Zahur stood in awe at the entrance of the palace, overwhelmed by the beauty of the reds and blues and golds and familiar tan of the Egyptian sands. Surrounding him stood a courtyard of sorts, the exterior walls supported by thick columns and decorated with hundreds of carefully drawn pictograms. In the center of the courtyard grew a cluster of palms trees, bushes, and flowers which Zahur couldn’t quite recognize. As he admired the foliage, a pair of palace guards approached him, gesturing for him to follow them to the throne room.
“Who comes before me while I toil?” demanded a low, booming voice in the distance.
Rounding a corner, Zahur saw his pharaoh, Lord Khufu, huddled over a large, golden chamber near his throne. The structure resembled a small gazebo, albeit one with long, tree-like branches protruding from the top and embedding into the palace ceiling. Khufu grasped a crank on one of the chamber’s columns, spinning it, and Zahur’s eyes widened in amazement as small arcs of green lightning flickered between the golden branches.
“A peasant boy from the Western village,” one of the guards responded. “He comes to you for aid.”
Khufu turned sharply, standing up inside the chamber. He took a few long strides out into the throne room, descending a short flight of stairs to approach the boy. Stopping an arm’s length away, he crouched, joining Zahur at eye level. His sunbaked skin practically glowed bronze in the palace light.
“How old are you, boy?” he asked.
“I’ve lived through ten risings of Sirius,” Zahur answered. “But I do not come for myself today.”
Khufu chuckled, placing his hands on his knees. “Who have you come for, then?”
“My father,” Zahur admitted. “And my mother. And my two sisters. They’re starving, your majesty. Our crops, we can’t maintain them. And the livestock goes to your palace, so we don’t have that, either. I come to you asking for a little bit of reprieve.”
“Reprieve, eh?” Khufu murmured, cocking his head. Zahur saw his eyes light up, and he spun on his heels. “Reprieve, the boy asks for.”
The pharaoh hurried past his throne, entering a small nearby room. He returned in seconds, palming a large, red, glistening fruit with a black stem jutting out of the top. Walking back up to Zahur, he extended his arm, showing him the fruit.
“Here,” Khufu offered. “Here’s your reprieve.”
Zahur carefully took it, turning it over in his hands. “What is it, your majesty?”
“It’s called an apple,” Khufu explained. “I obtained some when I was away traveling. This one is special, though. This will be the last food you or your family will ever need.”
“Thank you.” Zahur’s eyes watered. “Thank you so much. How do I use it to feed the others?”
Khufu’s mouth split into a wide grin. “All you have to do is eat it. The whole thing, especially the seeds. They’re the most important part. The rest will follow in three days’ time.”
Zahur’s eyes drifted back down to the apple. “Just eat it?”
“That’s right, boy,” Khufu laughed. “Simple, isn’t it?”
“It is, your majesty,” replied Zahur.
He found himself staring at the chamber next to Khufu’s throne, and the pharaoh noticed, too.
“Are you curious about what I’m building?” Khufu asked the boy.
The pharaoh snapped his fingers at the guards. “Leave us. I’ll give our new friend here a tour.”
Bowing their heads, the guards backed away, exiting the throne room.
Khufu gestured to the chamber, and Zahur followed him up the stairs as the pharaoh spoke. “I don’t suppose you’ve attended any of my scientific lectures, have you?”
Zahur shook his head. “My family is too religious. They don’t want me learning something that’s different than what they believe.”
Chuckling, Khufu slapped his hand on one of the chamber’s supporting columns. “That’s funny. Religion and science are far more intertwined than most people believe. Your parents included.”
Taking a bite from the apple, Zahur savored its sweet crispness, finally swallowing the flesh and juice. “What do you mean?”
“Well, we worship our gods, do we not?” asked Khufu, pointing at the hieroglyphics on the walls. “Osiris and Horus, Bastet and Seth. They watch us from an unreachable domain, governing the way the world works. That’s what you’ve been told, isn’t it?”
Zahur took another bite, nodding.
“Well, I believe these beings exist, but not as our rulers,” Khufu explained. “I believe that, just as a river splits when presented with an obstacle, so too does our one world become many as it sees shifts in power. Maybe in one world, you eat this apple. In another, you don’t. These worlds stretch out, infinitely, becoming less and less probable as time passes in each realm.”
