies to afford you, though. As it is I’ll be cutting things close.”
“Will be fine.”
“If you say so. Okay then,” I said with a yawn, “We have a long day of traveling ahead and I need my rest. So, as entertaining as it is to talk to you, I need to sleep.”
Cleo nodded. “Will protect. Sleep well.”
Protect? Not like there was much out here in the desert. Scorpions and the like were a possibility, but they were awfully rare. Well, no point in worrying about her words.
I figured she’d stand guard or something to protect me. Turned out we had different ideas of what that meant. Not long after I’d closed my eyes I heard her shuffling closer. Barely cracking an eye open, I spied her inching forward on all fours. And then in a stroke of masterful subtlety, she just kind of crawled over the top of me and fell asleep herself. Great protection.
Though, I’ll admit I felt a little different as I began slipping into sleep. Somehow I felt a bit more relaxed, a bit more at ease. Not exactly comfortable, yet somehow I slept better than I had in months or maybe years.
In the morning she tried to play cool like nothing had happened, slipping off as the sun rose. My attempt to poke a bit of fun at her about it fell a little short due to her response, or lack thereof. She just adamantly denied crawling over me in her usual emotionless way.
Her company was nice to have during the trek. Short of words as she may have been, it was far better than the silence of wind-swept sand. Cleo’d apparently lost most of her memories – couldn’t even remember why she was where she was. No idea about her age either, though she did have some hazy, vague recollections of a lush oasis long ago in about the same spot she’d awoke.
There was evidence of parts of those ruins being immersed in water for a time, but that’d have been at least 1,500 years ago. Where the hell would she have been hidden all that time? Moreover, all ‘modern’ Khepri were fairly young. They aged like everyone else and passed away like everyone else. Was this one immortal?
I pondered that for a time as we traveled, but avoided broaching the topic. She probably wouldn’t know much about herself anyways.
Finally, by my reckoning, we’d reached the location where something other than sand ought to have been. I checked my map and travel log several times over; every time I came up with the same answer.
“Looks like we’re not going to be exploring anything here,” I said with a long, drawn-out sigh.
Things like this happened. I used to get angry, but after enough times I sort of got used to it. My rage would never part the sandy seas, so what was the point? Just carry on to the next location.
While I was plotting my next course of action, I noticed Cleo was staring at one particular dune.
“See something over there?” I asked curiously. She hadn’t been one to gawk at things for no reason.
“Old temple, buried,” she said, remaining fixated on a patch of sand. She then turned to me. “You explore?”
“I can’t see what you see. It’s all just sand to me.”
Her beetle-like wings chittered. “I will show.”
I shrugged. Didn’t have anything to do any sort of excavating, but knowing that my bearings were true would be nice.
Cleo led the way to the dune she’d been so interested in. Maybe the tip of the temple was the reason for the dune? Though when I thought about it, I didn’t recall anything indicating that there was a temple here. Far as I knew it was just a small city that had a good chance of having a noble’s mastaba.
“Here,” Cleo said, and without further ado she began to dig. “Will return soon.”
Sand flew this way and that as she burrowed down, pretty much like when I’d startled her and she attempted to hide herself. You wouldn’t think it to look at her, but the girl could move more sand than a group of guys with shovels. Watching, I thought maybe I wouldn’t need excavation gear afterall. Or, actually, I probably would. She sort of burrowed into the sand and then vanished.
So there I stood, staring at a whole lot of nothing for far too long. What interested me the most about all that’d just happened was how Cleo could be so confident about the spot she dug into it. If it was anyone else I’d have called them crazy, but I felt that the little Khepri knew what she was doing. Even accounting for her memory loss.
Joe seemed to be concerned. I suppose anyone would be if they saw me staring at a barren patch of nothingness for over minutes.
“She’ll be back,” I told Joe. He remained unconvinced.
Another fifteen minutes drifted by. Maybe Joe was right. He did have a knack for these things – wouldn’t be the first time a potential exploratory partner had abandoned me. He didn’t have to look so smug about it, though.
