Ghosts of Zezura
Here's a story I wrote nine years ago based on a character created by Richard Tyler, a.k.a. Uraeus, the immortal warrior Jaycen Wise. I hope you enjoy it.
Jaycen looked down into the oasis before him atop the dune, the windswept sands stinging his face despite his shesh. Below him the caravan struggled up the mound, running from the sandstorm bearing down on them like a relentless hawk. He had wished to avoid summoning this place, but the storm forced his hand. Too many memories lingered beyond the date palms, feelings he had no desire to experience again. But that was long ago, three centuries past, many lifetimes away.
He turned to the caravan and cupped his hands over his mouth.
“This way!” he shouted. “Hurry!”
The line of pack camels and donkeys struggled up the precipitous dune. His Ihaggaren companions shouted out praises to him as they crested the sand hill and witnessed the bountiful respite waiting below. The camels picked up the pace on the descent, their natural instincts recognizing the protection before them.
A man in dusty robes crested the dune on worn camel, pulling his face scarf aside to reveal a happy bearded face.
“Master, your reputation fails to do you justice! You are truly the master of the desert.”
Jaycen nodded. “Hurry, Ibrahim. The storm is catching up with us. We can exchange compliments later.”
“Yes, of course. Hut, hut!” The camel descended the dune, leading the others laden with gold and supplies. The last few camels carried a few of the rich merchant’s wives, each of them stealing a quick gaze at Jaycen. The woman on the last camel made no secret of her interest. She stared at him, her gaze disturbing to Jaycen not only because of its intensity but because of the unique color of her eyes. They were golden.
Jaycen dismissed his feeling to the winds. He paced the dune to make sure everyone had come, and then followed the caravan to the oasis.
Everyone gathered just inside the protection of the trees, waiting for Jaycen to lead them further into the massive oasis. He pulled the reins of his camel, stopping it from entering the verdant sanctuary.
“Jaycen, what is wrong?” Ibrahim asked.
Jaycen looked into the merchant’s questioning eyes.
“Nothing. Everyone follow me.”
They made way for him and he led them into the oasis known to him as Zezura. He found the path where he knew it would be and followed it to the clearing. The spring which fed Zezura emerged on the surface in the form of an oval lake an acre wide, rimmed by palms, papyrus and shrubs. A collective cheer rose from everyone its sight.
“Don’t celebrate so soon, my companions,” Jaycen warned. “The sandstorm is still coming. Everyone set up your tents quickly. The trees will lessen the impact, but this is still a massive storm.”
They scrambled about the camels, setting up the tents and securing them for the coming tempest. Jaycen wandered through them, making sure each tent was secured properly before setting up his own. The camel herders gathered the beasts together, relying on their natural blessings to protect them from the storm.
Jaycen entered his tent and secured the flap. The sound of wind and sand increased as the storm crested the dune and bore down on the oasis. Jaycen closed his eyes. They would be safe; Zezura always protected those who rested inside her. He tried to clear his mind, but the images haunting the edges of his memory refused to be denied. His meditation slipped into a trance, and he remembered . . .
Meroe swirled in the panic of imminent danger. The Axumite army had broken through the Kushite defenses and was marching to the capital with fresh troops and supplies. For centuries Kush had watched its fortunes diminish as the trade for the exotic items of the interior shifted from the caravan routes along the Nile to the ports along the Red Sea. As Kush grew weaker, Axum grew stronger. Axum constantly tested the Kushite strength, launching campaigns that were repeatedly repulsed by Kushite warriors and their deadly bows. With each campaign the Axumites gained more ground, pushing the borders of Kush further and further into the interior. But now the final blow had been struck; Meroe was exposed to the army of the enemy.
Jaycen rode furiously up the highway followed by a thousand horsemen. His chest ached in regret; he should have stayed with the army. He fought valiantly, but the Axumites were too numerous and too well armed. His skills honed over hundreds of years made him virtually invincible, but his fellow Kushites were not so blessed. In the end they forced him to leave, knowing their plight was doomed. Go, blessed one, they said. Go save the royal family; for as long as they live, so does our Kush.