Frowning, Zahur slowed his chewing, trying to wrap his head around what Khufu was saying. “Where are these worlds? In the sky? Below the sands?”
“In whispers,” Khufu responded, his eyes glistening passionately now. “In soft breezes. If we sail along the surface of a river, does it not resist us, keeping us separate from the world of the fish? Yet, if we gently submerge our hand, it welcomes us freely. I think that this world, the one you and I live in, we’re like boats, floating atop the streams, unaware that an entirely different kind of domain is waiting for us on the other side of the surface.”
“Is that what that is?” Zahur queried, looking at the chamber. “A way off the boat? A way below the river?”
“Not quite,” admitted Khufu. “See, I’m not much interested in exploring these worlds. I want one world – the world where our ancestors have evolved into powerful entities. Entities we see glimpses of in our religion: Osiris and Horus, Bastet and Seth. I call it The Ascension.”
Zahur gulped down another apple bite, swallowing a smooth seed this time. “What do you want from The Ascension?”
“I want their essence, their energy. They’ve lived all this time, sustained by a force that our world does not possess. An eternal force.” Khufu offered Zahur wild grin. “The reality your family worships, it has a gift for me. And I’m going to take it.”
After finishing his apple, Zahur trekked back beyond the pharaoh’s city, joining his family in the Western village. He relayed Khufu’s message to them, and they rejoiced, excited for the blessing that was to come. As the sun set, Zahur laid down on his cot, smiling in satisfaction.
His stomach rumbled, and a sharp pain poked at his side. Frowning, he shifted, and the pain vanished. In its place came a faint, gnawing sound, like a tree branch bending in the wind. He looked around, trying to identify the source of the sound, but it quickly faded, and he closed his eyes, returning to a world of darkness.
The gnawing sound returned to Zahur’s ears as he awoke the next morning. He reached up, sticking his finger in one canal, but he heard no change in pitch or volume. It was almost as if it was coming from . . . inside him.
Then, it stopped.
Zahur took a deep breath, calming himself, and grabbed some buckets, venturing to the river to collect water for the morning. He kicked off his sandals, allowing his toes to squish into the wet sand as he slipped down the banks. The cool stream washed across his feet, ridding it of the earthy residue, and he sighed in satisfaction. The hot sun and cold river created a beautiful contrast, and he found it difficult not to savor the moment.
Something tickled his feet, and he glanced down at the water, expecting some small fish. He saw nothing, however, even as the sensation grew stronger. Cocking his head curiously, he crouched, his hand hovering about the river’s surface. As he dipped his fingers into the water, he couldn’t help but to think about Lord Khufu’s analogy about the barrier between worlds.
This is no fantasy, Zahur chastised himself. This is just a river. We can see a river, feel it, drink from it.
He plunged his hand down into the riverbed, feeling around for whatever it was that tickled his feet. Rather than feeling fish or flora, his fingertips rubbed against thin strands on the ends of his toes. Confused, he backed out of the river, examining his feet. Sure enough, little brown roots, hardly thicker than strands of hair, grew from beneath his toenails, soggy from the river water. He grasped at the roots protruding from his big right toe and pulled, yanking them from his skin. A little blood leaked from beneath the toenail, dribbling towards the clear water and staining it red.
Zahur felt something brush against the back of his throat, and he gagged, dropping to his hands and knees to retch against . . . whatever it was. Nothing came out of his mouth, though, and he reached two fingers down into his throat, feeling for the object within. He felt something flat and pinched it, pulling forward. The object resisted, but he pulled harder, and with a crisp snap it came free, exiting his mouth. Hand shaking, he extended his arm, looking at the object.
A leaf. Just a flat, green leaf.
But then, what was the leaf connected to, that he had to pull so hard to free it?
Zahur’s sandals slapped against sand and stone, propelling him across the city and towards Lord Khufu’s palace. He struggled to breathe, his joints stiff and aching, his skin crawling as if covered in a layer of insects. As he made his way into the palace courtyard, he found it devoid of guards, and a cacophony of loud voices sounded from Khufu’s throne room. Crouching, Zahur pressed himself against the wall, sneaking to the edge of the doorway separating him from the commotion.
“Lord Khufu, you cannot do this!” a stern voice insisted.
