A Pyramid thief plunders more than he wanted: family ghosts, a demonic snake, and a floating talisman. This fearful tale, from Book 3 of the 1001 series, is my treat for Halloween. For other free tales and special offers, join 1001/Qaraqbooks News.
The Tale of the Festival for the Welcoming of Aapep
The Twelfth Dynasty had restored Egypt’s wealth and power in the world. The heirs of the two Sensuret Pharaohs did more than consolidate their hold on immediate neighbors. Egypt was trading with China! The treasures in the royal coffers were amazing, but off limits to any thief, no matter his expertise. Thank Khnum that to revive the ailing economy decades ago, the Dynasty had allowed middle class Pyramid tombs. Security was not as elaborate. I had a way in.
At that time of year the great Festival for the Banishing of Aapep was in full swing. Aapep was the Demon of Darkness and Chaos, opponent of Ma’at, who brings light and order. The priests constructed an effigy of Aapep, which was burned to protect us for another year. Of course, much more went on to honor Khnum, the local deity for the town of Elephantine: dancing, singing, imbibing of sacramental spirits, and general free license, men having their way with women, slaves with masters, and thieves with loot. My gang called it the Welcoming of Aapep.
I waited until the brilliant blue of the sky, the reflection of the mighty Nile, started toward pink and orange. The giant effigy was receiving final prayers and songs. Looking back one more time, the ghastly face of Aapep burned into my mind’s eye. As I slipped out of town and neared the Pyramid, I saw every worker head toward the effigy. No one missed the final night; once the pyre started, any behavior was acceptable; to embrace evil was to banish evil for another year. Dozens of cleaners, guides, and, finally, guards left the Pyramids. I arrived at the south gate, found the secret way in my gang had discovered, and snuck inside. My stomach tightened.
Getting inside a Pyramid was easy, getting into one of the tombs was the trick. The Kharman family burial suite was no exception: a maze of hallways to navigate and then three locked gates. The gang had paid off an acolyte for a map, the secret to open the first gate, and a couple extra tips. Even with his life threatened, the pawn did not give up everything, but promised that a clever man could figure out the rest. I volunteered for the job.
The acolyte did not lie: I whisked through the halls, only fear halting me. With all the stories and songs promoted by the new government, I imagined what Gods and Demons followed me down the halls. I rushed through the first gate and, sure enough, pushed a combination of stones in the wall and the second gate popped open. The third gate was another matter. Outside the Kharman tomb stood a massive statue: an elephant with a mighty horse atop it, and a monstrous snake riding the horse. There were jewels enough right there, but I knew who the snake was: Aapep, the Demon itself, who froze its victims with a magical gaze. I avoided the snake’s eyes, but after a terrifying eternity, knew in my gut that the gate switch must be on the snake’s face. Who would want to look there? I yanked quickly at the jewels in the eyes, the head, the fangs. A loud click and I was in!
The chamber resembled living space in the Kharman household, so the immortal souls could rest out eternity in comfort. That meant ghosts were all around me! Decaying scrolls had words to comfort their souls: “Your Ba shall pass safely into the Duat.” Chilled, I saw insects swarming in every corner. Fool! They were only bejeweled scarab beetles, representing immortality, which adorn every tomb. At the Festival, priests recite a manual for vanquishing the Demon, and perform symbolic actions: spitting upon Aapep, defiling him with the left foot, or dismembering him. I imagined Aapep ripping me up as payment for these threats.
I sat down on a facsimile of a favorite Kharman bench. I had to pull myself together. I’d suffer equally frightening consequences from the gang if I failed. I did a sober perusal of objects for the taking. There were jewels, gold versions of objects such as wheat and hammers, and expensive belts and necklaces. The burning ritual would be soon, and then the guards would return. I got my tools and went to work dislodging gems. As I pried loose the beauties, my hand shook, and I sliced chunks off my other hand. The blood made me think of Aapep being dismembered. I was losing my grip, literally and figuratively!
Renewing my resolve, I gathered loose items and made a pile. In one corner, I noticed an oval object, apparently hovering in mid-air. Nearing it, I felt a peace come over me, my fears abating. I stared at the oval and visions came, this time not fearful ones. I saw a soul settle into human form in Sumer many centuries ago. I saw the man-soul perform a ritual with this same ovoid, which exploded and shattered apart. I marveled to envision the oval object reappear in several Pyramids, appear to a drunken Kharman ancestor, and remain in this shadowy corner of calm.
Enthralled, I touched the miraculous talisman. More than any terror I felt in the tomb, emotions engulfed me, and I tapped the destructive energy inside the object. The object broke into seven pieces, pitching me across the chamber. I felt the greatest shame at my violation (and as a lowlfe, I don’t do remorse); my previous anxieties magnified a hundredfold. I had to get out of the tomb!
I threw as much treasure as I could into my bag. As I did, my hand found the shell fragment of the oval. I flinched, but then, out of some perverse instinct, I stuffed it into my pocket and raced around for the other parts. I found a set of metal bars woven together by thin fibrous cording. What else had the shattering loosed? Undone, I bolted from the tomb.
Outside I froze before the giant elephant statue, lest the snake lunge at me. About to place the string of bars inside the bag, I tapped each metal slat and heard a distinct ringing tone from each. A pleasant respite from my qualms, I repeated the sequence. The sound cleared my head and gave me courage. I could not remain a minute longer, but the paltry amount of loot would cost me my life. I had to escape to another land, away from the gang. I wished to project my soul to a safe place, the way priests claim the deceased soul can. With the tones ringing in my head, I reached into my pocket and clutched the oval shell.
I faced the statue. At that moment the priests set Aapep on fire, and smoke and flames from the pyre released magic into the libidinous festival grounds, the township of Elephantine, and the nearby Pyramids. I felt the magic as I gazed into the snake’s eyes. I banished Aapep from my soul. I glanced down at the charging horse and willed it to whisk me away. Finally, I looked lovingly at the elephant, placing my soul in its care. Gripping the oval tighter, I cast the bars at the elephant, and felt the chiming chord vibrate through me.
A flash of light and I was gone. Did my soul flee to China, in my mind the farthest place from the gang? Or to the North, across the great sea at the Nile Delta, the surest escape route? No, my Ba stayed right there, entered the great statue, then projected onto the tomb floor in a smaller form, which the guards found the next morning: a blue statuette of an elephant. I was no longer human, I could not move, but I had banished all fear.