Three strikes on the bell out in the courtyard roused Ibi from sleep just about the time she was about to wake up on her own. The sky was a shade lighter than deepest black, the first indication of the coming dawn. She rose, washed, and dressed within minutes, no roommate or sleepmate to get in her way or tempt her to indulge in a few more heartbeats in the bed. She liked it this way. Preferred it to all the other sleeping arrangements she’d had to endure since leaving home, at least.
Out in the courtyard of the pilot’s housing she took a moment to breathe in the cool air and enjoy the quiet of the deep morning. The rest of the day would be filled with the sound of voices and hissing steam and metal clicks and all the cacophony of a pilot’s life. This quiet reminded her of being an acolyte in the Spirit House.
Another of the pilots passed her on the way to the Library Bay, the gentle tease in xir voice accompanied by a smile.
“No, only enjoying the stillness.” Ibi caught up and they walked arm in arm. “When I wake up I’m awake. Fully.”
“And cheerful,” the pilot, Qen, said. “Not like the grump I have to shove over every morning.” Xe shared a bed with a mason whose work didn’t begin with the sunrise.
“You going to keep him?”
“I am considering it. He’s much better in the evening than he is in the morning.”
In the common room off the Scarab Bay, the pilots congregated every morning to eat and get their assignments from the Chief of the Library’s beetle fleet, Padiaset. The tall heqa woman liked to walk behind them, tapping each pilot’s head as she listed their duties for the day. That none of them liked it when she did this didn’t occur or didn’t matter.
“Major change today. Last night I received a message from the High House. Superior Ziwat is bringing all the Library’s materials back and the boat will arrive before the Ra-sun. It took two scarabs to get it all to the dock when we sent it, so I’m sending two to bring it all back.”
A jolt passed through Ibi’s chest when she heard Ziwat’s name. “You said the Superior is bringing it back? Herself?”
Padiaset nodded. “Qen, Addaya, you’ll be in charge of that. Make sure all the chests are placed with care. Unless you want Supreme Sitamun on your cases for eternity.”
Ibi swallowed her disappointment at not being chosen. Maybe Ziwat was coming here and would join them for dinner. She hadn’t seen her in so long…
“You can stop making such a sad face, Ibi,” the Chief said. “Superior Ziwat also told me to send a beetle for her own personal use, stocked with enough food for three days, piloted by you.”
There was no point in hiding how much this pleased her, so she allowed herself a wide grin. “Did the message say where I’m taking her?”
“No.” Padiaset pursed her lips, a flash of annoyance in her eyes. “Hopefully she won’t have you gone more than three days. It’s hard enough making do with four beetles when one is down for maintenance. Yours can handle a long trip?”
“Yes, it’s in excellent condition.”
The Chief moved on, but Ibi couldn’t focus on her words. She would see Ziwat again after two years. And if Raia’s words from a few months ago were true, the engineer had missed her. Was she still disappointed, though? Elation soon leeched away into an anxiety that stayed with her throughout the morning’s preparations.
I can feel how unsettled you are, ushabAny, the ba-spirit inside the scarab, pulsed as Ibi paced the cabin, twisting her long braids into a crown around her head. I thought you would feel joy at seeing Ziwat again.
:I do feel it.: After a moment, her nervous hands undid the twist and started over again. :I also feel worried. She hasn’t come to us since I left the High House. What if…: She didn’t know how to finish that sentence since there were so many What Ifs.
What if Ziwat asked her if she had taken the first steps toward joining the engineering guild, as she had promised to consider? What if Ziwat asked her why she’d really left and come back to the Library to be a pilot? What if Ziwat didn’t care about either of these things at all?
Raia said more than once that Ziwat missed her. What if she asked Ibi to come back? Would she even consider putting herself back in that environment? Here she had her parents, a flock of pilots she liked to spend time with, and a chief who respected her. She’d had none of that in the High House. And the one thing that could maybe change her mind about returning would never happen. Ziwat made that clear in multiple ways.