A half hour. Then an hour. All told almost two hours had passed. Some sand blew around. I drew a bit in the sand – a rather decent image of a Pharaoh, in my opinion.
“What do you want me to do? She’s just a woman with a snake. I thought I did the snake very well. Don’t give me that look, Joe. I’d like to see you do better. Yeah that’s what I thought, you just… stand there.”
Argument with Joe aside, I began to think that I should get a move on. Going that deep into the sand may have triggered Cleo’s hibernation mechanic, or whatever one might call it. I’d hate to abandon a companion, but I couldn’t mill about pointlessly in the desert.
As fortune happens, just a few moments after that thought the ground shook ever so slightly. Turning my eyes towards where Cleo had vanished, I noticed something most interesting – the sand was sinking. A shallow depression formed, then a hole. And it kept going. Joe was looking rather alarmed, but ever the faithful steed he didn’t run off.
Being the explorer that I am, I explored. Without some kind of firm footing around the rim of the newly-formed hole I was more than a little worried about getting close. But close I got, peering down. The hole went down at least fifty or sixty feet, the sand giving way to crafted stone near the bottom. Most curious of all was a large metal grate or door that was groaning shut. Just to the side of it was some sort of archway. And standing there, peering up, was Cleo.
“What the hell is this?” I yelled, wondering how I could get down while also having a means to get back up.
“Temple,” Cleo responded. “of Osiris.”
“Temple of Osiris? Here?”
There was absolutely no record of this anywhere. Chance of a lifetime, and all thanks to Cleo. Even if the city wasn’t buried, I doubt anyone would have found this. I looked for something to hook a rope to so I could climb back out. Nothing. Right – a desert. No way to make the funnel less steep, either. My heart hammered away rational thought.
“Keep watch Joe,” I said, then vanished down from his sight. He’d probably stick around.
My semi-controlled descent saw me collapse with a meaty thud onto the metal sand-trap-door. Cleo watched passively. Didn’t even flinch. I’d be fine, nothing broken, just a little bruised.
“Explore?” Cleo inquired, extending me one of her little claws to help me up.
“With pleasure,” I said, kind of forgetting the size difference. Instead of getting up I just pulled her onto my lap.
Her antennae wiggled before caressing my face. “Explore Cleo?”
…Awkward. She’d been so sedate on our journey I completely forgot what she was. Never once made a move.
“Maybe later,” I said, standing up and setting Cleo down. Her small body type didn’t do anything for me, but I guess if she wanted it as a reward I could oblige her later. “For now, let’s venture into this temple of Osiris, shall we?”
“Okay. Careful, old magic here.”
Find of the century right here if there were some kind of active, magical wards or whatever in place. My body was practically bursting with excitement – it wasn’t just the bonus commission I’d receive for discovering this place, but knowing that I’d be the first person in who knows how long to enter this place. Khepri aside.
“Lead the way, Cleo.”
With a nod she passed through the stone arch, which I now noticed was surprisingly small. She could walk through normally, but I was forced to stoop low to get through.
Darkness. I’d forgotten about the darkness. Thankfully I kept a small flashlight on me for just such incident, along with a flint and some tinder just in case I could create a torch from something. My little flashlight had survived the fall, much to my relief, and despite its tiny size did well to light up the dark void of the temple.
Cleo’s claws clicked against the well-fit stone, the surface unmarred by time or elements. Intricate reliefs and carvings adorned the walls, all in rich, vibrant colors. This had to have been untouched until now – sealed, even. As I took in everything, even just inside the entrance, I began to wonder. Oxidation alone should’ve faded the colors significantly. It shouldn’t be possible for the inks used to be this pristine. Was it the magic Cleo spoke of?
My heart trembled, but I could not say if it was excitement or worry.
Amongst the glyphs, I noticed a predominant scarab motif. They featured in nearly every cartouche, along with a few glyphs I’d never seen before. “What is this place? This hall?” I asked.
