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The Destroyer

Nafretiri ran across the desert, ignoring the anxiety of traversing the expansive terrain at dusk. The village was in her wake. She upped her pace, battling the loose silver sands beneath her bare feet. After the other boys had cornered her by the lake the first time, she'd promised herself she would never again cower in fear or—even worse—cry. Their teasing this evening had tested her resolve. Fortunately, she'd escaped their clutches before they could break her. All she needed now was a moment to find equilibrium.

A nearby dune promised refuge.

There was something peculiar about the small dune. Even in the fading light, Nafretiri could see that its shape seemed unnatural. She wasn't surprised to see large stones peeking out on its sides. The stones reminded her of those that were used for the pyramids or even similar to the stones used for buildings in the capital. The wind that had blown earlier that day must have exposed them.

At the top, she didn't see anything but desert sand. The rest of the structure must have been buried below. She wiped perspiration from her brow as the heat from the day smothered the land. Inhaling the dry, dusty air, she sat and looked at her village in the distance. Her people were one of the pockets of resistance that had scattered into the desert. They were tired of the cruel oppressive rule of the Pharaoh, whose law was most harsh in the main towns and also the villages on the floodplains along the Nile. Her people sought to start new simple ways of life.

When they found the oasis in the middle of nowhere beneath the unrelenting sun, they had at first decided to rest for a few days. The oasis, with its small lake, trees, and lush vegetation, kept providing. There was water, shelter, and means to make fire. Even the odd animals and critters seemed to pop up from time to time. The elders said they had been blessed and that it would be a sin to leave such a gift. It didn't take long for the people to call the oasis home.

Nafretiri reached back with her arm, running her hand through the sand. She flinched when her fingers encountered a hard object. Turning around, Nafretiri saw that it was another stone, except this one was darker. She moved some of the sand away and was amazed to see the stone was as black as night, and there were markings—golden hieroglyphics—carved into its surface. As Nafretiri moved more sand away, she realized that the stone must be a part of the structure, but it was smaller, much smaller than the stones she'd seen protruding on the dune's side. She cursed when her attempt to move the stone failed.

It was wedged between two of the larger, light brown stones. Nafretiri gripped tighter. She wanted it and pulled with all her might. The stone refused to budge.

"I wouldn't do that," a weak, dry voice said from her left.

Nafretiri whipped her head around. A peculiar man stood in the gray world. He wore a hooded white cloak and held a gold scepter in his hand. His face was hidden by the hood and the dark shadow it created.

Nafretiri rose to her feet. "Who are you? Where did you come from?"

"I have come from nowhere and everywhere. The desert in which you wander is part of my domain."

"I do not recognize you."

"I am Set. Do you truly not know of your gods?"

Nafretiri shook her head. "Not really. Our village doesn't follow the old ways anymore. Why can't I move the stone?"

"That stone is what keeps the arch of life open for this part of the desert. Without it, the arch would collapse. Now tell me young girl, is it because of your lack of understanding of your gods that your face looks the way it does?"

"No. I— I was in a fight."

"I hope you battled some beast and were victorious, but I somehow doubt that, considering you can't even move a pebble."

"It's much bigger than a pebble. And it was not a beast. Hemiunu, Kheruef, and Sebni—three boys from my village attacked me. I fought them off."

"Ha! You are a poor liar. I already know what happened to you. I saw it all." He waved his hand. "Why did you not kill them for attacking you? Why did you run away like a coward?"

"I—"

Set held his hand up. "The time for excuses has passed. Egypt needs strong men and women. An empire of cowards led by a weak Pharaoh is destined to fall. If it costs us the lives of a thousand weak ones in exchange for one that is strong, it would be worth it. Your village is full of cowards. Do you wish to stay in your village forever? As a coward? A slave?"

"We are free!"

"You are a fool. You and your people hide from the weakest Pharaoh ever known, a shame to the great dynasties of the past. You can't even fend for yourself!" He pulled a pouch out from the cloak he wore. The pouch made a clinking sound, and Nafretiri knew it must contain coins or something even more precious.

"Show me that you can be a strong Egyptian woman," Set said, smiling, "and this gold is yours. With it you can start a new life wherever you want to go. You can be your own person. You will have power and freedom."

Nafretiri gazed at the pouch Set held before her. Set had untied it, giving Nafretiri a clear view of its contents. She had all but forgotten about the peculiar black stone. The twinkling gold in the pouch mesmerized. The oasis had been forced upon as her home. She'd dreamed many a night of what the major cities were like. The gold could provide the means to leave the oasis, and its pull was unlike anything she'd ever felt.

"What must I do?"

