GRAVEYARD SHIFT unofficially debuted at Denver Comic Con, but it was officially released one year ago, today! TOR releases the paperback on 14 August, but you can pick up the audiobook now (on sale) from Audible.com and, of course, the Kindle and hardcover versions are still available.
To celebrate the one-year anniversary, here is a selection from MENKAURE, one of the other books in the series (still in-work, I’m sorry to say). Enjoy and let me know what you think on Twitter or Facebook!
The Fall of Inebu-Hedju
Ta Meri, beloved of the gods. Kemet, The Black Land, in the city of Inebu-Hedju. It being a year after the eighth cattle count. It being the start of the sixteenth year of Pharaoh’s reign.
This is how Chaos came to beloved Kemet, Realm of Ma’at.
It was the last day of the month of Shemu, the eve of First Akhet.
Far to the south, in the city of Abedju, Pharaoh would be officiating over the last days of the sacred festival to encourage the River’s inundation and a bountiful year. Pharaoh did not do many things well. As a king, he was a grand disappointment. But he could revel. He excelled at that with no argument. And this night, he would no doubt seek new levels of carousing and debauchery, blissfully unaware of the peril that threatened the Two Lands.
Lord Meritptah stood on the high temple’s outer enclosure and glared at the blue-white conflagration engulfing the city. He ran his hands over the rough whitewashed mudbrick of the wall’s lip and struggled to contain his emotions. Actinic flames danced through the houses and huts below, setting everything ablaze. The heat swelled as an ill wind drove the unnatural firestorm farther into the city and closer to the temple wall.
Just beyond the flames, the followers of Isfethotep, those who came out of the desert as well as the newly converted, stood as desert stones. For the moment, they’d ceased their orgiastic bleating and surveyed their handiwork with an unsettling silence. Their high priestess, or sorceress, or demon-witch, distinct even at this distance, had her arms thrown up over her head and gave the impression that the roiling ebon clouds, which swept low and swift, were guided of her volition. Meritptah doubted it. He was more than an initiate in the supernatural arts and never had he heard of works such as these except in tales and legend.
There had to be some trick to it. Some mundane work perhaps enhanced by illusion. He swore at himself for his inability to perceive it. He also cursed the fact that there was no bow powerful enough to reach her. As distinct as she stood against the throng of Isfethotep’s cult, her skin the color of bleached bone, both beautiful and terrible to look upon, it would make an easy shot. He wondered with an aloof curiosity what the giant, nearly twice the height of a Kemeti man, at her side would do if arrows and sling stones pelted the woman. Somehow, he suspected she had an answer for that as well.
She demonstrated her power earlier. When Re still shone high in the sky, her messenger came to the gate dressed in the garb of desert dwellers who knew not the true gods of Kemet. He threatened that they had only hours to quit the city or declare for Isfethotep. All those who refused and remained were doomed. The Kemeti scoffed and heckled him until the man collapsed. He lay still as if their mocking shouts had struck the very life from his limbs. When men went to investigate, they screamed with horror and fled for the shelter of the city walls. They reported that the messenger’s body was infested with all manner of insects and winged scorpions that buzzed and hissed as they devoured the man’s flesh. They wondered how he had lived at all to deliver his threat.
A stone’s throw away, sealed pots shattered with explosive force and jerked Meritptah’s attention back to the present predicament. The flames made no sound themselves, which only added credence to his supposition they were supernatural. The silent blaze amplified every other sound with preternatural clarity. Meritptah imagined he could even hear the movement of the evil black clouds which marched eastward in time with the sorceress’ gestures. The glint of some jewel hanging about her neck caught the rapidly failing golden light of Re’s face, splintered it, and reflected it back as violet shards of corruption.