Cleo paused and looked from wall to wall herself. “Servant entrance. Servant quarters, this way,” she said, pointing further down the hall.
Since when were Khepri servants? Oh this was going to be big. You cute little lucky amazing scarab, I thought, staring at Cleo’s back. I’d give her all the spirit energy she wanted for this.
The hallway dipped downhill for thirty or forty paces before opening into a large chamber of some sort. Multiple other hallways branched off, spreading out in all the major directions. This place was massive. Absolutely massive. My tiny flashlight could just barely illuminate the ceiling.
And yet Cleo kept walking on as if intimately familiar with this place.
“Have you been here before?” I asked.
“Think so. Lived here. Hard to remember.”
We passed an ebony statue of an Anubis holding up her golden scale with one paw and a bronze staff in the other. I think it was ebony, anyways. Like everything else here, it looked as if carved and painted only days ago.
“Servant quarters,” Cleo announced after we’d made our way through another hallway and into another spacious chamber.
Compared to the rest of what I’d seen, this was very sparsely decorated. Bedding lined the walls, stacked two high in bunk beds. Each was relatively small, almost a perfect fit for Cleo by my estimate. New glyphs, statues of people and deities I had never seen. All in this modest room. It was like I’d traveled back in time to just after this whole complex was finished.
“So this is where you lived?” I spoke in hushed awe, drinking in the room.
“Yes. Think so,” Cleo responded, coming to my side.
My light settled on a statue of what I assumed to be a deity, but one I’d never seen. Before I could even ask the question, Cleo spoke up. “Osiris.”
“Yes, Osiris,” she responded. “Not nice,” she added.
The figure in front of me was unlike any depiction of Osiris I’d ever seen. It was a fairly small carving of a woman, holding a crook and flail crossed over her rather sizeable chest. That much was accurate to what was popularly believed, but she had very large, fox-like ears jutting from her head and a pair of thin tails that ended in tufts. She possessed human hands and a human torso, but just below the waist her hips became covered in fur and she had digitigrade, wolf-like legs that ended in large paws.
It was like an odd mishmash of Osiris and her sister Set.
“No. Very mean.”
Cleo’s memory was certainly peculiar.
“What other rooms are there?” I inquired, my heart still racing with energy. I was split between wanting to probe every nook in this room and wanting to take in the whole complex.
“Many others. Want to see?”
My curiosity for the whole won out. “Of course!”
She brushed up next to me and extended a clawed hand. “Take hand. Dangerous.”
Danger is one of those things that can frighten someone off or act as a catalyst to drive them on. Grinning like a fool, I took Cleo’s claw. Her little pointy fingers closed around my fingers, perhaps a bit more snuggly than I would have expected. Despite the hard carapace, her claw-hand had a lingering warmth to it.
“Lead the way to wherever you want to take me,” I said, suddenly wishing I had some charcoal and paper with me so I could make a few rubbings. A bit of proof would go further than my word when I returned to the curator.
With a gentle tug, Cleo lead me out into the hallway and back towards the main chamber. The ebon Anubis statue was still there, though it looked different. Maybe it was just because I was looking at it from the other direction?
“Your heart, too loud,” Cleo said, gripping my hand even more tightly. “Will wake the sleeping.”
Compared to the sounds of our footfalls, my heartbeat was completely silent. I mean, just because I could hear my own pulse didn’t mean others could. Moreover, how did she know my heart was pounding? Could she feel it through our hands? I couldn’t detect anything through her claw; chitin probably had something to do with that.
Which made me wonder about something.
“Hey, Cleo,” I said, slowing my pace at the same time.
Then, when she turned to face me I placed my hand on her bare chest. Sure enough, there was a slow, steady heartbeat – for a moment anyways, before her pulse quickened ever so slightly.
“Not in front of them,” she said, motioning towards the Anubis statue. “Too loud. Can’t protect.”
Not surprisingly she’d interpreted my gesture as a come-on. No sex in front of the goddesses, huh? And protect me from what?