Dwelling on this had her whole body in knots by the time they arrived at Khirsakhem’s port. Ibi took a few heartbeats to breathe and center herself before climbing down from the cabin to find Zi. Even with all the people swirling around the other scarabs she spotted the Superior right away. The heqa woman’s locs were much longer and grayer now. Ibi liked how they emphasized the strong contours of her face. Also how she held herself still while others pointed and moved and scrambled. Only Ziwat’s eyes kept up with everything, and within two blinks connected with her own.
Ziwat’s wide and genuine smile was all for her.
“Welcome back to the Western bank, Superior Ziwat of the High House. Your request for my service honors me.” Ibi crossed her hands over her heart and bowed her head, completing the formal greeting with maximum seriousness.
“Stop that,” Ziwat said and pulled Ibi into her arms and they both laughed.
Most of the anxiety flew out of her on ibis wings. Zi held her close and tight and didn’t let go for a long time as if there had never been any tension between them. She pulled back, cupping Ibi’s cheeks in her hands. “I miss this face. I miss you. I’m glad for the excuse to cross the Nile and see you.”
“You don’t need an excuse. My mother would have you know she wishes you would visit more often.”
“Yes, but I’m sure your father is glad that I don’t!” Ziwat squeezed her close again. “Your mother may get her way if this trip goes well. And so I’m glad you’re the one with me.”
“Where are we going?”
“To Zewisaat.” The Superior said this with a level of excitement that did not match what Ibi knew about that place. Before she could ask for clarity, one of the scholars who traveled with the Library crates begged an interruption to settle a last minute matter.
Ibi took the moment to make sure all of Ziwat’s bags made it into the cabin and stowed away in the benches. In one, a map. And marked on it: Zewisaat. She knew where it was, though she’d never been. All the pilots who worked in the West knew to stay away from the area because the Medjy would attack outsiders.
Ziwat climbed up into the cabin. “All settled. Are you ready?”
“Yes. You really want to go to Zewisaat?”
“Don’t look so worried,” she said, smoothing Ibi’s brow with her thumbs. “There’s no danger, anymore. When we get there, you’ll see.”
If Ziwat said so, she had no reason to distrust it. She pushed a lever to increase steam pressure and pulsed the path they should travel to ushabAny.
I didn’t know we were going on an adventure, he pulsed back after raising the machine up and maneuvering it away from port.
:I hope not a misadventure.:
For the first quarter shade of the trip Ziwat watched Ibi work the beetle’s front panel, controlling the steam pressure minutely as the machine passed between buildings and maneuvered around obstacles. She smiled, proud, as the girl worked the levers with expert hands. She was an excellent pilot, as Zi always knew she’d be. Ibi would have made just as good an engineer. Still might, though she’d declined the opportunity once already. Let her return to a less stressful environment, her sister Ziqat had advised when Ibi asked to be sent back to the Library. Once all the tension is gone, she’ll realize you’re right.
Looking at her now, Zi had to admit she was thriving. A little taller than before, her movements less awkward, and, Hathor be praised, and even greater resemblance to her mother. Smooth, riversoil-dark skin, soft, round cheeks, full lips, wide brown eyes that looked at you with such intensity you had to look away or fall into them. The short nose she inherited from her father. In her face, it worked somehow.
If only she wasn’t Sita’s daughter.
Once they were out in the desert sand and the legs switched from spider-like movement to swimming through the sand, Ibi came back to check on her.
“I’m fine, I’m fine. Sit. The ba-spirit can handle itself for a while,” Ziwat said.
The girl’s eyes swirled to gold–likely checking one last time with it to be sure. “We should be there in a little over a shade. But… why are we going to Zewisaat? Isn’t it dangerous?”
“We’ll be in no danger, and you’ll see why when we get there. As to the why…” Zi filled her in on the last three months, her hope of finally finding the key to flight, her plans for building a grand Spirit House once she unlocked it. As she talked, Ibi asked all the right questions at the right moments. The girl was good at that. How she had missed her!