They entered a city in chaos. People gathered their belongings in whatever they could find, abandoning their home for the countryside. Many had clogged the road north, hoping to brave the desert and find refuge in Egypt. Some swarmed around the horsemen, shouting for word on their husbands and brothers, asking how much time were left before the Axumites arrived to take their lives and destroy their homes. Jaycen could not answer them even if he had the time. He was too overcome with emotion to say anything. He had to save his control for his inevitable meeting with the king.
The gates swung wide as he and his horsemen approached the palace. They rode into the courtyard to see wagons being loaded by terrified servants, the palace guards shouting at them to increase the pace. Jaycen dismounted his horse and strode to the palace entrance.
He was met by Zamool, captain of the palace guard.
“Are they ready?” he asked.
Zamool nodded. “Everyone is prepared to leave except the pharaoh.”
Jaycen wasn’t surprised. He tried to imagine how the pharaoh felt, the last of his line to wear the uraei, the one to lose the claim of Kushite kings to the Lands of the Nile.
“I will speak to him,” Jaycen said.
Jaycen entered the pharaoh’s throne room. The pharaoh sat in his gilded throne, flanked by his priests and closest advisors. A towering image of Isis loomed over him to his left, an image of Amun to his right. The others saw Jaycen appeared and quickly dispersed. They knew the words between the pharaoh and the Immortal were not to be heard by mortal men.
The pharaoh raised his head. His face was that of a defeated man, his eyes reflecting the despair in his heart.
"You have come with good news, I hope?" he said.
Jaycen approached the throne, kneeling at the pharaoh’s feet before answering.
"I wish it was so. The Axumites have broken through. They are heading for Meroe as we speak. There is no way we can stop them. We must put all our efforts in saving you and the royal family."
The pharaoh’s head dropped back into his hands. "The gods have forsaken us, Jaycen. They have left us naked to our enemies. What have we done to deserve this?”
Jaycen had no answers. He had lived long enough to experience the cycles of the Kush, their triumphs and tragedies. He fought with and against the Khemetites, halted the advance of the Assyrians; driven back the Ptolemys, struggled with the Romans, and now faced the ever-present Axumites.
"I cannot speak for the gods," he finally said.
The pharaoh’s head rose again, this time in anger. "They have touched you with immortality and you do not know their minds? I believe you conspire with them!"
Jaycen marched up the steps to the throne. "If that was true you would all be dead by now."
The pharaoh sighed; his anger dissipated. "I'm sorry, Jaycen. This is a burden no person should bear."
Jaycen decided to change the subject. "The wagons are waiting, pharaoh."
"Where must we go?" the pharaoh asked.
Jaycen hesitated. "To Zezura."
The pharaoh rose from his throne. "I am ready."
Jaycen bowed. "Follow me."
He led the pharaoh to the servant's quarters of the palace. His family mingled among the servants, relieved smiles coming to their faces as the pharaoh entered the room. A servant approached him and fell to his knees.
"Pharaoh, I need you to exchange your clothing with this servant," Jaycen said.
The pharaoh’s eyes went wide. "What?"
"Pharaoh, we don't have much time. You will not take your wagons on our journey to Zezura. Axumite spies watch the palace as we speak, ready to sing for gold. We will send your entourage north towards Khemet. These servants will act in your place, dressed in your clothes. Your family will leave with me through the servants’ quarters. We will take camels into the desert."
"Will your men come with us?"
"No. They will be with the entourage."
The pharaoh’s arrogance diminished to fear. "Who will protect us? You cannot do so alone."
"It's a chance we have to take," Jaycen admitted. "My men will follow the entourage to the First Cataract. They will break away and go into the desert. They will meet with us before we reach Zezura."
The pharaoh hesitated. "I am not confident in your plan, Jaycen, but you have never led us astray."