Meritptah glanced over his shoulder and toward Inebu-Hedju’s western gate. Throngs of refugees huddled against one another as they evacuated. There were no shouts or speech. People sobbed but it was distant. Dipping just beneath the gate’s high arch, the bright golden disk of Re’s eye sank reluctantly, as if the god knew His absence through the onset of night would bring countless perils to His children. Beyond the gate, Meritptah could just make out the tall palms that marked the quays and the river walk. Too far to be seen, and shielded from his sight by the trees, lay the sanctuary of the River. Meritptah hoped there would be enough boats to carry all the people, but he already knew there weren’t.
“My Lord, we must depart,” a quiet resolute voice spoke close to his ear.
Meritptah had been so lost in his thoughts he hadn’t seen or heard the priest come to the rooftop.
“The scrolls are secure?” he asked without looking at the man.
“As you instructed, my lord, only those of rare import or of which limited copies are known to exist. I fear we will leave too many…” the man’s voice drifted away.
Meritptah turned to see what had stolen his speech. The priest stared slack-jawed at the flames and the destruction. Tears streamed from his eyes.
“Magnificent and horrible is it not?” Meritptah asked rhetorically. “I had no idea, do you understand, no hint that mortals could wield such power. I’d warrant not since Sekhmet threatened the world have there been such magics.”
“But we have magic ourselves. We must implore the gods. Surely, they will not–”
“They will not what? Leave us to this fate? We are but their messengers and what power have we when Pharaoh, the Falcon Horus on earth, yet behaves as an indolent child? No. Once we had power such as this, or something near it, I suspect. A scroll that contained all the arcane secrets and lay their mysteries bare. Djehuty made it a gift to us and what did we do? Left it to the care of vain and feeble men. And they lost it.” He pounded his fist on the lip of the enclosure wall. “Now, we only interpret dreams, offer aid to the surgeons, and see to the journeys of the dead. Admirable pursuits, but no match for this.”
Something in the wind changed and it no longer carried the heat of the flames to the temple. Instead it was chilled and filled with a rank odor.
“My lord, the fire…”
Even as the priest spoke, the flames died out. Meritptah threw his gaze at the sorceress. Her arms were down now and she swept them outwards in preparation for some other ritual, as if readying herself to embrace the entire city. He heard a high-pitched ululating cry, but couldn’t be sure it came from her. The sound stopped and he saw her clap her hands together. Then she repeated the sound and the earlier wide-armed gesture.
The priest next to him could not keep the trepidation from his voice, “My lord, we must go. She is working some new spell. I cannot bear to see it.” The man was already backing down the stairs that led to the inner sanctum of the high temple.
“Go. I will join you presently,” Meritptah said, his teeth chattering from the cold. Goosebumps broke out on his bare chest, arms, and belly. Something kept him there. He needed to witness this, even if it brought about his own destruction. The wind increased in time with her movements as if fanned by her arms.
“My lord, you must come. The boat awaits us on the River.”
Meritptah waved the man away. He saw the woman repeat the gesture a third time, and yet again her appeal issued forth. Below and off to his left, some thing answered. Many somethings. And he knew the sound. His stomach turned to lead – a great weight that would keep him rooted to the spot until an impure death came to claim him.
He’d heard it once. Long ago. So long it might have been in another world, in another life. It had been the night his uncle and father had perished. They’d been working some formula they’d discovered, something incomplete, yet his uncle had been so sure…
Young Meritptah had gone to spy on their works and he’d heard the sound then. The coughing-cackling chittering that shot shards of pain into his spine even now.
“No. It cannot be,” he heard himself say, as if someone else were shouting the words over a great distance.
Then he was pushing past the priest and running down into the inner sanctum.
“Light the lamps. Set fire to anything that will make light. It is our last hope,” he shouted at the dumbfounded priests who were still packing delicate papyri scrolls into cedar chests.
“Leave the scrolls. Leave everything. To the River,” he urged them.
The priest who had been with him on the rooftop finally reached his side. “My lord, what is it?”
“Did you not hear?” Meritptah sped through the altar-space of the high temple. He snatched an oil lamp from its mounting and swept it at every nearby shadow ready for battle.
“Aye, Lord. The cry of some beasts in the north.”
“Not beasts, you fool. Yfrit!”