Zahur peeked around the corner, absorbing the scene. A dozen men and women in brown, hooded robes surrounded Khufu, who sat in his throne, a look of annoyance stretched across his face. Against the walls stood six guards, weapons at the ready in case the situation grew out of hand.
“Disciples of Bastet,” he boomed, addressing the hooded figures, “you know that I have always honored our . . . tenuous relationship. You provide spiritual hope to the people, while I feed and protect them. But you cannot simply invade my home and make demands of me.”
“Please, Lord Khufu,” begged one of the women in the front of the group. “We’ve received a vision from Bastet, all of us. She’s sent a Call, showing us our future. Your future.”
“My future, eh?” The pharaoh pondered on her words for a moment. “Bastet can do that?”
“You’re right, your majesty,” interjected another disciple. “There are other worlds, other planes of existence, such the one where Bastet lives. But these worlds are connected by circumstance, not time, and to connect to these other worlds is to become disconnected from the flow of life. Do you understand?”
“I do,” nodded Khufu. “That’s why I must join them in power.”
“But power comes at a cost,” the woman near the front spoke again. “We are not prepared to breach the veil between worlds. We are not advanced enough. If you penetrate that barrier, the effects will be catastrophic. Not just for you, but for our entire world.”
“Not advanced enough?” scoffed Khufu. “Now, you’ve insulted me. I’ve built this country up with my wit and ingenuity. You think this is where I’ll finally fail?”
She opened her mouth to respond, but he waved his hand dismissively. “Begone. You are all banned from my palace. I have nothing more to say.”
The disciples erupted in protest, but the guards quickly approached with their spears, herding them from the throne room and into the courtyard, somehow overlooking Zahur in the process. The boy waited for the group to vanish past the palm trees, then hurried into the throne room, walking up to where Khufu sat. The pharaoh leaned forward, an amused expression on his face.
“Ah, the boy with the hungry family. How are you feeling today?”
“Not well,” admitted Zahur. “Something is happening to me. My body is changing. I don’t understand what I’m supposed to do.”
“Well, I’ve done what you’ve asked,” Khufu snapped, standing up. “I’ve provided you with a means for feeding your family. Do you trust me, your pharaoh?”
Zahur nodded sheepishly. “Yes, I do.”
“Then go back home,” commanded Khufu. “Drink plenty of water, and soak up as much sunlight as you can before it grows dark. Everything will make sense soon.”
Zahur awoke choking, his throat dry and filled with tickling objects. He attempted to reach up, to free his throat, but his arms were so stiff, each movement crackled like dry twigs, sending sharp pain rippling through his body. Still, he persisted, shoving his hand down his throat until he grasped something thin and stiff. Jerking his arm forward, he ripped it out, unspooling it from within as dozens of objects tickled him and forced him to gag. He extended his shaking arm, revealing a long stem covered in flat, green leaves. The broken end of the stem dripped blood, as if the object had been connected to flesh rather than foliage.
What is happening to me?
He tried to stand, but found his legs and torso were just as stiff as his arms, cracking and snapping throughout his body. Struggling past the pain, he slowly rose, carefully balancing himself on the ground. His fingers brushed against his bare legs, and he recoiled as they encountered a tangled mess. Glancing down, he saw thousands of tiny, thick roots protruding from the pores of his legs, giving him an almost beastly appearance.
“Lord Khufu,” he struggled to whisper, his voice raspy and dry. “He’ll know what to do.”
By the time Zahur reached the palace, the pain of his snapping bones had become almost second nature. His stomach, however, rumbled aggressively, seeming to push something back up into his throat. He was less concerned about the pain and more worried about suffocating before he could get help.
As he ran up to the entrance, he heard a distant rumble, like a thunderstorm. Lifting his head, he saw thick, grey clouds emerging from the roof of the palace, crawling up into the sky. As he watched, a green light flickered from behind the clouds, flashing periodically like lightning. The clouds slowly spread out from the palace, casting a shadow over Zahur.
Zahur burst into the building, stumbling across the courtyard. As he paused to catch his breath, his eyes drifted to the mass of trees and bushes in the center of the open space. Draped over the branches of one palm tree hung two of Khufu’s guards, their throats cut and dribbling blood onto the leaves below. Zahur covered his mouth to stop himself from screaming and dropped to a crouch, silently moving past the dead men and towards the throne room.
