Jasilia tried to go back down the ladder, but it was too late. The giant skeleton on the wall top—crowned with a royal blue khepresh, holding a jewel-encrusted scepter of pure gold, and dressed like the pharaoh himself—reached out a massive bony hand and grabbed her by the wrist.
She felt herself lurch up into the air, her head spinning as she looked down at the army of skeletal soldiers swarming up the ladder beneath Nekhtep. A moment later she and the Risen Guard, who'd had no choice but to follow her up, were both standing before the regally dressed skeleton.
"This way, my honored guests." The towering creature whirled, his shendyt kilt swishing, and strode off with royal bearing, flanked by a dozen skeletal guards. Several other fetid warriors surrounded Jasilia and Nekhtep, prodding the captives with ancient-looking spears that were nonetheless still effective.
The wall walk led them to an enclosed ramp set in the stone, which they descended for some time, making countless turns along torchlit corridors until a weary dizziness overcame Jasilia. Finally, the steep passageway ended and the captives found themselves passing through a doorway into an elaborately furnished banquet hall. A great teakwood table stood at the spacious room's center, set with golden dinnerware and fancifully decorated ceramic plates that Jasilia recognized as dating from the late Apsu Dynasty. At the head of the table sat a gold-painted, throne-like chair, to one side of which sat a man—a living man—with his back turned to her. At hearing the entourage enter the hall, he turned, a wide smile breaking on a face that bore a remarkable likeness to those of the Ruby Prince and Jasilia herself.
"Ojan!" she cried.
The regal-looking skeleton grinned with a flap of moldering lip still attached to his lower jaw and motioned to the guards to stand down. At the signal, Jasilia ran forward and threw her arms around her brother, tears of joy welling in her eyes.
"Sit, O Heritors of Yafeha, and let us discuss business!" The rasping voice of Mekshir's skeletal lord carried an eerie cheeriness that raised the hairs on the back of Jasilia's neck.
She slid onto the wooden bench beside her brother and looked at him questioningly. "Heritors of Yafeha?"
The joy in Ojan's eyes disappeared. "Watch it," he whispered, eyeing the regal skeleton as he settled into the throne at the head of the table. "He's as mad as Nethys."
"What?" she whispered back.
"Just wait, you'll see."
Once Nekhtep had joined the others at the table, the skeletal lord clacked his bony hands together and addressed the ghastly soldiers who had gathered near a doorway on the far side of the hall. "Guards! Have the wait staff bring me and my guests the first course so that we may begin our negotiations." One of the skeletons marched out of the room while the others stood at attention.
The lord of Mekshir settled his hollow orbits on Jasilia. "Forgive me, my dear Hephre, for not introducing myself earlier. But perhaps you've recognized me already? Does High Theurgist Fentet-Pesu, the honorable royal governor of Thuvia, sound at all familiar to you? After all, your father, Pharaoh Yafeha I, tried to have me assassinated—by the hand of my own lover, no less!" Fentet-Pesu banged the pommel of his scepter against the tabletop, the finish of which Jasilia noticed was deeply pitted, as if Mekshir's lord had made a habit of striking the end of his baton there. Jasilia recalled from Anathepses's account how Xerbystes's soldiers had witnessed their undead captor bang his scepter in just such a manner.
"My name isn't—"
Ojan silenced her with a glare and a barely perceptible shake of his head.
"But of course my sister Hephre recognizes your most honorable lordship," Ojan said. "Don't you, sister?"
"Uh... well, of course." And in fact, she did recognize the name, though only from some musty scrolls she'd read in the royal library of Sothis. The last Osirian governor of what was then the province of Thuvia had indeed been assassinated by his lover, though if Yafeha I had been behind the act, that knowledge had been lost to history. The idea of such a conspiracy made a kind of sense, however, as the murder of Thuvia's governor had occurred in the final days of the Apsu Dynasty, just as Osirian power had begun to wane and the ancient province of Thuvia was abandoned. Perhaps Yafeha had wanted to tie up loose ends and eliminate a potential rival.
