(The following is a work of pure fiction and does not even try to attempt historical or scientific accuracy… so there!)
I had walked for nearly three days. The soles of my feet were sore and blistered when I reached the small, bustling village. This place had sprung up from the desert sands in the years following His arrival. There were many such waystations in the desert, but this one was particularly popular for some reason.
I stopped in front of a low, white building with a pictorial sign informing me that this was a tavern. I had to rest. The others with whom I travelled continued on their journey, bypassing the inn and ignoring the hawkers and prostitutes attempting to ply their trade. The lure of the cool interior of the hostelry was too great for me to resist. I had always been something of a free spirit and had only agreed with my father to undertake this pilgrimage because it got me out of tilling his meagre plot. I slipped from the line of supplicants, priests and just plain nosey and ducked into the tavern.
Almost collapsing into the low counter, I ordered a drink (I didn’t care what I got as long as it was reasonably cool, wet and bereft of wildlife). The innkeeper eyed me suspiciously and I got the distinct impression that pilgrims didn’t often frequent this place. He plonked a beaker of water in front of me, took an extortionate amount of money from my open palm and returned to his regulars.
I found an empty table and slumped onto one of the trio of rickety stools beside it. I winced upon removing a sandal from my aching right foot. A dusty rag from my sack was hastily soaked with water from the beaker and wrapped around my sore appendage. I did likewise with my left foot, sighing out loud as my blisters were soothed. The remainder of the water was for my consumption and I sipped it delicately.
“Are you going to Giza with all those other lunatics?” said the large, dark shadow that appeared on the table suddenly.
I peered up at a huge, hairy man. His arms were as big around as my body and his girth was equally unbelievable. I glanced round him to the doorway, then back to the man. How the heck did he get in here? Did they build this place around him? His shadow dwarfed the one next to it. This one belonged to a man so thin that I thought he was a walking skeleton for an instant. He hovered beyond his massive companion, partially eclipsed by the larger man’s bulk. Both men looked mean, though, and I felt discretion was the better part of valour and stood to leave.
“Excuse me, I have a long journey ahead of me.” I actually had no idea how far I had to go. They made no move to unblock themselves from my path. “Excuse me?”
“You didn’t answer his question,” said the thin one. “Are you going to Giza?”
“That was my plan,” I quipped nervously.
“And you’re going to praise Osiris, right?”
The big one stooped to my height, his face so close to mine that I could hear his gums festering.
“My friend and me worked for that creature for half of our lives, building that pointless temple of his!” He thrust his hands in front of me. “See what he did to me?”
He was missing both thumbs.
“Accidents happen,” I smiled and attempted to duck towards the door. The wiry one barred my exit.
“There are no accidents at Giza, boy.” His voice was surprisingly deep for such a small physique. He presented his previously hidden arm to me and I shuddered outwardly. Where his right hand and lower arm should have been there was now just an ugly stump. “This is how we were repaid for years of loyal service!” He spat on the dusty floor and glanced around surreptitiously. “Since his arrival, Osiris has done nothing but slaughter our people to feed his insane hunger for blood!”
This wasn’t the King Osiris that I had heard about! He had brought peace and prosperity to our land. He had united the tribes under one flag. He had fed and clothed the poor and taught our farmers how to grow new crops and water them with new technologies. He had instructed the priests of his temples in the arts of writing and numbers. He had named the stars and taught the priesthood how to predict the future using the movements of the heavens. I told these things to my new, er, friends.
They weren’t impressed and when I picked myself up, they explained their thoughts on our immortal ruler. We sat around the table after I ordered more drinks, paying through the nose once again. I hoped these men weren’t robbers, as they had plainly seen how much currency I had on me. The hulk began first:
“The people only see what his army and his priests want us to see.” Another furtive glance around the bar. “But we who worked there under the gaze of Osiris himself know the true story.” I was suddenly intrigued by the behemoth’s tale and urged him to continue. “For a start Osiris may have a man’s name, but he is not a man.”
“He’s a woman?” I gaped.
“No, you idiot,” snapped the skinny one (I’ll call him Little from now on). “He’s not man or woman. He is not one of us.”
“I know!” I retorted. “He’s a god!”
“Since when does a god need gallons of fresh blood to survive?” rumbled Large. “Since when does a god need thousands and thousands of people to build his temples? Whatever kind of monster he is, he and his kind are not gods.”
I eyed the injuries on both men.
“This is what they do to you when they take you from the work gangs and into the palace.” I shook my head, not understanding a word Little was saying. “My friend and I should be dead. We were supposed to be a snack for our gods’ dinner table.”
