A tale of Amonkhet, before the Hour of Devastation
By Andy Rogers
Xandu stood outside the home of Jarek Sal, one of Naktamun’s last living historians. The stone wall stared back at him, blank and whitewashed in the heat of Amonkhet’s twin suns, not unlike the Anointed, the eyeless mummies that served the living in Naktamun. He knocked and waited.
Even though it was broad daylight he felt paranoid. As if he and his crop mates were out after curfew. But they weren’t with him. He’d made this decision alone. And besides, he wasn’t breaking any rules. He was just here to have a conversation.
The front door swung open. “What do you want?” A man of at least 40 years glared at Xandu from the shadows inside the house. He was one of the oldest men Xandu had ever seen who was not a vizier.
“I — my name is Xandu, a follower of Kefnet and disciple of the God-Pharaoh, may his return come quickly.”
“And may we be found worthy,” Jarek Sal mumbled.
“You are Jarek Sal, a historian of Amonkhet.” The older man offered no response.
“I’ve come to inquire about the findings you recorded,” Xandu said. Jarek Sal’s eyes narrowed. Xandu felt like he was being sized up. Why was the historian looking at him like that?
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Good day.” The older man shut the door.
“It’s about your study of hieroglyphs,” Xandu yelled. He hoped it would help.
“I don’t know what it is you speak of,” came the voice from inside the house. “Go away.”
That was odd. Xandu was sure he had the right house. Why wouldn’t Jarek Sal want to talk?
That evening Xandu trained with his crop mates. In two days they were scheduled to face Kefnet’s Trial of Knowledge, and not a minute could be wasted. Hours passed as they exercised in mock combat, practiced spell-casting and enchantments, and the most grueling work of all, stretched their minds in invocation to Kefnet. All of this was done under the sharp eye of their vizier, Osir Taan.
As the twin suns set, the shadows in Naktamun began their daily, wondrous growth through the double cycle of twilight, sunset, twilight, sunset. Xandu should have gone to bed, as most of his crop mates did, but instead he returned to the dusty scroll racks that filled the records rooms within Kefnet's Monument. It was within these rooms that he made his first discoveries weeks ago. And what discoveries they were! Even Vizier Taan, was stunned by the scrolls he’d unearthed.
“Keep digging,” Taan had told him back then. “I’m interested to see what else you might discover in those forgotten rooms.”
He had discovered mystery within the historical records: Many signs of the God-Pharaoh’s presence on Amonkhet did not appear to be nearly as old as they should be. The viziers taught that the God-Pharaoh was the source of all that was and all that is on this plane. So how could the historical records be so egregiously in error?
Another had discovered etchings of the gods in a hidden room within a pyramid. To her great surprise, the etchings of the God-Pharaoh seemed to overlay the etchings of the other gods.
Still, another of Naktamun’s great minds—Jarek Sal himself—discovered that some hieroglyphs about the God-Pharaoh’s exploits were not aged in the sand walls the same way as the hieroglyphs of the other gods. It was almost as if someone had added them in later and aged them magically.
He re-read Jarek Sal’s studies of Naktamun’s hieroglyphs. There was no mistaking it. The stories of the God-Pharaoh captured in hieroglyphs on the cave walls which peppered Naktamun could not be dated the way the other hieroglyphs were. While hieroglyphs about Oketra, Kefnet, Bontu, Hazoret, and Rhonas were thousands of years old, the hieroglyphs of the God-Pharaoh were less than one hundred years old.
Something is wrong, Xandu thought. But what? Is someone trying to make the God-Pharaoh look older than he is? But why would anyone do that? The God-Pharaoh is the center of both life and death. All of Naktamun awaits his return. Why would historical records about him be falsified? And how could he possibly be younger than the other gods? Even they bowed to his power and grace.
Xandu knew his questions were ridiculous and tried to push them from his mind. He was probably just tired from all of the training. Working so hard to pass the Trial of Knowledge was causing him to create mysteries where none likely existed. He thought of heat on the desert sand, shimmering and disappearing. This mystery would do the same. Tomorrow would offer him more time to find Jarek Sal again and see if he could get some answers. He left the scroll racks and went to bed.