Flickering green lights emanated from the doorway, and Zahur froze for a second before peeking around the corner. He saw Khufu operating a series of levers and cranks on his interdimensional chamber, the golden branches above it alive with green lightning. Nearby stood the remaining guards, seemingly unaware of the fate of their comrades as they stared, fascinated, at the strange device.
Zahur moved to get their attention, but the dozen brown-cloaked Disciples of Bastet suddenly emerged from the shadowy corners of the throne room, producing daggers and slitting the guards’ throats from behind. As the men collapsed around Khufu, the pharaoh straightened up, glancing over his shoulder.
“Came here to usurp me, did you?” he growled. “Cowards. Traitors.”
“This isn’t about political power,” retorted one of the disciples. “You’ve violated the veil separating us from forces and entities that we are not prepared to handle.”
“Just look outside!” cried another disciple. “Even the sky is already changing.”
“I have worked too hard to stop now,” Khufu said, assuming a fighting stance. “You will not rob me of my earnings.”
Two of the disciples rushed him, daggers raised, but he caught the first one by the wrist, twisting to throw them over his shoulder while simultaneously sweeping his leg to send the other sprawling. Still holding the first disciple’s arm, he planted his foot on it, snapping it backwards. The disciple screamed, dropping their knife, and Khufu caught it with his other hand, spinning to slash the throat of the second disciple as they tried to regain their balance.
“There’s more than two of you, isn’t there?” he snarled, brandishing the bloody blade even as the pair of would-be attackers collapsed on the stone steps. “Are you bound by your faith or not?”
Zahur cowered in the corner of the room as six more disciples leapt into the fray, stabbing at Khufu. He dodged and parried expertly, manipulating the attacks to avoid even the shallowest scratch. Instead, his stolen dagger found six soft spots, and before Zahur could register the details of the battle, six more blood-soaked bodies piled at the pharaoh’s feet.
The remaining four disciples backed away in horror, carefully circling Khufu, daggers at the ready. Two of the disciples nodded at each other, sheathing their weapons, and faced the pharaoh, their eyes flickering yellow. To Zahur’s shock, they disappeared in a whisper, bodies and cloaks replaced by large, pointy-eared jungle cats who stood almost as tall as Zahur himself. The cats snarled, thick muscles rippling under tan, spotted fur as they glared at their prey.
“Two of the Blessed have come to kill me, too?” Khufu gasped in faux surprise. “I’m honored.”
As the jungle cats pounced, the remaining two dagger-wielding disciples flanked the pharaoh, closing in for the kill. The first cat reached Khufu, clamping its jaws around his forearm, but he immediately spun in a circle, using the animal’s momentum to free himself and hurl its body into the two human disciples. Blood gushed from where the bite had skinned his arm, but he merely grimaced and switched dagger hands, turning to face the second cat as the humans behind him fell.
Hissing, the other jungle cat extended its long claws, scaling up Khufu’s legs and stomach, leaving deep gashes with each step. Khufu responded by stabbing it repeatedly in the back as it reached for his throat. The animal’s jaws widened, eyes fixated on his jugular, but he managed to bring the blade down one last time, burying it into the creature’s left eye. The cat yowled, collapsing to the floor and shifting back into an unconscious human form. Blood leaked from the fallen disciple’s eye socket and pooled around their head in a murky halo.
In the time it took to stave off the attempted assassination, one of the knife-wielding disciples managed to recover, hurling themselves at Khufu. Their knife buried in his back, and the pharaoh cried out in pain and anger, pulling his body away from the cloaked intruder. He tumbled across the throne room, twisting on his feet only to throw his dagger at the attacker’s chest. It spun through the air, burying into their heart, and they fell back, eyes wide. Khufu reached behind himself, clutching the handle of the knife still in his back, and jerked hard, removing it. Blood leaked from a dozen different wounds as he shakily wielded the new blade, keeping it between himself and the last two disciples.
“You don’t know what you’ve done,” pleaded the human disciple as the cat disciple circled Khufu. “You don’t know what this will do.”
“Yes, I do,” the pharaoh scoffed. “I will become a new god.”
The jungle cat leapt at his back as the dagger-wielding disciple closed in from the other side. He crouched at the last second, burying his knife in the cat’s stomach and flipping it over his shoulder in time to deflect a dagger strike with the animal’s body. The final disciple’s eyes widened in horror as they realized who they’d stabbed, but before they could react further, Khufu rammed his knife under their chin, glaring at them as they choked on their own blood.