“Do we look like we’re joking?” snarled Large, thrusting his thumbless hand under my nose. “We only got away with our lives when one of the priests took pity and smuggled us out, but not before they had done this to us.”
“Well, why are you telling me this?”
“You’re the first pilgrim on his way to Giza that has come in here. The caravans usually stop for water and food on their way back.” Large pointed a hefty arm out of the door. “Your destination is only two hours walk from here. If you go to the edge of the village and climb the hill, you can see the temple that has cost our people so dear.”
I had no idea that I was so close. I asked them what they expected of me.
“Nothing,” said Little. “We just want you to know about the beast you are preparing to worship.”
“I worship no-one!” I snapped. “In fact I only tagged along with those goats out there to get out of ploughing my old man’s field!”
“You still don’t believe us, do you?” asked Large.
“Well c’mon, it’s a bit of a tall tale, isn’t it?” I admitted.
“We can show you.”
“No we can’t!” Little almost shouted. He started to tremble violently. “I’m not going back into that place!”
I felt that I was at a crossroads. I could ignore all I had just been told, walk out of the tavern and head to Giza as planned. I could also go with these bizarre strangers on a dangerous journey to an unknown location.
I stood up to leave; I’d take my chances with the pilgrims. Large stood with me.
“I really can show you, you know,” he said grimly.
Why me? I thought. If only I’d continued on with the rest of the group, I’d never have met these loonies. Yes, I was completely certain that they were nutters. Sincere nutters, but nutters nevertheless. Their injuries could have been caused by accidents while building the temples, of that I was sure. I had spent a summer working on a local shrine and some of the blocks we used were pretty big. Heck, slam even a mud-brick down hard enough and you could squash your fingers or thumbs nicely! I had seen men trap their arms when positioning stone blocks – not a pretty sight.
But something about the way these men told their story made me want to believe them. Perhaps I was just into conspiracies too much (I had never accepted the official line of how our tribal kings, before the arrival of Osiris, had met with a bizarre, and amazingly successful, string of assassinations involving a lone archer and his magic arrows!), or maybe I was just a sucker for hard-luck stories.
I turned to face the brilliant sunlight streaming through the doorway, but something prevented me from joining my travelling companions outside. Could Large really show me the true nature of our god-king? How could he do this? I then made a decision that would change my life forever.
I walked out of the inn and rushed to catch up to my pilgrim companions. They had continued their journey to the holiest site in our land and I was out of breath by the time I reached the back of the snaking line of people.
Glancing back, I saw the village disappear behind the brow of the hill and I said a silent goodbye to my strange, new friends. Returning my attention to the path before me, I was astonished to see our goal, shimmering in the morning haze, mirage-like, yet completely real, hovering above the distant, holy mound. Several of our group fell to their knees, praising Osiris and his subordinate gods. I almost joined them, but my sceptical nature refused to allow me to believe in miracles.
The words of Little and Large echoed in my head. Why would a god need human blood to survive? If they had the ability to build this massive, floating mountain I could see on the horizon, why would they need thousands of men, women and children to build their temples? Whilst they had brought peace (of a sort) and prosperity to the world, I found myself becoming angry at the price we had to pay.
We weren’t beasts of burden! We were not cattle!
“Still not interested in seeing them in the flesh?”
I whirled, startled by the intrusion into my thoughts. Little and Large were standing behind me, their approach unheard as I had stood, gawping at the vista. It appeared that the bulkier of the pair had persuaded his reed-like companion to take me on this mysterious journey to discover the hideous truth about our rulers. I looked from man to man, then back to Giza.
“Alright, let’s go,” I sighed, shrugging my shoulders and we ambled away from the line of supplicants.
They led me away from the village and down to the banks of the river. Here, hidden in a rocky niche slightly above the waterline, was the entrance to a long, dark tunnel. I faltered, fearing what lay in the gloom beyond the threshold. Large went first and I followed, after much prompting by Little.
Soon we were stumbling forward in pitch darkness. Any light from the surface quickly vanished and I felt a dread as I had never experienced before. My companions attempted to alleviate the tension by reciting dirty jokes and singing quietly songs that should really have been sung very loudly whilst wielding pots of ale.
Although I could not see a thing, I knew from the way my feet touched the ground that we were heading down a slope. I almost screamed as I stepped into freezing water.
“This is river water,” explained Little. “When the Inundation comes, this whole place is filled with water, making it impossible to reach the temple.”
“How did you find these tunnels?” I asked, glad of the distraction.
“This was our way out,” said Large. “When the priest took pity on us, he led us into the bowels of the temple and told us to take to the tunnels. They had been built so that water from the river could be used in temple ceremonies during the Inundation.”
“What happened to the priest?” I queried.