The next day, Xandu returned to Jarek Sal’s home and knocked more forcefully. He would not be turned away again.
“Jarek Sal, by order of the Vizier of Libraries open this door,” Xandu boomed. He had never spoken with the Vizier of Libraries. He didn’t even know her. And to get caught using her clout under false pretenses could cost Xandu credibility as a mage of knowledge. However, he had to try. It was the quest for knowledge that was driving him, after all. Kefnet would be proud.
“Come inside.” Jarek said and disappeared into the house. Xandu hesitated a moment. Why was he so tense? Why was he letting him in without a fight? “Come now!” the older man barked.
Xandu slipped in and Jarek quickly closed the door. He pointed at a table and two chairs. Xandu sat in one of them. Every window in the house was covered. The room was dark except for thin blades of light pouring in the cracks around the windows.
“What do you know of my work?” Jarek asked with an accusatory tone.
“Not much. I just wanted to ask about the historical discrepancies you noted.”
“I thought you said you were from the Vizier of Libraries?”
Xandu smiled nervously. “No. I’m only a student of Kefnet's. I wanted to ask you some questions. My vizier is Osir Taan.”
“OUT!” Jarek bellowed.
“Please! I’m just a student. I only need a little of your time!”
Jarek eyed him suspiciously, as if Xandu was there to rob him of his cartouche.
“Only a student?”
“Yes,” Xandu said, “of Kefnet’s. I seek knowledge.”
“What are your questions?” Jarek slumped into the other chair and reached for a nearby jar and two cups. He poured them Nakamunian tea. Xandu relaxed a little bit.
“I seek more knowledge of Amonkhet. Its history, its future. Even the animals that inhabit the desert surrounding Naktamun.”
“What is that to me?” Jarek asked, not bothering to feign interest.
Xandu felt like he needed to prove that he wasn’t a threat. Jarek was obviously on edge. But how? He thought for a moment and decided to come to his point in a story.
“I learned recently that crocodiles can live to over fifty years.” Jarek didn’t look at him. “And that they have families who mate for life, producing numerous offspring.”
“Is there a point to this?” Jarek asked.
“And it got me thinking about who I am. Who bore me? Who are my parents? Did my father and mother mate for life? It’s likely that they never even made it to fifty years old. They probably died in a trial when they were younger than you. Why?” Jarek didn’t answer.
“All we have is the Anointed,” Xandu added. “And they don’t speak, of course.” Jarek nodded.
Xandu let his comments hang in the air and waited patiently for Jarek to respond. The historian took his time.
“You have questions like the sand dunes. One rolls into the next without end.” Jarek said. “But why do you bring your questions to me?”
“In your scrolls about the ancient hieroglyphs of Naktamun, you noted discrepancies in the details.”
Jarek said nothing, but took a long sip of tea.
“Your scrolls record that the God-Pharaoh’s mark, may his return come quickly, (Jarek did not repeat the customary refrain this time) was made of ink hundreds of years later than the original markings. Almost as if they were added later. You discovered that it wasn’t just in one place either, but that it was this way in hundreds of places across Naktamun.”
A sound outside made Jarek rush to a window and peer out one of the cracks.
“What is it?”
“Shh,” Jarek hissed. A full minute passed before he spoke. “It was nothing. But I think you should go.”
“Come on. Up.” Xandu stood. Jarek started pushing him toward the door.
“You say you are a student of Kefnet’s?”
“When do you face the Trial of Knowledge?”
“Tomorrow, actually.” Why is he forcing me to leave?
“Will you pass?”
“I believe so. But to be honest, I’m starting to question some of the things I think I know because of your work—” Jarek held up his hand to stop him.
They stood in the doorway now. Daylight lit the edges of Jarek’s features. A memory seemed to skirt behind his eyes like a beetle on the desert sands.