“A shame,” I said. “We’ll just have to save it for later, won’t we?”
Her wings shuffled. I was beginning to think her wings chittered on their own when she was flustered or something.
“Yes. Later,” she said, her flat tone taking on a softer quality. “Would like.”
Small price to pay for having a guided tour of an ancient, underground facility from someone who was probably just as ancient as the stone.
Cleo led me through a multitude of rooms, giving her usual succinct overview of what each one was for. In the body preparation room I found some linen and oil which I used to construct a torch, using an ornamental spear as the base. The tallow flame dyed everything shades of yellow and orange, but at least now I could see an entire room at once rather than small spots at a time.
There was one chamber left at the end of a wide hallway adorned in royal decorations. Deep blues, purples, golds, and fine marble adorned the passage. Inside that room was something, or someone of great importance. The hall alone probably cost more than the rest of the rooms. My heart surged with excitement.
“No, dangerous. Calm heart,” Cleo pleaded.
Actually pleaded. Her voice was shot through with worry.
“What makes it dangerous?”
“You mean like Osiris is in that room?”
“Yes,” she said timidly.
A goddess was here. Or at least the remains of one. I had to press on. My sense of adventure and awe overrode everything else, including the little Khepri desperately clinging to me, dragging her clawed feet across the marble.
“Dangerous! Stop!” Cleo begged. I kept walking.
Pushing aside well-preserved cedar doors, my breath caught in my throat. A massive golden throne dominated the center of the room atop a stepped dais. Every wall was etched with reliefs, panoramas, and pictorial retellings of stories. Even the ceiling and floor were covered – on the floor the layout was as such as to form a spiral that led from the entrance to the foot of the throne.
And behind the throne was a massive granite sarcophagus. Step by step I eked closer.
“No!” Cleo shouted. I kept walking. “Stop!” Another step.
Then she froze, holding absolutely still. “Too late,” she whispered. “Too late…”
Those words brought me to a halt. Panic filled her eyes; eyes glued to the sarcophagus. Out of nowhere a wave of dread washed over me. Without thinking my focus locked onto the stone coffin. The atmosphere grew heavy, oppressive. It was a feeling like I was being watched by an unseen eye.
It shouldn’t be possible for the lid to move. I’ve tried to lift one or two by myself. It shouldn’t be possible for any one person to move. Stone ground against stone.
My feet shuffled backwards. I needed to escape. We had to escape. Why didn’t I listen to her?
A paw appeared, gripping the edge. The tips of fox ears appeared. This is what I wanted, wasn’t it? Why did terror grip me?
My feet turned around. Backwards wasn’t fast enough. But my feet moved faster than my vision. I crashed into something. Someone.
The makeshift torch clattered to the marble floor. Harsh shadows danced to the flame’s tune, cavorting about her face. She looked just like the statue. She was the statue.
Behind me the quiet, dull shriek of stone on stone echoed through the chamber. The Anubis’ scale jingled.
Cleo was shivering, pressing against me as if attempting to disappear. Her claw was still firmly latched onto my hand, sending her tremors into my arm.
The Anubis took a step forward. Though shorter than I was, she was possessed of a commanding presence that made her seem a giant. “You. Man. What is the meaning of disturbing our rest?” She asked, her tone sharp as a knife. “And you, servant. Why have you returned? What of your original charge?”
“I-I am an archeologist,” I struggled to speak confidently. I thrust my chest out and brought myself to full height. The Anubis was unimpressed. “And I am exploring this ancient temple in the interest of preserving ancient history and revealing its knowledge to the world.”
I was damn proud of coming up with that line, given the circumstances. I don’t know where the words came from, but they flowed out naturally somehow. It wasn’t exactly a lie, but I was nothing so amazing as an archeologist.
Cleo took a moment before answering. “Do not remember original charge. Woke up in sand. Nothing.”
The Anubis opened her mouth to speak, but then her eyes focused beyond me. Her lips closed and she stood as rigid as her staff. A breath brushed the back of my neck.