“You won’t be around to see it, though,” he whispered to the disciple, finally dropping him to the floor.
As the second Blessed disciple returned to their human form, Khufu fell to his hands and knees, gasping at the stone while blood poured from his wounds. His arms trembled for a moment before he collapsed completely, the sand around him quickly staining red.
“Your majesty!” Zahur cried, rushing to help the pharaoh, pushing past even the excruciating crackle of his own bones. He placed his hand on the man’s shoulder, leaning over. “Are you okay?”
“I . . . need . . . the chamber,” moaned Khufu, one trembling hand pointing at the device next to his throne, silhouetted in green energy.
“I’ll help you,” Zahur promised, grabbing the pharaoh’s arm. “But, I need you to reverse whatever you did to me with the apple. I’m scared, your majesty. I don’t want to die, either.”
“Okay,” Khufu weakly agreed. “Get me to the chamber.”
Zahur helped the man to his feet, and the pharaoh leaned on the boy, the pair stumbling up to the chamber. As Khufu reached the outer columns, he gripped them, pulling himself the rest of the way inside.
“Watch out,” he warned the boy, reaching for a lever on the inside. “Keep your distance.”
Stepping back, Zahur watched the pharaoh flip the lever, and the green energy grew more intense, circling the chamber now. Zahur covered his eyes to protect them from the blinding light as it shifted from green to white, and without warning, a thunderclap filled the room, the shockwave knocking the boy off his feet. He fell to the ground, a steady rumbling sending vibrations through his bones.
From behind, Zahur heard footsteps approaching, but as he struggled to stand, he vomited, expelling three small apples from deep within his stomach. The boy stared at them in horror as they rolled across the stone, realizing what he’d been turned into. A cold hand touched his shoulder, and he turned around to see Khufu.
At least, he thought it was Khufu.
Gone was the pharaoh’s bronzed skin; his wide, expressive eyes; his full features. In their place stood a man as pale as moonlight, his face now sharp and angular, his thin lips red and his beady eyes black. He shifted his stance, and Zahur saw the once-mortal wounds fading away, shimmering in white light.
“You did it,” he whispered. “You’ve become a god, Lord Khufu.”
“My name means little in the grand scheme of things, doesn’t it?” the man asked, looking down at his hands. “I don’t even look like myself anymore. No, I need a new name. Call me . . . Black Pharaoh. The last ruler Egypt will ever need.”
“Please, Black Pharaoh,” Zahur begged. “Help me. You promised.”
The man calmly walked over to his golden chamber as it powered down, ignoring the boy. Reaching down, he ripped apart one of the columns, green sparks showering him. Grunting, he continued to dismantle the device, destroying it piece by piece.
“No one else,” he murmured to himself. “There will be no one else like me.”
“Black Pharaoh . . .” Zahur felt more apples inside him, tickling his gag reflex. “I don’t want to die.”
“You won’t die, boy,” Black Pharaoh finally responded, his tone dismissive. “You will simply change. Will you be human? No, that you will no longer be. Instead, you’ll be what you came to me for: A reprieve, through which your family will be fed for eternity.”
A thick tree branch suddenly burst from Zahur’s shoulder, breaking bones and splitting skin. Blood ran down the bark as Zahur cried out in pain and panic, and he saw leaves and fruit dangling from the end of the branch.
“Unfortunately, I don’t have the ability to reverse what’s been done,” Black Pharaoh continued. “But think of it this way: Together, you and I will be the only two humans to ever achieve immortality. Isn’t it beautiful?”
Zahur turned and ran, his joints aching, his head spinning, weighed down by the parasite growing inside of him. He made it through the body-riddled courtyard, stumbling through the palace door before collapsing outside. Another branch emerged, crawling out of his spine this time, and he looked upwards with tears in his eyes. Where blue sky and yellow sun once glowed, he saw nothing now but grey clouds backlit by green lightning.
“I don’t think we’re sailing above the river of worlds after all,” he commented as Black Pharaoh walked up next to him, peering at the sky. Calmness overtook him as shadow washed across sand; he hardly noticed the third branch as it burst from his neck, showering the ground in blood. “No, it seems more like we’re already somewhere below the river. Somewhere in . . . The Underneath.”
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