“I believe you will pass if you ignore whatever it is you think you’ve found in my old scrolls” the older man finally said. “And let me make a suggestion for you: after you’ve passed the trial, forget history.”
“Take up architecture, botany, or zoology if you like animals so much. Shovel camel dung. I don’t care. Just do anything else. I was a student of Kefnet’s myself, and what have my historical studies gained me? Nothing. I was ridiculed for my conclusions and nearly cast out as a dissenter. I was told that a spell was cast on the Anointed, ordering them to burn all of my scrolls years ago. They must be getting lazy.”
And with that, Jarek Sal shut the door. Xandu stood in the quiet street outside the house.
Questions filled Xandu’s mind, so he turned to the tools that Kefnet gave him: research, logic, and knowledge. They would ultimately lead to answers. It was the way of knowledge and of truth. Xandu had to believe that. He decided to bring his questions to Vizier Taan. He hoped it would be okay to speak of him about such things, even though his crop faced their trials in the morning.
“Why do you raise such dissenting questions?” Vizier Taan snapped. “How dare you question the history of Kefnet?”
They were standing in the vizier’s private quarters. Xandu was surprised by the intensity of Taan’s response. It had obviously been a mistake to come the night before the trial. But by the twin suns, he was here now and probably in trouble already. He dared to speak more.
“I don’t question Kefnet,” Xandu replied. “I simply question some of the findings in my research.”
“Are you accusing the divine scribes of forgery?”
“Not at all. But what I’ve found doesn’t make sense. Naktamun’s historians have recorded contradictions. There are incongruities with artifacts regarding the God-Pharaoh, may his return come quickly.”
“And may we be found worthy,” Vizier Taan said.
It felt good to finally share the mystery with his vizier. But Osir Taan gazed at him with a look Xandu couldn’t name. Was it suspicion? Anger? Yet, it almost seemed to have a touch of admiration.
“There must be a problem with your research then. The errors are in your work, not in the histories of Naktamun.” The vizier spoke as if the conversation should close.
“I am not in error,” Xandu said, perhaps too boldly. “It is the details of the gods that are in error.”
Vizier Taan considered him thoughtfully. “Xandu, it is patience that gives a crocodile power, not the strength of its bite.”
“I’m not sure I follow you.”
“You are rushing to make determinations too quickly. You are a young mage and do not know of what you speak.”
“But, sir! If what I’ve discovered is correct, then everything about Naktamun may be in question—even who we worship. How can we know what to believe anymore?” The vizier raised his hand to silence him. His eyes flashed like one of Hazoret’s jackals. Any patience he’d had for Xandu’s questions had evidently run out.
“If you continue to raise these questions about the God-Pharaoh, may his return come quickly . . . ”
“And may we be found worthy . . . ” Xandu said under his breath.
“ . . . you will find yourself cast out for dissension.” Xandu said nothing. Could he be serious? But he’d done nothing wrong. He was pursuing knowledge, just as Kefnet had taught him.
“You may go,” the vizier said. “And do not fail the trial tomorrow, Xandu. To fail the Trial of Knowledge after asking such disappointing questions will not look good for you.”
They’d always had a good rapport before this. Xandu wasn’t sure why Taan was reacting so strongly. Had he just been threatened?
Xandu woke the next morning with a headache. Rest had not come easily. Nightmares of failing the trial caused him to toss and turn all night. Each time he fell back asleep he saw himself at the trial, standing on a precipice in front of Kefnet. And just as he was about to speak, jeering hieroglyphs of the God-Pharaoh pushed him over the edge, where he fell into pools of blue flame.
Xandu tried to clear his mind. He had to be ready for the trial later that day. A walk outside seemed to be in order. But there was a commotion among his crop-mates in the courtyard surrounding their dwelling.
“Did you hear? Another dissenter has been found.” Akil, an Aven female said to him.
“Who?” Xandu asked, a feeling of apprehension growing in his stomach.