Once they started to get close to their destination, Ziwat couldn’t help but stand on one of the cabin’s benches for a peek at the view ahead. Up until the moment they came over the last dune, she worried that Zewisaat’s former inhabitants might have returned despite warnings not to do so. After the emissary they’d sent returned to the High House with a serious cut on his arm and a bruised face and without one of his guard escorts–who’d been left in MenNeffer to recover from the more serious wounds he suffered doing his duty–Apepi couldn’t be held back from sending a large contingent of soldiers with an order to clear the Medjy from the area. Tani still didn’t want them to use deadly force, but after conferring with Ziwat, Hui, and the other kinswomen, they agreed to authorize it if the people didn’t respond to the order. Once the commander was sure they wouldn’t return, Tani allowed her to come.
Once Ziwat saw the area free of tents, animals, and people the tension slipped away. It was as the commander promised; now she had to make the effort worth it.
Ibi brought the scarab to rest near the closest buildings to the pyramids and took in the empty village behind them. “Where are the people?”
“Gone. Back to the desert, may Setesh watch over them,” she said by rote. The tribe likely didn’t give any more respect to the desert god than they gave to the High House.
“I don’t understand. The Medjy lived here for generations. Why would they leave now?”
“Because our soldiers made them go.” The face the girl made surprised Ziwat. Library scholars had been complaining for years about the lack of access here. “Save your sympathy. They had the opportunity to cooperate, they refused, the High House responded.”
“Forcefully.” Ibi’s eyes traced a path of hoofprints and chariot wheels in the sand.
“You and I are going to be the first people to see inside these structures since my grandmother was born. This is a momentous moment! That’s why I wanted to share it with you.”
Ibi’s face darkened in a blush and she couldn’t contain a smile. It was [something] how much this girl adored her.
“Sita will be as jealous as she is proud,” Ziwat said. “Let’s go find the missing piece.”
Of all the pyramids scattered across the western plateau, the two in Zewisaat were the least impressive. The limestone casing was long gone, if they ever had any, and the rest of the bricks were starting to fall away. The surrounding complex of libraries, Spirit Houses, and shrines were in even worse shape. Several supporting columns crumbled or tipped over long ago and the places where a ceiling still existed made no promises about not falling in at any moment.
The reasonable course of action would have been to bring a team of engineers and masons in to assess and shore up the place before going in to explore. Ziwat had no patience for this. Before she spoke with Sita and had her arrange for scholars to come, yes. Right now she needed her answer.
Ibi followed as she clambered over and squeezed under anything in her way as she searched out the section relating to the machines. Everything was in far worse shape than she thought, and a new worry filled her: that the missing section was no longer on the wall. That the lack of preservation over the generations meant it had crumbled away. That drove her on–no matter how much her knee crackled or her hip sent sharp spikes of pain up through her back, she had to get to that section without delay.
She almost cried when they turned a corner and found the section of wall she was looking for intact. The rest of the glyphs were there alongside the section she now knew by heart.
“This is it?” Ibi pulled papyrus and charcoal from the bag even as she asked, ready to help with getting a rubbing.
“Yes. There’s not much…”
Elation melted away as she read the rest of the text. The dawn-hymn that cut off in the archive’s rubbing was complete here, and after it only spells related to the ba-spirits. Nothing else. Not even an image of the beetle flying.
“I was so sure.” Do not fall apart. Breathe. Think.
She scanned the other walls, looking for any mention of the machines. Most of the knowledge in these buildings hadn’t been recorded before the scholars were chased away years ago. Maybe there were more mentions elsewhere in the complex.
“Let’s look this way,” she said and limped through to the next room.
Ibi hurried to support her. “I thought that was the only mention of the scarabs here.”
“It can’t be.”
Raised reliefs depicting scenes from the life beyond the Door met her at every turn; nothing about engineering, science, astronomy. Why was that one piece of information about the beetles in here?
“There must be more here that we don’t know about. If I have to search every building in this complex–” She pushed off from the wall, determined, and her knee chose that moment to give out. Ibi caught her so easily it was clear she’d been expecting this.