“A seeker of the forgotten and a scarab that has forgotten. Most interesting,” came a voice, saturated through with a lisp. Something wet darted against my skin as the voice spoke. Cleo was shaking like a leaf in a storm.
Smooth as a ratchet, I turned my head to look at what had spoken. A living example of the statue I saw in the servant’s quarters, and indeed, every other room. Only whereas the mouths on the statues were closed, this one was open. The tip of a long, thick tongue flicked against my cheek. It was at least a foot long.
She grinned at me, then her ochre eyes turned down to Cleo. “That one has informed you?”
Terror and excitement mingled together in my heart. Anubi were rare, and were little more than a wolf offshoot these days. Now I was in the presence of one that retained her mythological heritage. Even better, a species of monstergirl that was, until now, completely unknown to man had just licked me. Both were goddesses. Living vessels of antiquity, probably capable of magics long since lost as their blood thinned through generations of offspring born from humans.
“Yes,” I said after a moment. “She has shown me this holy place.” Why did I call this temple holy?
“So she has.”
Something – someone – screamed inside me that I needed to run. A familiar voice, but not my own.
“You sound most troubled. For why are you so nervous?” The Osiris hissed out, stalking from one side of me to the other.
“The unknown,” I replied without thought.
Osiris nodded academically. “Yes, it is wise to be wary of that which is beyond your comprehension. But…” She trailed off, circling around in front of me. Her two tails swung side to side in short, quick bursts. Compared to the Anubis, and even me, she was tall – must have been crouching when she was behind me.
“But?” I questioned.
“You bleed with guilt.”
My heart skipped a beat. How could they know? They couldn’t, could they?
The same voice inner voice from earlier spoke: They wouldn’t know unless told, and right now, I was telling them everything.
I didn’t understand. Who was speaking to me? How was I telling them anything?
A familiar pair of points prodded my arm. My eyes met Cleo’s. Her gaze was like steel, yet she clung to me like I was the only thing preventing her from drowning amidst stormy seas. She was supposed to protect me? No, I had to protect her and get us out of here.
“That is the real reason why you are nervous, is it not?” Osiris continued.
“When faced with two goddesses, would their majesty not cause any man to tremble?” I replied, obeying some inner command.
Osiris’ eyebrows rose ever so slightly. “Indeed.”
“Enough of these games,” growled Anubis, striking the stone with her staff. “You should not have brought him here, scarab.” She let out a snort. “He defiles this place.”
“How?” I asked. “What is there to defile?”
“You corrupt the purity of those-“
Her words were cut short by Osiris holding out her hand, flexing her fingers as it mimicking a claw. “She is correct. Mortals are not meant to know. Mortals are not meant to enter these halls.”
Holding one hand into the air, she regarded me pityingly. “What is done, is done. Harbor no ill will for the scarab. I will see to her punishment.”
Before I could respond, before I could move or think, Osiris’ hand shot forward. Bone offered no resistance. Before my brain could process the sequence of events into something rational, understandable, there Osiris stood, holding her prize aloft. And there I stood. My mind identified the thing in her hand as my heart. But I was still breathing, and thinking.
My hands raced up and down my chest. Everything was fine. There was no blood. No hole. Why couldn’t I feel my heartbeat?
The heart in Osiris’ hand pulsed as if still alive.
“To tread here with the burden of sin is to accept the punishment of death,” said the Anubis solemnly.
All at once the voice became clear. Cleo stopped trembling. “I will protect you,” her voice sang out in my thoughts.
Osiris placed my heart onto Anubis’ scale. At the same time, a feather materialized from nothing on the other end.
“It is time for the judgment,” said Anubis.
Her task apparently completed, Osiris took a few steps back and assumed some sort of ritualistic posture. A crook and a flail appeared in her crossed arms.
Anubis began a series of questions: The 42 principles of Maat. Every question she asked, my lips moved and my voice sounded, but I was not the one who spoke. Cleo answered every question for me, answering in the affirmative each time. I could not feel my own heartbeat, but I could sense hers. It was matched to the heart resting on a golden scale.