Set put the pouch away. When his hand came out from the cloak, it held a curved blade. Nafretiri flinched, stepping backward.

"Do not be afraid. If you are to be your own person it is an emotion you can no longer have. Do you understand?"

Nafretiri nodded.

"Good. Now, are you ready to do the task that will give you your freedom?"

"I—"

Set took a step forward. "Will you live in fear forever?"

Nafretiri shook her head.

"Then tell me, are you ready?"

"Yes," she said, accepting the blade. "What must I do with it?"

Set lifted his hood off. Nafretiri took a step back. Seeing the dark curved snout, the long rectangular ears, the empty eyes—focused on her—and the tufts of copper colored fur around the strange animal-like head caused a frigid chill to grip her chest. She wondered if it was not some peculiar mask the man wore, because she could see that the man had normal human hands. A part of her doubted it.

"Bring me the head of the large one, the leader, Hemiunu," Set boomed. His voice was sonorous. Gone was the dry, crackling voice Nafretiri had first heard. "And then the hands of his minions: Kheruef and Sebni. Then, you shall have proven yourself. And then you shall receive your reward."

"I must kill?"

"Have you failed already? Do you not wish to claim your reward?"

"I have not failed yet. And yes, I do, I do want the reward." Nafretiri battled to steady the blade in her shaking hands. The new found voice along with the true image of an angered Set was a potent combination.

Set put his hood back on, much to the relief of Nafretiri. "I will be here with your gold when you return. Do not fail me, Nafretiri, daughter of Egypt."

"I won't," Nafretiri said, trying to act unconcerned that Set knew her name when she hadn't given it to him. She turned and headed back down the strange dune, narrowing in on the lights of her village while trying to sort through all the thoughts racing through her mind.

She didn't turn back to see if Set was watching.

Nafretiri reached a decision before she was home. The boys were terrible people, especially Hemiunu. She would bring justice, not murder. She consoled herself with the fact that she was saving many from suffering at the hands of Hemiunu. Fueled by the desire to provide more than the life the village offered, her logic made sense, but she was unsure how she would accomplish the tasks Set had given her. Stalking between the huts, she knew that cutting off Hemiunu's head would be the hardest, so she left the hands of Kheruef and Sebni for last.

Fortune favored Nafretiri; Hemiunu was snoring on the softened floor right near the entrance of his family's hut. His parents and brother slept farther inside their home, which smelled of perspiration and spices. If Hemiunu screamed, the entire village would be alerted to Nafretiri's actions. When she reached Kheruef and Sebni, she would need to bind and gag them before cutting off their right hands, but as she knelt beside Hemiunu, it dawned on her that she didn't need to take the same precautions with him. She just needed to make sure the first strike brought death.

Nafretiri held the tip of the blade over Hemiunu's heart. Her free hand was just above his mouth, ready to clasp down if he uttered a sound. She would pierce the vital organ, killing Hemiunu, and then cut off his head without the worry of any noise or actions. She hoped it would be as easy as she had learned to do on other animals. But time was of the essence, because the potent copper smell of blood could alert the rest of the family, even if she was quiet. Steadying her nerves, Nafretiri tightened her grip around the blade. A strange current flooded her limbs, forcing her muscles to contract. She couldn't move.

Thoughts banged on the walls of her mind.

What are you doing?

She couldn't answer herself.

Something within her told her this was not the right thing to do. It was not the right way to reach her dreams. She could see the gold vanishing, piece by piece. Feeling both relief and despair, she slunk out the hut.

She would face Set and tell him she wasn't interested in his deal. She would tell him she'd chosen not to kill and that she would sort out the bullies her own way, even if it meant being stuck in the village, poor and miserable for a few more years.

One day she would find a better way out.

Up the strange dune Nafretiri went. She stepped over the strange black stone, which was now completely uncovered. Set was seated, staring at the heavens, as if he had not a care in the world. Nafretiri blinked to be sure that the seat she saw beneath Set was true—a crocodile. The beast lay comfortably with its master on top.

Nafretiri didn't wish to get too close. The apprehension she'd felt making her way from her village had become more severe as it moved from a trickle to a steady flow throughout her body. With force of will, she ceased her fearful thoughts. She knew she couldn't show any type of fear toward Set. It was best to be straightforward, so that the ominous stranger would be on his way.

"I see you do not carry anything but the clean blade I gave you. I was hoping to see blood." Set tapped the bottom of his scepter on the earth.

"I've decided to pass on your offer," she said. "I do not wish to kill, and I will handle my problems my own way. I will also find my own gold."

"That is unacceptable," Set said, running his hand over the scales of the crocodile's back. The animal moved its head to the side, peering toward Nafretiri.