“Not right now. The Oon-sun is dying, you haven’t eaten since before we got here, and you need rest.”
Ziwat only relented because it was too hard to walk without assistance and she couldn’t go on without Ibi. As they took what they hoped was the easiest path back, Ziwat gave in to the fear growing inside her.
“Before I left I assured the Great Mother I would return with the answer.”
Ziwat shook her head. “A moment of extreme hubris.”
“And if you don’t?”
“I look like a fool who wasted resources for no gain. Someone who chases fantasy while ignoring the land’s real and pressing needs. Someone not fit to be Superior Engineer of Khemeta Mehu.”
Easing the pain in Ziwat’s knee proved much easier than easing her anxiety. After getting her back into the scarab’s cabin, Ibi insisted that she eat some food, drink some beer, lie down on her back, and relax. Even with half a small jug in her and the aroma of healing oils heavy in the air, relaxing was still out of reach.
“There has to be another mention in one of those buildings,” Ziwat said for the fourth time.
Ibi knew the woman well enough to know she didn’t require an answer or a reassurance, so had offered nothing but a non-committal “Mmm” the first three times. This time she opted for a more direct and to the point response to the underlying, unasked question.
“We’ll have plenty of time to find out tomorrow. Too much pressure?” she asked when Ziwat groaned.
She shook her head and fell silent, breathing through the pain as Ibi had instructed her.
“Do the kinswomen truly expect you to come back from this trip with the answer? I know the– He is eager for it.”
“After the months we spent copying everything to the wall, the effort of clearing this whole village of people.” Ziwat grimaced, not just from the pain. “I can’t come back to the High House after all that with nothing.”
“Tani may regret forcing the Medjay to leave after all,” she said, trying to keep her tone neutral.
“No. We would have had to address that in time. I’m surprised the governor of this district allowed it to continue for so long. The Medjy enjoyed the safety of living within our borders and had no loyalty toward the people who made that possible. Untenable.”
A people with no weapons, no warriors that could possibly match yours. The thought almost made it up her throat and out of her mouth. Almost. It didn’t seem worth arguing about. The deed was done. And Ziwat was often in the right, anyway.
Instead, Ibi refocused on tending to the knee, pressing her thumbs into Ziwat’s leg at strategic points until her scrunched up face relaxed, the pain dulled for the time being.
“Good. Now, don’t move for a while. I mean it.” Once she was sure her mock stern look had the desired effect, Ibi turned her focus toward the ba-spirit inside of the scarab, eyes swirling gold as she did. :ushabAny, move us into some shade. We won’t be going anywhere until morning, no need to stay in the sun.:
We’ll need extra water in the morning, he pulsed back to her.
:I’ll get some at dusk.:
“I don’t know what I’m going to do if there’s nothing new to find here.” Ziwat’s voice barely carried over the click of gears and swish of the metal feet moving through the sand. Ibi had never heard her sound so vulnerable.
An impulse to curl up next to her, nuzzle and comfort her flickered through Ibi’s heart. One that she quashed immediately before returning to Ziwat’s side with another set of oils. These Ibi drizzled and spread across her sand-colored skin with firm strokes that only lingered a little longer than they should have.
“I wish I had an answer for you,” Ibi said once the scarab came to rest. “I wish I could even say I believed it possible.”
“You would if you’d seen all the evidence I’ve seen, little one.” Ziwat reached up and tugged playfully at a loose braid.
Ibi lowered her eyes and pulled back. “I should go get water for the machine. I’ll return soon.”
ushabAny moved the inner and outer wings into their nighttime positions as she climbed down from the cabin. Some of the valves inside needed releasing for full shut down, but Ibi didn’t feel up to going back in just yet. Not while that last comment still stung.
:She still thinks of me as a little girl,: Ibi pulsed to ushabAny.
She’s known you since you were one.
:I haven’t been since before I left the High House.:
Knowing that and understanding it are different.
While true, this didn’t make her feel any better.