The priest looked at him with suspicion. “Demons from the sands? Surely you’re mistaken.”
“Tell me after everything we’ve witnessed today that you doubt me.” Meritptah glared at the priest daring him to deny it. “I tell you that if we see the sun set while yet in this city, we shall never see it rise again. Now run. Tell everyone to seek the River and carry lamps. The demons will shun the light.”
The priest, visibly sobered by Meritptah’s appeal, nodded his assent.
“Fire and light must be our allies now. Every man must carry a lamp.”
Meritptah ran out of the altar-space and into the cloister that separated the inner sanctum from the priests’ quarters. He dared to steal a glance skyward. Directly above, the clouds boiled low and swirled like dark dye in water. Green and blue bolts of lightning punctuated their sweeping movements. It was as if the sky itself had been changed into a massive turbulent cauldron and an unseen hand vigorously stirred the contents within. To the west, the remains of the golden light of Re turned purple and heralded the onset of night. The sorceress had planned her attack well. There was so little time to reach the River before Re’s protection was gone.
Yet Meritptah had one more errand to perform. He slammed open the door to his quarters catching his body servant by surprise. The man gave out a yelp of terror but had no further time to react before Meritptah crammed the lamp into his hand.
“Hold this.” Meritptah moved to a stack of chests and with strength born of panic, swept the top chests aside. He flung open the lid of the bottom chest.
Then pain seized his arm. The onset of a seizure. He forced himself to breathe the way the surgeons had shown him, deep and slow. A silent prayer formed on his lips, but he already knew he’d never finish it.
# # #
Meritptah lay on his back, aware of his body servant at his side holding his hand and urging him to sit up and drink water. Some time had passed.
“Not long, my lord. You closed your eyes but an instant.”
A small seizure then. But Meritptah knew better than to think it had passed. These smaller fits only served as heralds to larger ones. He fought the urge to race outdoors and see how much sunlight yet remained. It would do little good.
“Help me.” He crawled on all fours towards the open cedar chest and sifted through the detritus of his youth.
“What is it you seek, Lord?”
“An amulet. A plain thing. A totem to allay the fears of a child. There’s a chance…”
His grandmother had made it for him in the wake of his father’s death, so that he needn’t fear the dark. A ward that kept Yfrit at bay. That’s what she’d told him. He prayed now that the old and pious woman had been speaking truth and hadn’t been trying to placate him with a sense of false security.
His hand clasped a round flat object. The thin copper disk showed signs of neglect and verdigris obscured some of the marks upon it. The leather cord that ran through it was worn and stained dark from sweat and long years of wear. Meritptah spat on his thumb and tried to rub some of the corrosion from the surface, but it had no effect. He prayed it wouldn’t matter and tied the cord around his neck. He remembered the amulet resting above his heart the last time he’d worn it. But that had been long years and many pounds ago. It rested about his neck like a tight collar now. Already he felt a sense of relief and safety. Even if it was false, he silently thanked his grandmother for her gift and promised to visit and refresh her tomb if he survived this ordeal.
“Help me up. We must run now. We must make the River while still in the sight of Re.”
“What of your effects? We two cannot carry them all.” The younger man pulled Meritptah to his feet.
“Leave them.” Meritptah started for the door.
“And this?” His body servant held up the leopard skin that denoted Meritptah’s status as the Sem-priest.
Meritptah considered for a moment. Without it, he would be indistinguishable from the rabble. He’d need it. Who knew what disorder now reigned at the ship landings? And it would only grow as night crept on from the east.
“Bring it. Give me that lamp.” The man handed the lamp to him. “Now take one for yourself and come. The strength has not yet returned to me. I will need the power in your young legs.”
Meritptah swung an arm around the man’s shoulders and the two hobbled out of the room and back into the cloister.
Other priests were about now. Some of them carrying holy relics and sacred artifacts they deemed too precious to leave to defiling hands.
“The River!” Meritptah yelled. “Make the River with all haste. Leave your burdens, the gods will understand.”