He tapped the servant on his back and the man rose.
"Give me your clothes," the pharaoh commanded.
Jaycen and the royal family watched their doppelgangers leave Meroe surrounded by a full contingent of Kushite warriors. Jaycen climbed upon his camel.
"Let's, go," he said to the others.
The royal family mounted their camels and followed the immortal warrior into the desert. To anyone they looked the part of a band of Blemmyes fleeing the eventual fall of the city, returning to their desert homeland. The remaining royal servants walked beside them leading donkeys and herding goats. A few warriors were scattered among them as well, their weapons hidden under their clothing. The lush vegetation on river lands gave way to the scattered bushes of the desert, the sun growing more intense as moisture fled the air. They were hours into their escape when the pharaoh approached Jaycen.
"Everyone is tired," he said. "When will we rest?"
"There will be no rest until nightfall," Jaycen replied. "We must distance ourselves from Meroe as far as possible. The further away we are, the less likely we'll be pursued."
"You seem to forget who I am," the pharaoh replied.
Jaycen looked into the pharaoh’s eyes, his patience weak at best.
"You are a ruler without a kingdom, a man who should listen to those that have come to save his life. In old Kush I wouldn’t even be speaking with you, for the priests would have demanded you take your own life for the defeat by the Axumites. So, I suggest you have patience, pharaoh, lest I invoke the old customs."
The pharaoh rode away in shock and fear. Jaycen immediately regretted his words. He had underestimated how much the defeat had affected him. Though he knew the pharaoh’s sense of loss was great, no one in Kush could feel the loss more than he. He was riding away from the land where was he was born, abandoning the temples of the gods he had prayed to for hundreds of years, deserting the beings that blessed him with the gift of immortality. And he knew, deep within his heart he knew, he would never return again.
Darkness had laid its blanket across the sands when the royal party finally rested. Jaycen made sure the sentries were in place before walking off into the night alone. He checked to be sure he wasn't followed before changing directions, headed for a special place known only to him a few priests long since dead. The area was a hard piece of earth amidst a sea of soft sand, a point that went unnoticed to the unwise. Jaycen found the landmark, sat, and waited. The moon rose over the eastern horizon, its light coaxing shadows from the dune. Jaycen closed his eyes and chanted, hoping the please the gods with his prose. He kept them closed despite the trembling earth beneath him, the winds that pulled at his shesh and the sands that blasted the exposed skin and limbs. He continued chanting until all was silent again, and then dared to open his eyes. Jaycen was surrounded by a forest of date palms as he sat on a bed of crushed grass. The lake beyond the palms sparkled with starlight; in the distance he heard the rustling of timid hares and the call of nightingales. The gods heard his prayers and answered.
"You are wrong, pharaoh," Jaycen said to himself. "The gods still favor you, at least for now."
Jaycen led the party to Zezura the next day. Everyone dismounted their camels, ululations echoing among the palm trees. The pharaoh fell to his knees singing the praises of Isis, Amun and Apedemak. He ran up to Jaycen, the fire of life in his eyes.
"You are truly blessed, Immortal One! We will raise temples to the gods here and we will create the foundation for a new Kush, a Kush that will strike back against the Axumites and drive them from our land!"
"That time is far from now," Jaycen replied. "First we must . . .
Jaycen felt the vibrations in the sand. Riders were approaching, a large force from the feel of it. He was perplexed; this was too soon for the guards protecting the false entourage. He hadn't had time to connect with the priest accompanying them to show their location. He summoned his men and marched to the edge of the oasis. Chariots and horses appeared over the horizon, war vehicles that were distinctly Axumite. Jaycen looked stunned as his enemy approached with a force that would easily overwhelm them. He looked back at the royals and saw the shock in their faces.
"How could they?" the pharaoh shouted. "How could they find us so soon?"