Ibi walked out of the pyramid’s shadow toward the center of what used to be the small village in hopes that there would be a well not too far from it. The rough outline of what had been there remained even though the chariot tracks partly obscured it. Ibi’s eyes traced the phantom lanes between now uprooted tents looking for the most well-trodden. That path led her to the only structure that remained standing, a small shrine at the far edge of the pyramid complex.
It was in an odd place, given how the village was laid out and where the older buildings sat. As she got closer she realized that, though made from stone and not mud brick, it wasn’t nearly as old as those structures. It also didn’t look like something the Medjy would build for themselves.
“Ibi!” she heard a voice calling from much closer than it should have been. She looked around and sighed–Ziwat was up and walking toward her, a hint of a limp in one leg.
“You should have stayed in the scarab. I was coming right back.”
“The sun is getting low and you shouldn’t wander so far. Especially here.”
Was Ziwat afraid the clan would choose this moment to return, she wondered? “This place is empty. Almost.”
Circling the shrine, Ibi ran her fingers over the stones, taking note of which edges were left rough and which polished. She looked at it with a mason’s eye, just as her papa would.
“A shrine to Seshat. Unusual for a tribe of wanderers.”
“I don’t think they built it,” Ibi said. “But this can’t be more than one hundred and forty-four years old. Probably dates back to just after your people– After they came to Khemet.”
The look Ziwat gave her acknowledged the missing word there: invaded.
“I wonder… but that doesn’t make any sense.”
“Say what you’re thinking, Ibi.”
“Well, you know how Spirit Houses are sometimes built on top of older ones?”
“Yes. Sita told me that it was a way for your foremothers to mark the location as sacred even if the specific tradition had changed.”
“That’s one reason. My papa told me that the other is to keep people from entering the older structure. The brothers of the Spirit Houses say it’s to protect people from power they have no way to understand and channel. Papa says it’s so they can keep it all to themselves.” Ibi shrugged, rolling her papa’s cynicism off as she always did. “The mason’s job is to ensure that the sole entrance to the old temple is through the inner sanctum where only [Servants] can go.”
Ziwat didn’t even hesitate, she just walked right past her deeper into the shrine. A sharp spike of fear shot through Ibi’s belly when Ziwat swept aside the linen dividing the inner sanctum from the outer. Part of her worried that the neter Seshat would object to this violation of a private space. Nothing happened.
Perhaps because the room was empty, other than a few torches hanging on the wall and a granite pedestal in the center. No stone statue, no markings on the wall.
“Stand in the door,” Ziwat said. She placed just her fingertips on the side of the granite, a low hum emanating from her throat. It crescendoed into a fullblown note, and her lips shaped the sound until it resonated perfectly with the large granite block. Now, as if it weighed nothing, Ziwat lifted it up and moved it aside.
“I thought only masons could do that,” Ibi said, impressed.
“I asked your father to teach me during the brief period in which we tried to be friends for your mother’s sake.”
Ibi thought it must have been very brief, as she didn’t remember it at all.
“It appears Sennefer was right.” Ziwat pointed to what the stone had covered: the entrance to a flight of stairs that sloped down at a sharp angle.
Ibi made a silent promise to cook her papa his favorite meal when she got back home.
“This isn’t mentioned in any of the guild’s records.” Ziwat’s unsteady voice matched the wild fluctuation of her own heartbeat. They were about to see something hidden away for far longer than a few generations.
All thoughts of unchannelable power forgotten, Ibi lit two of the torches and led the way. Neither of them spoke as they went down into the darkness. The corridor’s ceiling offered room enough to hold the torches high but didn’t offer much room for their hips or shoulders. Ibi tried to push a vision of the walls closing in and trapping them from her mind, focusing on counting the steps. At forty she almost lost her bravery. Two final steps later the passage opened up and both women stopped mid-breath, eyes wide as they adjusted to the dark.
A forest of thick stone columns stretched beyond the firelight in strict, straight rows. Each one covered in glyphs and symbols with colors so vibrant and glittering the paint seemed fresh. Ziwat’s first breath came out as a short, surprised laugh, and from the way the sound bounced and echoed they knew the chamber was far bigger than the torchlight could reveal.