Whether they chose not to heed him or simply didn’t hear, he couldn’t tell. He felt almost beyond caring.
Then they were out into the main avenue that led to the west gate.
Men, children, and women walked unhurriedly, their faces set in grim masks, many of them weeping. They clung to whatever meager possessions they’d had time to secure.
Meritptah’s body servant began pushing through them. For some reason, the throng was not nearly as thick as it had appeared from the rooftop. He couldn’t be sure if this was because they were ahead of most of the refugees or if this was the remains of those who but lately sought to flee the city. He sent a silent prayer to Ptah and Horus that the temple boat had not yet departed the landing.
He watched the last sliver of the solar disk slip behind the hills on the western bank of the River and his heart sank. It was a race against the true dark of night now. The boat was too far, and even were he young and hale and not overburdened by an indulgent belly, he would not have reached it before the last light disappeared.
He stole a sideways glance. His breath caught in his chest. In the alleyways between the buildings that crowded the avenue, amid the deeper shadows, he could see them. Not distinctly, he doubted any man would see them and still live with his heart and soul intact. But he could make out inky silhouette blots of pure black moving within the gloom. They paced and pawed at the gritty ground and hooted and gibbered in anticipation. And then Re was gone. And the Yfrit dove into the crowd with howls of derisive savagery.
They caught the refugees completely unawares. Meritptah felt the first victims perish rather than saw or heard anything as the Yfrit struck poor unfortunates and they burst into showers of viscera and gore. Then the herd of people, like lambs hunted by lions, panicked and surged forward. They ran blindly for the most part as only a few carried lamps.
Men smashed into Meritptah and his body servant, sending the two of them sprawling. The body servant’s lamp flew from his hands and crashed to the ground several paces away. The man extricated himself from Meritptah’s grip. Meritptah tried to crawl forward, his own lamp clutched in his left hand, but more and more panicked men and women struck him and they too fell in heaps.
Someone stepped on his right hand. He turned to look and was kicked in the face for his trouble. The crowd would trample him if he could not stand. He forced himself to all fours and shouted curses into the night and at his frail form. He made it to one knee and held his lamp high. The scheme worked and the crowd parted around him. Meritptah swung his gaze about and saw his body servant. The man crawled, bloodied, on all fours within arm’s reach of his fallen lamp. Just as he was about to reach it, the foot of some fear-crazed passerby struck it aside. The flame, already guttering, went out. His body servant now lay at the very faintest edge of Meritptah’s oasis of light.
Their eyes met, the man’s reflecting the terrible knowledge Meritptah held. Then the massive clawed paw, its ephemeral texture like foul smoke given form, of some crimson-eyed fiend closed over the man’s head, and dragged him screaming into the darkness.
Mercifully, the screams did not last long. All around Meritptah, more and more joined the massacre’s cacophony.
Dumbfounded, he stood inert, his left arm held aloft like some sentry peering into the night at some unknown sound. The screams of a woman as she prayed to Ptah shook him from his stupor. He sought her out. She knelt on the earth, her arms wrapped around a stripling child. The light from his lamp reached her just as some vapor-formed horror grasped at her from the dark. It snarled and pulled back. Its dark figure boiled away.
She saw him.
“Ptah has sent you, my lord. Thank the god!” she crowed to him. The wide-eyed child so small and gaunt Meritptah could not tell if it was boy or girl.
The effect of the light had not gone unnoticed. More and more people crowded about him threatening to push him to the ground again, while Yfrit howled and roared their indignation from beyond his lamp’s influence.
One lamp was not enough.
He thought of the other lamp, the one that lay on the ground but a few feet from here.
“There is another lamp. It fell on the ground. Seek it out and I shall relight it.” He shouted over the panicked sobs of the survivors. Full of the authority of his office, his priest’s voice, used to oratory and ritual, served him well and calmed the nearby crowd. They needed to be assured someone was in control. The minions of Isfet, the embodiment of Chaos, had won a solid victory this day, but did not hold full sway yet.