“We don’t know. Dozens of us had been slaughtered before he helped us escape,” said Little. “Maybe he was captured himself or maybe he got away with it. Whatever happened to him, we owe him our lives, such as they are.”
A thought occurred to me.
“If they did capture him, what if they sealed the tunnels at their end to prevent more escape attempts?”
We stopped in our tracks. Actually, Large stopped in his tracks and we just piled into the back of him. The water was up to our knees by this time, but it was doing my blisters the world of good.
I realised that I could just make out the top of Large’s head. A faint shaft of light illuminated his shaggy bonce. I could also discern what appeared to be the rungs of a ladder pressed against the rock wall.
“It’s a ladder,” confirmed our hefty leader. “We have a long climb before we get to the chambers below the temple.”
I recalled the disabilities my friends had to endure and gasped inwardly at how they managed to scramble down here during their initial escape from Giza. My one-armed colleague insisted that he could manage the climb and we began our ascent.
The condition of the ladder made the climb difficult. Each rung was coated with foul smelling slime and I almost lost my grip on several occasions. Somehow Little and Large suffered no such problems. Perhaps I was just rubbish at climbing slippery ladders. Every now and then I would glance upwards, the dim light from above eclipsed by Large’s voluminous posterior. Despite this, I could tell that we were getting closer to the top with every laboured heave.
Eventually, the muscles in my arms burning and my palms sore and aching, we clambered out of the vertical tunnel and into a low, gloomy chamber. I sprawled across the grimy floor, gasping for breath. My compatriots seemed to have taken the climb in their stride and I mulled for a moment about my apparent lack of fitness. As I did so, I took a minute to inspect our surroundings.
We were in a simple, rock-hewn cavity with rough walls and ceiling and a single, dark exit (or entrance, depending upon your viewpoint). The room was cool, but humid and dust hung in the air like choking fog. We rested for several, long minutes and then my guides led the way through the ominously black exit. I was led along a low corridor that opened into another chamber.
This room was much larger than the first one and housed objects the like of which I had never seen before and have never seen since. Sitting astride bizarrely-carved outcroppings were peculiar devices that spat sparks and lightning like a pair of terrible demons. What made the effect all the more eerie was the complete lack of sound these things made. Large informed me that they were used to power special lights inside the temple. These lights made normal torches seem like a firefly next to the sun. I was sceptical, but decided to reserve judgement for the time being.
“Are we likely to be discovered down here?” I whispered.
“I don’t think so,” replied Little. “Besides, we’ll be out of this section soon.”
Ignoring my puzzled expression, they headed out of the chamber and I followed until they stopped beneath a narrow hole in the ceiling.
“This leads to a storeroom inside the temple,” explained Large. “It overlooks the altar room where our ‘gods’ accept tribute from the people. You must climb up there to learn the truth.”
I glanced from the hole to the men then back to the hole again. You must go? they had said.
“You’re not coming with me?” I pleaded. Both men shook their heads and pointed to the dark, scary hole again. They told me that they would await my return back in the first chamber. I made certain that they promised not to leave without me. Large gave me a leg-up and I began climbing for the second time that day.
This shaft was not the dead straight, vertical passage we had struggled our way up before. There was no ladder for a start and the tunnel bent this way and that. I got the feeling it had been hollowed out in a hurry. By whom and when I could not guess, but I was sure that several of the marks on the coarse walls were blood stains. They didn’t look very ancient either. I added to them when I slipped, falling a short way and gashing my forearm on a particularly sharp protrusion of rock. I groaned, fighting back the scream of pain that wanted to escape from my cracked lips.
I struggled upwards, each laboured breath depositing more fine sand and dust into my lungs. I retched several times and stopped regularly to spit gravel from my mouth.
Finally I reached the top and pulled myself out into a semi-darkened room. Around the smooth walls were sacks of grain and barrels of what smelled like wine and beer. A single source of light bathed me in its soft, yellow glow. Approaching the diffused light, I found a small, reed mat hanging over an equally small hole in the wall.
I removed the mat and peered through.
As I had been told, I was above a large altar room. My little hole was in a section cast into shadow by the strange lights arranged around the walls of the chamber. These presumably were the lights powered by the silently snarling machines in the subterranean chamber. Directly below my position there sat a huge altar stone. Peculiar lines and symbols were carved into its surface and shiny, silver manacles were bolted to each corner by thick chains. I shuddered as I guessed what they were used for. Deep grooves were also carved into the marble altar; these trailed to the edges where below each one was sitting a golden chalice. I noted that the stone had a distinctly pink hue to it.