Jaycen had no answer. He gazed into the eyes of his men and saw their thoughts. They were going to die, but all men do eventually. At least they would die a glorious death, fighting alongside the Immortal. He would at least live to tell the tale. As Jaycen watched the Axumite horde draw closer he believed he would die this day as well.
The Kushites loaded their bows and marched forward behind Jaycen. The Axumites halted outside of bow range, all except one chariot that continued forward. It continued until it was only a few yards away from the Kushites. A man stepped from the chariot, a warrior adorned in armor of gold and steel, a conical helmet edged in leopard skill in his head. His eyebrows arched upward like arrowheads and a thin moustache sat upon his lips. His narrow face was punctuated with a pointed beard barely covering his chin.
"Kushite!" he barked in a deep voice. "Did you think you could escape the spear of Axum?"
Jaycen signaled his men to stay behind. He approached the Axumite warrior, his hand firmly on his sword.
"The Spear of Axum rules this day," Jaycen admitted. "But who says the Kush are finished spilling Axumite blood?"
"If you boast to save your pharaoh save your breath. I have no interest in him," the Axumite said. "He is a king without a country. He'll die and rot in this grave you created for him. I'm interested in you"
The mysterious Axumite stepped forward as he lowered his spear. "You have something I want, Kushite, and I mean to claim it."
"Who are you?" Jaycen asked.
"What does it matter who I am to a dead man?" the Axumite countered.
"If you think you can kill me, then you don't know me at all," Jaycen said.
"Oh, but I do know you, Kushite. On the day you were granted your immortality I was granted a similar blessing. But my gift was thwarted by the intervention of your gods. Yes Kushite, I too am immortal, but my gift is a curse for I am condemned to reincarnation with no control over whom I will be or where I will be. I only know that with your demise my curse will be lifted and I will be a true immortal. So, you see, Kushite, you are a dead man!"
The Axumite lunged at Jaycen with the speed of cheetah, his spear flickering like a snake's tongue. Jaycen snatched his sword free and stumbled back, slapping the spear away. He pressed forward, attempting to turn the Axumite's assault but the man was agile as well as quick. Their fight was a blurring dance, spins and leaps, parries and thrusts, too fast for others to follow. The man's endurance matched Jaycen's. A lesser man would have become doubtful, but Jaycen was sure of his skills. Patience was the key. The Axumite was anxious to claim his prize. He would make a mistake soon.
Jaycen decided to force his hand. He lowered his sword and let his free hand sag, feinting fatigue. The Axumite jumped, charging for the opening, his spear aimed at Jaycen's neck. Jaycen waited until the tip of the spear touched his skin then he spun to his right, grabbing the spear with his left hand as he swung his sword about in his right. The Axumite almost avoided the cut despite his utter surprise. The move was intended to cut off his head; instead Jaycen's blade sliced his neck. He snatched the Axumite's spear from his weakening hand as the man fell to the sand.
Jaycen stood over the fallen warrior, more curious that triumphant.
"Tell me who you are before you die," he commanded.
The Axumite grinned. "You'll have forever to find out. We will meet again, Kushite."
The Axumite coughed and died.
Jaycen looked up from the fallen Axumite. There was no time for savoring this victory over his mysterious foe. The Axumites were attacking.
The Kushite archers fanned out. They snatched their arrows from their quivers and planted them in the sand beside them. Their shots were accurate and devastating, but not enough. The Axumites surged past them, striking them down with lances and swords as they charged the oasis.
Jaycen rode before them in the chariot of the dead Axumite. He drove the horses relentlessly hoping to reach the royal family before the enemy horde could carry out their morbid orders. The chariot careened off the rough ground, tossing Jaycen about as he fought for control. An arrow appeared in the neck of his horse, the creature fell and the chariot slammed to a stop, throwing Jaycen in the air. He slammed against a palm and fought for consciousness; the crash against the ground sent him into painful darkness.