Meritptah drew in a deep breath and let it forth with as loud and authoritative an admonition as he could muster toward the nightmares come to life out of the night.
“By the gods Ptah, Asar, Heru, Sekhmet, Aset, and Ma’at. You hold no more power here, demons from out the night. Begone! I, Meritptah, high priest of Ptah, have spoken and my word is His.”
To his surprise, his voice bolstered his own courage. The braying and barking of the Yfrit faded as well.
He looked down into the wide eyes of the woman at his side, “Come now, let us find this lamp.” After a brief moment to orient himself, he saw the fallen lamp. The ground near it darker than the rest of the street. The woman saw it too and before he could say anything, she had broken away from him, and still towing her child behind her, snatched the lamp and hugged it to her chest.
In a moment, she was back at his side. She held it out to him. “Light it my lord.”
He moved his lamp close but before it even touched the wick, the flames flared brightly. In an instant, Meritptah saw first the crack in the faience, then how the woman’s arm glistened. Subconsciously he noticed that he could see her breast through the damp linen on her chest. Then it was as if the two of them simultaneously realized the implication of these signs.
“Drop the lamp,” Meritptah shouted. It was already too late. The flames jumped up the woman’s arm and used her oil-dampened linen dress as an ideal wick. In one horrible moment, she was alight.
“No.” Meritptah snatched the child from her death grip and kicked the woman from him. She pirouetted away, fanned flames burning brighter as she thrashed and flailed at the fire that would have brought her salvation moments before.
It was too much for the crowd, full of screams and cries of terror and dread. Meritptah was once again struck to the earth. Then he felt fingers prying his off the lamp.
“No. You fools. You fools. May Apep have you.”
Someone kicked him in the face and he tasted dirt and blood. Then the lamp was gone.
The woman’s child ripped itself away from him and ran, only to be snatched in the coils of some bat-winged monstrosity and carried off into the fetid air.
Meritptah’s hand sought and found his grandmother’s amulet. He fumbled for it as the Yfrit exploited the moment and renewed the carnage. The charm still clung on his upper chest and he gripped it so hard it dug into his skin.
He crawled. The stink of burning flesh and offal filled his nostrils. The witch’s black clouds shielded the stars and even Khonsu, the moon. He could see almost nothing yet squeezed his eyes shut despite that. Demon Yfrit slunk around him their evil breath chuffed like hyenas. Fear governed his heart to such an extent even the prayers he spoke daily fled his thoughts. He was a boy again. A boy who’d heard his uncle call up something he shouldn’t have out of–
“There. Is that not Lord Meritptah?” a voice called out.
Meritptah did not answer for fear that it was some trick to fill his heart with false hope.
“My lord? Do you yet live?”
He dared open an eye and saw the avenue bathed in light. He rolled to one side and stared at a group of temple priests, each of them holding lamps or torches. Their arms encumbered with scrolls, statues, and small chests.
“Aye. Thanks to you and the gods. Come, we must make the River. Pray to the gods that the temple boat has not departed.”
A few priests helped him to his feet. Then they noticed the body parts, blood, detritus, and other parts not so easily recognized.
“My lord, what has happened?”
“It is best you do not know. Now we must hurry.” With a priest under each arm, Meritptah urged the party forward. They moved swiftly but as if in a dream. He saw no details. Just the lamps around him and ahead, fires beckoned where people must have set them at the landings. It seemed that before Meritptah could ponder more, the party of priests caught up to a group of stragglers and both groups stumbled into the oasis of light at the boat landings.
A strong voice shouted out his name. “Lord Meritptah. We are here.”
The shipmaster of the temple boat stood high on the stern. He held an oar in his hand as a makeshift spear and swatted and pushed at a hoard of people who pressed near.
“Get back. Back. Let the high priest through.”
Much to Meritptah’s surprise, the people, battered and cowed, parted.
Sailors extended their hands to the priests and pulled them aboard.
The shipmaster found Meritptah. “We’ve had a hard night of it. Didn’t think you’d make it. We’ve been ferrying people to the western shore, so they’ll at least have the River to sunder them from those fanatics and their sorcery.”