“An elderly man. A wizard historian. I’m told he spread lies against the God-Pharaoh, may his return come quickly.”
“And may we be found worthy,” Xandu yelled, running toward the home of Jarek.
A group of the Anointed were already at Jarek’s house when Xandu arrived. Vizier Taan looked on as they silently pulled a screaming, kicking Jarek Sal into the street. Their eyeless, mouthless faces were an eerie counterpoint to Jarek’s writhing resistance.
“What’s happening?” Xandu yelled to his master. “Why are they taking him?”
“I didn’t want to believe it of you, Xandu.” Taan replied without looking at him. “But my suspicions have proven correct.” The vizier clapped his hands once. A signal.
A new group of mummies attacked Xandu. Appearing from behind cisterns and from around corners, they trapped him in seconds. They gripped his ankles, wrists, and shoulders and held him suspended in the air, above their heads. Xandu had never fought with one of the mummy caretakers of Naktamun. But he realized now that they possess the strength of a pyramid wall.
“Wait! I’ve done nothing!” Xandu screamed.
“You dare to question our sacred king.” Taan said. “Did you really believe I would let you sully your crop any longer? Did you think I would let such a dissenter in front of Kefnet?”
“But the scrolls I found—“
“Were planted by me.” The vizier laughed. “The wisest hunters know how to bait their prey Xandu. I hunt nonbelievers. I hunt the doubters and the unfaithful among us and purge our communities.”
“But I do believe! I love Kefnet. Let me face the trial today. I will show you—“
“You will be cast out! Both of you! You’ll be thrown into the desert as all dissenters have been. We will let the God-Pharaoh, may his return come quickly, decide what must be done with your lives.”
“AARGH!”Jarek screamed as he somehow managed to remove one arm from a mummies grip. He quickly mumbled an incantation that brought the sand in front of them into a shape like a man, an elemental, that dove at the other mummies holding him.
“Enough.” Taan said and waved his hand. The sand elemental vanished as fast as it had appeared. “Kill him.”
Xandu watched the Anointed twist and crack Jarek’s neck. Then calmly, they carried him away. Another body for the anointing ceremony. A faceless brother in the making.
The Anointed holding Xandu began walking toward the center of the city with him lifted above them. Once in the center, they would turn toward the city gates, and march Xandu through Naktamun for all to see what happens to dissenters. The plane’s unrelenting sunlight blinded him. He could hear Vizier Taan calling from behind.
“I should thank you, Xandu. The gamble I took on you paid off. You led me straight to Jarek Sal’s house yesterday. A place I’ve struggled to find in recent years. None of this would be possible without your quest for knowledge.”
Three days later, Xandu was deep into the desert of Amonkhet, sitting on the edge of a small oasis. The lights of Naktamun were far behind him. After he was dropped outside the city gates he had pleaded for re-entry against the closed doors. But when the twin suns began to set, it became clear to him that his exile was permanent, and he’d started walking.
He tried again to quiet his mind. Water from a spring trickled nearby. The gentle rustle of desert foliage whispered to him. A fly buzzed. This oasis could support him for a day or two, until he found more permanent shelter.
How could this have happened? The pursuit of knowledge should be relentless. That is one of Kefnet’s teachings. All devoted followers who want to worship him truly, to know him, must never cease the pursuit of knowledge. Every one of Kefnet’s devoted know this.
Yet, Xandu couldn’t help the feeling that this wasn’t true. Pursuing knowledge had made him an outcast; a dissenter. He could no longer enjoy the religion to which he had given his whole life. He wasn’t even sure he could worship his god.
Xandu kneeled. He had to try. He had to pray to Kefnet and ask for help. He had to bring his questions about the God-Pharaoh, about the broken history he’d uncovered. He had to invoke favor from the aven deity once more. Maybe help would come?
In the quiet of the oasis, Xandu closed his eyes to pray and begin his incantation. He barely heard the water splash as the crocodile leapt; the patient, tenacious hunter. The strength of its bite, the last thing he knew.