"Will you command your beast to kill me now?" she asked, readying the blade at her side.

"No, I will not," Set said, shaking his head. "Death will teach you nothing."

"Then what? I have told you I am not interested in your deal. You should be off now...and take your beast with you."

"Are you brave now?" Set said, smiling. "I will be on my way. If—and only if—you can pull out that black stone you were admiring earlier."

Nafretiri glanced back at the stone. "But you warned me not to do it. You said that it keeps something open and—"

"Hush! If you are too afraid and too weak, I guess I will not be leaving. It is a pleasant night after all. I rather like it here."

Nafretiri wanted the man gone. She walked back to the black stone and knelt down, seeking a strong grip on the stone with her hands. Pulling on it at first seemed to do nothing, but she noticed a small shift on one side of the stone as she tried again. She focused her energy and strength, and the stone started to budge. A strange current ran from her extremities to her core as she kept hold of the stone—or did she only imagine it?

When the stone was almost free, it seemed harder to pull on, but she kept pulling. She was so close. Ignoring the sweat that now drenched her, the burning in her arms, and the pain in her forehead from all the concentration, Nafretiri gave one mighty tug.

The stone came free! She dropped it at her feet. The two large brown stones that had been separated by the black stone moved toward each other, slowly at first, then finally coming together, erasing the space between them. How strange. She braced herself for a reaction from the dune.

Time slowed.

"Nothing is happening," Nafretiri said. "Now you can be gone. I did what you said."

"I will be off," Set said. "But remember, Nafretiri. You brought this lesson upon yourself. I warned you that Egypt needs only strong people. You could have done this the easier way with the punishment of the three that hurt you."

Thunder boomed in the clear skies.

Nafretiri asked, "What is happening?"

"I did not lie when I told you that stone was important." Set pointed toward her village.

A strange, wind-like sound exploded all around Nafretiri, as if someone were breathing in through clenched teeth yet amplified a thousand times. She turned toward her home, narrowing her eyes. The sands had turned into a whirlpool, sucking in the lake, and along with the lake, the vegetation and the huts. Down they went, below the surface of the desert. Nafretiri's heart writhed in pain as she watched her family, her friends, the other villagers, and even the three boys who bullied her, disappear into the earth. It was a horror she struggled to bear witness to. Her breath vacated her lungs.

A spell of dizziness overcame her. Then...

Calm settled on the world. The whirlpool of sand returned to its usual self. Silence fell over the void of what had once been an oasis seen as a gift. There was nothing, not even a speck of grass or drop of water, to suggest that it had once ever been there.

"What have you done?" Nafretiri asked, turning with the blade ready to strike.

Like the oasis and her village, Set was gone, as was the crocodile. There was nothing at which to lash out. Only strange stones and empty sands remained. Alongside her lay the black stone, but all the golden markings had vanished.

Nafretiri ran down the dune.

She headed to the center of what had once been her village and knelt down on the soft, shifting sands, remembering the promise she had made to herself: she would never cry nor cower in fear again. She gripped the handle of the blade tight and braced through her emotions. When they had passed, she stood up, inhaling the unforgiving sandy air, and calculated which direction would take her to the capital. The very heart of the Pharaoh's reign was her destination. If she could not cut down Set, the god who had tricked her and destroyed her world, she would take down the Pharaoh who allowed such gods to be worshipped.

Nafretiri no longer sought gold or glory. She wished now to be only a ghost—a ghost who dealt in pain and misery. Everyone would pay. The people who allowed such pharaohs and gods to reign would run for their lives. When their future generations returned, they would look at the broken pyramids and wonder who had built them and for what purpose. They would see the fallen cities of the pharaohs and wonder what had brought about their destruction. The gods would be nothing but fables, which lost their shine and relevance as time moved on without them.

Nafretiri would have revenge for her family and for her people, and to do this she would need to erase a dynasty, topple the gods, and send a nation's people fleeing. She would start small, like a grain of sand, but in the end, she would create her own whirlpool that would swallow her enemies.

She would not fail.

"I am no longer Nafretiri," she said to the sands of Egypt. "I am no longer the scared girl of the village." She lifted her blade to the sky. "I am the destroyer."

About the Author
Calvin Demmer is a crime, mystery, and speculative fiction author. He has had over thirty stories published in various magazines and anthologies. When not writing, he is intrigued by that which goes bump in the night and the sciences of our universe. Find him online at at www.calvindemmer.com.
Background image by ESO/IDA/Danish 1.5 m/R.Gendler, J-E. Ovaldsen, C. Thöne, and C. Feron.
http://www.eso.org/public/images/etamosaicnm2/, CC BY 4.0, Link