“Do you feel that?” Ibi whispered. A sensation overcame her as they stepped between the columns. It blew down the way like a wind, except not a physical one. She didn’t feel it on her skin but in the wings of the ba inside her. If it was any stronger it might pull the ka-force right out of her body; a thought that didn’t scare her for some reason. Instead, she walked toward it.
“Ibi!” Ziwat had to grab her hand to avoid getting left behind.
They walked the length of the hall, Ibi’s steps sure and rapid, Ziwat stumbling. After what had to be at least sixty feet a wall rose out of the darkness and she could feel the difference in how the stones hummed. She held her torch as high as she could. “Oh. Yes. That’s why this feels so familiar.”
Ziwat moved closer and softly read the words in the stone. “Ibi, this is a Door, isn’t it?”
One more potent than she’d ever felt before. It wasn’t like the other Doors she’d seen in temples and tombs–carvings in stone, spells inscribed in lintels, images representing a door to mortal eyes but actual Doors to the next world for a person’s ba-spirit. Those Doors didn’t emanate power like this until they opened, and that only happened in ceremonies, or when the honored dead used the correct spells to open the way themselves. Ibi had witnessed this a handful of times in her life, and the sensation wasn’t half as intense as this.
“Oh, Ibi… this is amazing.” Ziwat reached out to touch the Door, then stopped, her fingers hovering over the raised glyphs. “The language is definitely Ancient. There must be…”
Ziwat moved off into the columns, no doubt searching for any mention of the scarabs. Instead of following, Ibi stood as still as possible and basked in the energy flowing out of the stone. She might have done so for hours except someone was calling to her. Not out loud, not Ziwat. Did ushabAny need her? No, it wasn’t his pulse. It did feel like a ba-spirit. Fluttering at the other end of the long hall.
It felt like she walked more than three times as far to reach the source of the sensation. The opposite wall didn’t have a Door carved in, just a long, low altar in front of it, almost entirely covered by hundreds of statues.
“Iset, Wisser, Djehuti, Nebthet, Piteh,” she named each neter she recognized, and there were many more she did not. More impressive than their number was the craftsmanship and skill that went into making them. She spied Seshet and then she heard–felt–the voice again. No words. Just a keening, singing, humming. Clearly there. She shifted her eyes gold and saw a ba fluttering inside the statue. It felt different from other ba in a way she couldn’t pin down. Perhaps because it seemed weak, like a flame in the last moments before going out, the light a surrendering, halfhearted version of its former self.
“That’s not possible.”
Ibi leaped away, heart thundering so hard she might have died if her desire to throttle Ziwat for scaring her hadn’t been stronger.
“Calm down, girl! What’s wrong?”
“I heard… I heard her voice.” Ibi said around a still tight throat.
“Her voice?” Ziwat took in the hundreds of statues. “Are these all ushabtis? Only a pharaoh would be buried with so many. Is this a tomb?”
“No, only this one is an ushabti,” Ibi said, picking up the statue of Seshat. “The rest are just stone. I don’t recognize all the different neter.”
“Isn’t it forbidden to use the image of a neter for ushabti?”
“Yes. It is forbidden. And no, this is not a tomb.”
The ba-spirit pulsed just a bit stronger, the light gaining strength. She thought about the age of the pyramids in the area, and how the shrine above them was dedicated to Seshet, and how the masons knew enough to build it there yet explorer scholars like her mother didn’t appear to know about this place.
Ziwat must have had similar thoughts, because when she leaned into the light her expression was one of both fear and excitement. “Ibi, how long has it been down here?”
“I think… this may be the ba of an Ancient One.”
Table of contents for Novel In Progress
- Section 1 | Chapter 1 – #PyramidsAndPunk [Patrons Only]
- Section 1 | Chapter 2 – #PyramidsAndPunk [Patrons Only]
- Section 1 | Chapter 3 – #PyramidsAndPunk [Patrons Only]
- Section 1 | Chapter 4 – #PyramidsAndPunk [Patrons Only]