A short distance from the altar there was something that I did not expect to see in a temple. Surrounded by flowing drapes and filled with gilt furnishings was a section designed solely for the comfort of the gods. Huge bowls were filled to overflowing with fruits, sweets and savoury dishes. Massive urns brimming with scarlet wine were placed at regular intervals around the triangular area. My stomach rumbled upon seeing so much food. I could not remember the last time I had eaten, but that’s what a life on the road does for you.
The cavernous room was empty, save for a couple of spear-wielding guards stationed inside the huge double-doors that were tightly closed. I wondered how long I would have to wait before something happened.
At that moment the doors swung open and several laughing, dancing women glided into the chamber, trailing delicate, almost transparent garments. They slid around the altar room, singing and laughing before finally coming to rest amid the cushions and finery of the central section. Their skin was paler than the marble of the altar and even from here I could see that a couple of them had brilliant, blue eyes. One of them also had shimmering, yellow hair. I had heard of peoples with golden tresses, travellers told tales of races with blue eyes and yellow hair, but I had never seen one until now. Then one of them looked directly at me and my heart skipped a beat.
Instinctively I slipped back from the hole, deeper into the shadows, but still able to see the drama playing out below. The women began feasting on the meats, strangely ignoring the desserts and fruit, and drinking the crimson wine. It seemed far too dark and viscous to be the wine I was accustomed to, then it struck me what it was they were really drinking. One of the women held up the piece of meat she was devouring, playing with her food and I gagged when I realised what it was.
I watched as she bit clean through one of the fingers of the human hand and began sucking the fluids from within. She then dipped the finger into her drink, coating it in thick, red liquid and swallowed the digit with one hideous gulp. It struck me what kind of wine this was: each of the urns was filled with blood! These creatures were feasting on human flesh and drinking human blood!
My breath started to come in short gasps as panic began to set in. Then the one that had looked in my direction before stared directly at me, smiling as a single rivulet of blood etched a crimson trail from the corner of her mouth down to the point of her chin.
How could they see me? I was deep in the shadows by this time and doing my best to remain completely silent. She spoke in a strange, guttural language to the others and each of them gazed deeply into my soul. It felt as though my heart were about to burst. I was more afraid at that moment than I had ever been in my life. Even when raiders had burned my father’s field and stolen our cattle, I had not felt such mind-numbing terror.
They giggled amongst themselves and returned to their gluttony. I was being toyed with. If they knew I was here, guards could come bursting into the storeroom at any moment. I didn’t fancy being manacled to that marble slab so I began piling meal bags against the entrance, reinforcing these with the heavy barrels. Hopefully, if the time came, that would give me a chance to get back down through the shaft.
I returned to my spy hole and peered through carefully. The female monsters were still gorging themselves, ignoring me for the time being. I saw that the guards were still standing by the now open doors.
Then he entered the chamber! Osiris himself, his face obscured by a golden mask of office.
Without fanfare or announcement our god king slid by the guards, who immediately bowed their heads as he passed, and towards the she-creatures. He sank down onto one of the couches and removed his disguise.
I almost screamed, clasping both hands to my mouth. I had expected him to be a man, possibly similar to the pale-skinned harem, I had not expected what was tucking into raw meat below me.
While his skin was pale, any resemblance to anything human ended right there. His skin was a mottled grey in colour and appeared to be composed of soft, pliable scales, similar to the skin on a bird’s legs. His eyes were lidless and thin, cat-like pupils dissected a bright amber iris. I watched as his lipless mouth drew back, revealing twin rows of narrow, needle-like teeth and he tore into a chunk of meat. Atop his large head sprouted a plume of thin, white feathers. This creature was an amalgam of many creatures. It should not be alive, let alone ruling our nation.
One of the women whispered into his ear hole (he was bereft of lobes, you see) and his terrible eyes focused on my position, the pupils broadening so he could see me hiding in the gloom.
This time I screamed and before anything else could happen, I was sliding down the shaft, bumping and scraping every square inch of my body.
I landed in an ugly pile at the bottom and scrambled to my feet, racing towards the entrance to the tunnels we had used to come here. I found Little and Large sitting there, waiting patiently as promised.
We descended the ladder and sloshed our way back out of the tunnels, almost collapsing among the riverside reeds as we exited into the blinding sunlight. We headed back for the village on the outskirts of Giza and did our best to blend in with the pilgrims and locals that inhabited the place.
In the cool comfort of the tavern, I related to my friends what I had seen in the temple and they nodded their heads in acknowledgement.
We made a silent agreement to spread what we knew about Osiris and his minions and rid our country of these monsters. We vowed to build an army such as had never been seen before. We would not rest until his temple and his floating palace were gone from our horizons and a king from among us ruled in his place.
Or we would die in the attempt.
© Steven Johnson 2003
Updated 11th March 2012