“What is wrong with the water?” Meritptah asked. It churned with white-capped waves and random splashes as he looked at it.
“Sobek has forsaken us I fear. His creatures are too perceptive this night. Earlier, some men tried to swim the river. They were strong and swam swiftly, but not so swiftly as the crocodiles. And now their brothers come to join the feasting.” He pointed at the seething water.
“It is too much,” Meritptah said. “Bring us across, then I shall send you back to ferry as many as you can. We will set fires on the western shore and stand vigil. In the morn, we shall sail south to Abedju and tell Pharaoh of this evil dream come to the waking world.”
“Aye.” The shipmaster turned to shout orders to his crew. “Let loose the lines…” The words died on his lips.
“What fresh horror is this?” Meritptah asked.
Men walked out of the darkness. Quiet as river mist they strode forward as one. Moving in lockstep and in pace in a manner so singular, Meritptah doubted that the most disciplined of Pharaoh’s guards could have recreated the effect. It was as if they were entranced. They stood at the edge of the firelight. Then Meritptah saw her.
She stepped forward, graceful and unafraid, the giant at her side.
“I speak to you now, Priest of Impotent Gods.” Her voice was clear and lyrical. Meritptah almost wished she would go on speaking, for he felt a sense of loss when the echoes of her speech had faded.
“Go. Go and tell your king and others of your ilk. Their time is ended. I command you.”
Meritptah heard and almost nodded in assent. Then pride swelled in his heart and he reminded himself of his station. How dare some upstart, uncivilized bitch speak to him in such a manner?
“You are a barbarian and a savage. Who dares to address me?”
“I have taken the name Neitikret so that you may easily understand who now rules you. I am the High Priestess of Isfethotep, companion of King Knephren-Ka, and your new master.” The giant at her side threw back his head and grunted a challenge at the sound of his name. As easily as she had singled out Meritptah in the throng, she turned her attention from him. His heart felt a pang as of lost love in his youth. There was some powerful glamor at work here, but knowledge of its existence did not grant him the power to resist it.
“To the rest of you rabble, kneel now and accept Isfethotep and his ways and you will be rewarded with a thousand pleasures. Defy us and…” She let the threat go unfinished but punctuated her statement with a devious smile.
Meritptah was both entranced and repulsed by it. He couldn’t look away.
No one in the crowd of refugees stirred. A long moment passed.
“Very well,” Neitikret said. Her hands reached up and cupped the jewel which hung between her immaculate breasts. She held her hands and the jewel to her mouth, pursed her lips and blew a short powerful breath.
Immediately, the fires and lamps blew out, plunging the world into darkness.
The Yfrit fell into the crowd with triumphant roars of lust and gluttony.
Then the boat lurched crazily to the shore and Meritptah heard the shipmaster shouting, though how the man could see anything was beyond him.
“Push them off. Push them off. They will swamp us.”
Then the night became a cacophony of shouted screams, bestial noises, and the sounds of wooden oars pounding broken flesh from the side. The boat lurched to the other side as it tore free from the rest of the crowd. Someone on deck managed to relight a lamp and Meritptah wished he hadn’t.
He had time to see the shredded remains of the crowd surging aimlessly in all directions as the giant Knephren-Ka struck them with a long terrible gore-covered sword. Others saw the light from the lamp and fleeing the Yfrit at their rear, charged headlong into the river and into the jaws of the frenzied crocodiles.
Then Neitikret was there at the landing. A beacon in the darkness. She shouted something, but the sound did not reach his ears.
It was hard to hear anything over the damned Yfrit and the terrible splashing in the water.
A priest at his side set his jaw in grim determination. “Pharaoh will hear of this. And he shall come with his armies and the sight of our gods and woe be unto them in that hour.”
Meritptah looked at the man and shook his head in disbelief. As the boat moved beyond the view of the ruined city and the continuing slaughter, Meritptah wondered just which Pharaoh the priest had in mind.