When he opened his eyes Zezura was deathly still. He raised up on his hand as pain burned his side. He gritted through the pain and rose to his feet. The Axumites were gone. The headless bodies of the royal family lay before him, hands tied behind their back, the blood staining the sands. The heads were gone, taken as trophies and evidence that the deed had been done. The royal line of Kush was dead
Jaycen fought back the emotions threatening to overwhelm him. It was fate, he told himself. He had taunted destiny attempting to save the royal family. The gods would have never let the Axumites through if it was not to be. He started towards the bodies and felt a tightening around his neck. His circulation was being cut off; he fell to his knees and fought for breath. Was he being punished, too? No, this was something different, something immediate, something real...
Jaycen awoke face down, a thin cord biting into his neck. He grabbed at it, forcing his fingers between and gaining some breath.
"Why don't you die, damn it!" the woman cursed.
Jaycen rolled over, flinging the person off his back. He struggled to his feet as quickly as he could manage, gasping for air as his eyes focused on his assailant. He immediately recognized the woman with the golden eyes, her beautiful face marred by an evil snarl. Her voice was familiar as well.
"I told you we would me again, Kushite," the Axumite said. "It's been a long time, an eternity."
Jaycen scowled at the perverse magic at work before him.
"Do you like my body," the Axumite asked as she lifted her dress. "Men find it appealing. They underestimate how strong I am. They always die in shock."
They noticed the sword propped against the pillow at the same instant. They sprang, the Axumite reaching the blade before Jaycen. Jaycen ducked the wild swing but was struck by a kick in the abdomen. He moved into the blow, too close for the Axumite to strike him with the sword. Jaycen straightened, driving his head into the Axumite's chin as he grabbed the hand holding the sword. He jerked and snapped the woman's wrist then struck the woman with a vicious elbow which knocked her to the opposite side of the tent. She hit the ground then sprang back with an unnatural speed, right into the waiting sword. The blade tore through her chest and out her back.
The Axumite reincarnate stared blankly at Jaycen. "Not again," she whispered. "Not again."
Jaycen lowered the sword and the dead woman slid to the ground.
The tent flap flew open and Ibrahim charged in.
"Master! What is going on? I heard noise and...in Allah's name, what is this?"
Jaycen stared down at the dead woman. "A ghost."
Ibrahim stepped closer to the body. "The golden eyed woman! I knew she was evil!" He kicked the body and spat on it.
"Get someone to bury her," Jaycen said.
"That is too good for her," Ibrahim argued. "Leave her to the desert."
"Do as I say," Jaycen retorted. Ibrahim detected the anger in Jaycen's voice. He hurried away and returned with two others. They removed the body quickly.
Jaycen went to his chest, removing a scarf to wrap around his neck. The wound would heal overnight, but he had to give the impression he was normal to his group. He dressed and peered out of his tent to make sure no one was near. He emerged carrying a large gilded chest, working his way quietly past the others to the far side of the oasis. The marker still existed, a granite shabti carved with the face of the pharaoh. He took a small bottle of oil from his shirt, pouring it on the shabti while whispering in Meroic. The air before him shimmered and the trees disappeared, revealing a steep pyramid constructed with black stone, a modest offering chapel extending from its base. The structures were the same as when he finished them centuries before, his final tribute to the kingdom he once served. He entered the chamber, walking through a gauntlet of paintings and pottery until he reached the altar. A stone statue of the pharaoh stood on the altar, arms at his side. Jaycen tilted the statue and the altar slid aside, revealing the entrance to the tomb. He descended into the tomb and stood before the coffins of the royal family. He opened each coffin, then opened his chest. The jeweled container held the stolen skulls of the family. This was the true nature of his journey, to make those he failed to protect whole again. He placed the skulls in the coffins then closed them carefully. After a brief prayer he left the tomb and the temple. Darkness was giving way to light, the sandstorm long gone. They would break camp soon and continue their journey, leaving the safety of Zezura behind. Some of those with the caravan would try to return, but Jaycen would make sure they would fail. For him, it was time to leave this part of his past behind. He would never see Zezura again.