She was about to question Mekshir's lord about Yafeha's motives when suddenly the remnants of putrescent flesh on Fentet-Pesu's face took on what Jasilia could only interpret as a puzzled expression. "Hephre?" the skeleton rasped, tilting his skull as if he were trying to recall something. "But didn't Yafeha's daughter die from an asp's bite as a young child? You... you can't be her! You're all trying to trick me into—!" With no warning, Fentet-Pesu's entire frame began to shudder, his bony arms clattering on the tabletop as the seizure took hold. Then, as abruptly as it began, the shaking ceased.
"Ah, beautiful Hephre!" said Mekshir's lord, his tone once again cheerful. "Perhaps after you poison your father for me, I shall make you my queen and together we'll bring back Osirion's glory! Of course, I'm no fool. I'll have to hold your dear brother Tenshep hostage to make sure you go through with the assassination."
"Poison... my father?" Jasilia said. "You mean Yafeha?"
Nekhtep began to rise, looking like he meant to attack their mad host, but Jasilia kicked him under the table. The Risen Guard sat back down.
Ojan cleared his throat and addressed Fentet-Pesu. "We accept!" he proclaimed cheerfully. "My sister will poison our father, Yafeha I, and then you will marry Hephre and ascend to Osirion's throne. Done and done!" Ojan slapped down his hand as if to seal the agreement.
The skeletal lord rose and banged the pommel of his scepter against the deeply scored tabletop. "You dare refuse me?" he cried. "You dare say no to me?"
Ojan spread his hands in exasperation. "Here's me saying yes! Yes, and only yes. We'll do it! Won't we, sister?" He shot Jasilia a desperate look.
"Absolutely!" Jasilia exclaimed, turning back to Fentet-Pesu with an eager smile. "I'll poison my father and then we'll rule Osirion together. When do we start?"
"Nobody refuses the will of Pharaoh Fentet-Pesu and lives!" Mekshir's lord shrieked. Again, he banged his scepter. "Soldiers, lock them up until I can think of the most painful way for them to die! Now take them from my presence!"
The skeletal soldiers shambled across the room and roughly seized their lord's three guests. There was little to do but allow the soldiers to drag them away. It was clear to Jasilia now that Fentet-Pesu was as mad as a rabid jackal and there was no use in trying to reason with him.
After passing down a long hallway, Jasilia and her two companions were pushed through a towering doorway. The soldiers swung the massive stone door on its pivots, sealing their prisoners in a spacious chamber. From the jewels, gold coins, and other riches heaped in great piles across the room, Jasilia knew it could only be Mekshir's legendary treasure vault.
Ojan beat his first against the cold limestone door, then turned his back to it and sank to the ground in apparent defeat. "What did I tell you, Jas? Thuvia's honorable governor is hopelessly insane. He's going to kill us, no matter what we say or do."
Jasilia began pacing the chamber, heedless of the riches at her feet, her mind working furiously. There had to be a way out of their situation. She couldn't just give up.
She told herself that for the next hour as she strode back and forth across the room. Finally, with no solution having come to her, she lay down on a pile of coins and closed her eyes, exhausted.
∗ ∗ ∗
When Jasilia stirred to wakefulness an indefinable time later, she found Nekhtep kneeling beside her, his warm, calloused hand holding her own. She rose to an elbow, questioning Nekhtep with her eyes.
"It wasn't supposed to end this way." The normally stony Risen Guard countenance was gone from Nekhtep's face, replaced by one of deep sorrow.
"By Abadar's gavel, I don't care about the ending," she said, pulling her hand from his. "It's the middle I wanted. You know, the part with the living in it. Why couldn't we have had that?"
"I had to protect you."
"Damn it, Jasilia, I didn't die for the pharaoh! I died for you."
Jasilia sat up, her heart pounding. "Say again?"