Once Anubis finished her list of questions, she glared harshly at me and Cleo. Clearing her through, she began at the top of the lift. Only now she was very pointed on some questions.
“Have you stolen?” Asked Anubis.
“I have not stolen.”
“Have you stolen?” She asked again, a even more accusatory tone tinting her words.
“I have not stolen,” my voice repeated with a measure of difficulty. The words stuck to my throat and passed like so much sand.
The scale wobbled. My heart kept its steady beat. Rather, Cleo’s heart kept steady. Teetered one way, then the other, and settled back to balance. Anubis exhaled sharply through her nose.
Cleo was beginning to tremble again. Very slight, minor tremors. I laid my hand on her head, stroking her hair between her antennae. I was beginning to figure out what was going on, but I didn’t know why. She’d only known me for such a short time – why go to this length?
Anubis spoke loudly. Her gaze was every bit the judge staring down a condemned man. “Are you a man of violence?”
“I am not a man of violence.”
The scale sank, only recovering just before the heart bottomed out the scale. Cleo’s heartbeat was losing its watch-like precision.
“Have you wronged anyone, have you done evil?” Anubis hissed out.
“I have… wronged none. I have done… no evil.”
Cleo gasped. I thought it was going to end right there. The heart lingered above the point of no return for far too long. I was sweating far more than I ever did out in the scorching sands.
I wondered if Cleo knew my truth. She had to with how much she was struggling to lie. Why would anyone defend someone like me? It’s true I considered myself reformed – a new life wandering in the deserts had given me the time I needed to reflect on my past, but I had yet to make amends
My arm wrapped around the diminutive Khepri. It was a simple gesture, but some strength returned to her and a light, tiny smile crossed her lips.
Anubis actually growled. “You have quite the capable servant but,” she paused, glancing back towards Osiris. When she looked back her face was twisted into a predatory grin made all the more disconcerting by the sharp shadows that hid her features save for her pointed teeth and gleaming eyes. “Have you blasmephied against any goddess?”
“I have not… not…” My throat went silent, clenching shut as if Anubis herself had her paw wrapped around my throat.
Why was this so hard? The first time through, this question had been answered as easily as any other.
Anubis slammed her staff down into the marble. “Answer!”
The heart was galloping. Cleo was gasping and breathing heavily into my stomach. Her wings were fluttering almost non-stop. She was struggling to remain standing. She was on her last legs, her last breath.
So I scooped her up into my arms. She said nothing; she didn’t need to. Her smile served as all the thanks I needed. Holding her close to my chest, something twinged inside me. A certain feeling I thought I’d forgotten.
“If you do not answer, I will assume you have,” Anubis said, almost as if happy that I would fail her judgment.
Osiris’s face remained an impassive mask.
Cleo poked at my chest with her claw. Words surged forth. “I have not blasmephied against any goddess,” I said, no longer straining to speak.
Anubis sneered. “Fine. So be it. This one has passed, Osiris,” she said, spitting the words out like the most vile poison imaginable.
The mask crumbled and her crook faded. Osiris’ lips pressed into a grim line. “So be it,” she said, stepping forward and plucking the heart from the scale. “I deem this heart to be without sin.”
Her hand thrust forward, slamming into my chest. Only it didn’t move me. Nor did I feel anything. Her hand up to her wrist had disappeared into me – heart and all. Just as suddenly as I’d lost it, my heartbeat returned. Loud, strong. Synchronized. Though at the same time, exhaustion finally overcame the intrepid Khepri and she went slack. I was on my own now.
The golden scale vanished from Anubis’ paw. Both paws now wrapped around the staff. “Osiris, I do not like this. He will bring others.”
Osiris pointed her flail at me. “The secrets here must remain here. Do you agree?”
I looked down at Cleo. “What about her?”
“That one must remain. She possesses knowledge,” Osiris said, shaking her head slowly.
“She hardly remembers anything. What harm could be pose? Plus, there are many like her in the world.”