"I couldn't tell you." Nekhtep looked away. "You're too stubborn. You'd have gotten yourself killed."
"I'm the stubborn one?" Then the echo of man's words finally reached her. "Gotten myself killed?" She rose to her feet, flushed with anger and confusion. "Spill it, Nekhtep. Now."
The Risen Guard stood and shrugged. "No reason to hold back anything now. The Ruby Prince explained to me in no uncertain terms that if we continued our relationship, he wouldn't just murder me—he'd kill you, too, to keep dishonor from the Forthbringers."
"He'd murder me," Jasilia said flatly.
Nekhtep nodded wearily. "I had to die under his knife, and in so doing bind myself to him and swear never again to speak of the matter or to show my feelings for you. In exchange, he would let you live."
"Oh, he'd let me live, would he?" A sharp laugh escaped Jasilia. "You idiot. But then, you never had an older brother, did you?"
Now it was Nekhtep's turn to be stunned. "What?"
Ojan, who couldn't help but overhear their conversation, snickered from the other side of the chamber. "Our brother would never harm Jas. We've broken every rule he's ever made for us—and trust me, we've broken some big ones—but has he touched us?"
Jasilia looked down at Nekhtep, her arms folded. "Don't you get it? I was never in any danger. You let my overprotective big brother bully you, plain and simple."
Nekhtep's eyes took on a faraway look, and then hardened as he fell to his knees on the mound of treasure. His fist slammed into the pile, coins and jewels flying.
Perhaps it was the sudden shock of Nekhtep's revelation—that the man had only turned away from her out of a misguided sense that he had to protect her—that jolted Jasilia's mind into a state of utter focus. As if everything was unfolding in slow motion, she watched as Nekhtep's fist again slammed down onto the pile of treasure, but this time, instead of gold coins and rubies flying into the air, she saw only sand. She could almost hear the mill of her mind grinding away at the problem.
"That's it!" she cried suddenly.
"I'm sorry." Nekhtep looked glumly up at her. "How could I have known...?"
"No, no, you big beautiful idiot!" Jasilia knelt down and kissed a surprised Nekhtep on the lips. "We can work out our mess of a relationship later." She rose and strode over to the great stone door. Sensing her excitement, Nekhtep and Ojan both got up and followed her.
Jasilia turned to Nekhtep. "When you hit the pile of treasure and sprayed coins everywhere, I had a thought: There has to be something triggering the khamsins that keep burying and unburying Mekshir over the centuries. Then I remembered the story I'd told you from Anathepses's Desert Empires. And how one of the party of Xerbystes's soldiers must have escaped."
"And?" Nekhtep asked.
She grinned back at him. "And now we test my theory." She began slapping the stone door with her palms and yelling at the top of her voice.
"I'll do it!" she cried. "I'll murder my father and help your lord become pharaoh!"
Ojan shook his head skeptically. "We've already tried that."
"And you don't think he's crazy enough to change his mind?" she said. "All I need is a moment in his presence. Just one moment."
Her brother shrugged. "I'm game," he said, and began yelling and beating his palms against the door as well. Nekhtep joined in, until at last the door swung forward on its pivots.
∗ ∗ ∗
Jasilia and her companions were back in the banquet hall, standing before the mad governor of ancient Thuvia, who sat on his throne at the table's head as if he had never left it since ordering their deaths.
"Welcome, dear Hephre and honorable Tenshep," the skeleton lord said with great cheer. "And..." He waved a bony hand dismissively at Nekhtep. "...whoever you are." Then the dark cavities of his eyes settled on Jasilia. "I have a proposition to make, O daughter of Yafeha. Before you dismiss it, hear me out. It involves poison, the death of your father, and the ransom of your brother..."
Before Fentet-Pesu could go on with his all-too-familiar proposal, Jasilia jumped up onto the table and bolted across it, skidding to a halt just before the enthroned skeleton. So unexpected was her outburst that Fentet-Pesu merely gaped up at her, the fleshy piece of rot that was once his lower lip swinging beneath his exposed jawbone like a morbid pendulum.
While Mekshir's lord was thus frozen by surprise, Jasilia reached down and plucked the scepter from his skeletal hands. She twirled the ancient artifact over in her hand until she at last saw the triggering mechanism jutting from the back of the baton's head.
"Been nice chatting with you, Fentet-Pesu," she said. "Enjoy the next few hundred years of oblivion."
Jasilia smashed the scepter's head as hard as she could against Fentet-Pesu's skull, directing the blow so that it would engage the artifact's trigger. The crown flew from his head upon impact, and the skeletal lord screeched in rage.
Bitter cold ran up Jasilia's arm, until her hand felt as if it would shatter like ice. Reflexively, she dropped the scepter, which fell back into Fentet-Pesu's welcoming grasp. He thrust out his bony arms to grab her legs, but she was already jumping down from the table.
A howling, dusty wind swept into the chamber from both of its entrances, guttering the torches in the wall sconces.
Jasilia grabbed Nekhtep and her brother by the shoulders and shoved them toward the door through which they had first entered the hall. "Unless you want to wake up as a skeleton in a century or two—run!"
Her companions didn't need further coaxing. Jasilia joined them in barreling through the confused band of soldiers that stood before the doorway. Together, the three adventurers ran up the winding passage, hot dust and sand blowing into their faces. When they finally emerged onto the wall walk outside, they could barely see one another through the sandstorm's fury.
By now the storm had already blown away the gruesome ladders up which she and Nekhtep had climbed to enter the fortress. But the gale had already heaped up mounds of sand against the parapet. Though the drop to the ground was still precipitous, they might just survive the fall. There was nothing for it but to jump, which the three did, hand in hand.
Jasilia landed hard, and for several moments she lay there, stunned and unable to move. Then Nekhtep was pulling her to her feet and half-carrying her from the fortress.
She couldn't see Ojan anywhere in the black, roiling sands. Thankfully, the slow-witted undead of Mekshir hadn't thought to take her satchel from her. She reached into it and felt for her goggles. Even once she got them on, she was still practically blind.
Suddenly a hand reached out of the maelstrom and grabbed her own. She barely made out Ojan's form, but she knew he must be suffering worse than her, since he had no burnoose to protect his face from the suffocating winds. Bowing into the storm's fury, they ran from the fortress.
As they made their way into the desert, a familiar bleating came out of the dunes. Jasilia whistled through her teeth over the storm's deep roar, and Yamala trotted up to her side. The camel was spooked, but apparently glad enough to see her mistress that she obeyed Jasilia's command to let her and her two companions mount.
She felt a hand touch her arm, and instantly she could breathe normally again. Ojan, seated behind her and Nekhtep, must have cast a spell on each of them, including Yamala, who forged ahead with renewed strength.
Jasilia looked back into the khamsin, knowing the sands must be growing higher around the fortress with each minute that passed. She wondered how many decades or centuries would pass before Fenete-Pesu stirred beneath the heavy sands and reactivated his scepter, summoning a khamsin to unbury Mekshir once again.
Leaning back into Nekhtep's embrace, she realized she didn't care. It was time for her to break free of such pointless cycles in her own life. It was the future that mattered.
The gloriously messy and uncertain future, she thought, and smiled.
Coming Next Week: The long-awaited return of Salim in a sample chapter of James L. Sutter's The Redemption Engine!
Christopher Paul Carey is an Associate Editor at Paizo, and the coauthor of Gods of Opar: Tales of Lost Khokarsa with Hugo Award-winning author Philip José Farmer. His short fiction may be found in anthologies such as Tales of the Wold Newton Universe, The Worlds of Philip José Farmer, Tales of the Shadowmen, and The Avenger: The Justice, Inc. Files. He holds an M.A. in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University, and has edited numerous collections, anthologies, and novels. Visit Chris online at www.cpcarey.com and follow him on Twitter.
Illustration by Damon Westenhofer