Osiris sighed. Anubis held her staff at the ready, tail bristling. Easy to tell what she thought the conclusion of this was going to be.
“She will remember. It is only a matter of time,” Osiris said calmly. Then the chimeric creature smirked. “You may stay here, however, if you wish to be with that particular scarab.”
Amongst the many issues with that idea, one stood out to be in particular. “Stay? But there is no food or water here.”
Her smirk bloomed. Walking towards me, a noticeable seductive sway to her hips, she bent down so that her ample bosom hung down. “That will not be an issue.”
“You don’t mean to-“ Anubis began with a gasp, but was cut off by a fierce glare.
“Mean to what?” I asked, taking a step or three backwards.
Osiris again closed the gap, bringing her face close to mine. Light behind her, I couldn’t make anything save for her eyes. And the slimy wetness of her long tongue running down my cheek. She certainly didn’t leave much room for interpretation.
“I have been asleep for quite some time,” she said, her breath washing out across me. I took another step back. She took another step forward. “And I wish to indulge my aches and desires.”
I had no idea if she could see in this darkness, so I did my best to keep some sort of cocky, fearless expression plastered on my face. “Tell me something I don’t know.”
Two rows of pointy, white teeth made themselves known. My other cheek got a nice sliming. I wondered briefly if she was tasting me; Cleo said I smelled good. Maybe I tasted good, too. Odd thought to have at that time.
“Alas, mortals tend to fall apart under my lust. Thus, I offer immortality by transforming you with a large quantity of dark energy. You may stay here for an eternity, sating your hunger and ours,” Osiris said grandly, spreading her arms wide and raising herself to her full height.
Mortals tend to fall apart. Not exactly the most provocative phrase I’ve heard. I shifted my footing and my arms. Cleo was getting kind of heavy, just standing around like this. “And if I refuse your offer and wish to take Cleo with me?”
Osiris responded as if she was expecting my answer, her wide grin spreading further. “Then I will simply eat you up anyways.”
“Cleo?” Anubis said, cocking her head slightly before she realized I was referring to the Khepri in my arms. “You have given that one a name?”
“Yes, since she couldn’t remember her name,” I said, shifting my eyes rapidly between Osiris and Anubis. Last thing I needed was the hulking woman in front of me blindsiding me.
“That is because her kind did not have names,” Osiris responded, displeased. “No wonder she defended you.”
Well, that explains why she couldn’t remember her name.
“So the choice is yours,” Osiris said. “You may leave here alone, with a small curse on you, or stay here and be shared amongst us for an eternity. Even Anubis would love to have you.”
Behind her Anubis’s guard instantly dropped. “I, I do not know what you are talking about!”
One thing in there caught my attention more than Anubis’ obvious lie. “Wait, curse?”
Osiris’ face was remarkable in its ability to switch from sinister grin to incredulous frown and back again in just seconds. Though her ability to speak with only a heavy lisp despite her massive tongue was probably more remarkable.
“Yes, a curse to seal your lips. Should you utter of this place, you would be killed.”
“So why not apply that to Cleo as well to keep us quiet?”
“It does not work on servants. Only mortals,” Osiris said, tapping the end of her flail to my chest, “like you. Now then. What is your decision?”
I looked over Osiris’ shoulder, past Anubis, and down the hall. Even if I ran, how would I get out? The entrance I came in through was at the bottom of a sand pit. Actually, how would I get out at all? “This is under the sands, yes? If I were to choose to leave Cleo behind, how would I exit?”
Anubis strode up alongside Osiris – apparently she’d gotten over her embarrassment or whatever. “Do not worry about that.”
“Why not? Well, do I need to answer now? I mean, this is a big decision.” It wasn’t a total lie, but I was really just hoping to wait for Cleo to wake so I could create some kind of plan. Preferably one that didn’t result in me having my pelvis ground to dust over an eternity.
The glint in Osiris’ eyes narrowed. “Very well. A few hours will do no harm.”