The Sands
Dave Fischer 2019
More Fiction

Illustration by Jacob Blanchet

I was a high priest of --- during the reign of --- in the land of Kemet. It was a chaotic period. The kingdom had split, we had a king of the upper region around the great falls, and we had my king, in the lush delta of the lower lands, bordering the sea.

Kemet was a deeply religious country of farmers, clinging to life along the length of the river that ran through the unforgiving desert. Borders come and go. Even when the upper and lower lands were unified, the southern border was always in dispute. Our border to the north-east varied a bit, but that was conquest, they were not our people.

Our land is old. Even the historians have just scraps of knowledge if you ask more than a few dynasties into the past. Some early kings exist now as only a name, with no other information. How can a powerful king be reduced to a few syllables? Nothing more remains. I am not a prince or king, but even my ambition is offended by how those men have been forgotten. I shall live on. When my country and my king have turned to dust, and even their names have turned to dust, I shall live on.

Life revolves around the temples. Nothing is more important than the proclamations of the priests.

To the public, the gods of these temples are real, and they control every aspect of life. We pray to them continuously, to guide and bless us. They are a central part of day-to-day life.

To those who run things: royalty, priests, administrators; the gods are myths we use to manipulate the people. The number of major gods is coincidently the exact same as the number of royal family lines, fighting each other for power. The history of our dynasties can be found posthumously in the myths detailed in our sacred scrolls, with a little reading between the lines.

However, to a select few of the high priests, there is secret knowledge that the princes and kings never guess at, busy as they are, squabling over a few feet of land, a few ounces of gold. The gods are real! Powers unimagined do exist! Not the stage tricks that the chanting mobs expect, but powers subtle and obscure. Only a very few have dabbled in real occult powers, most even of the high priests are unsure of their reality. But there have been a few masters.

What are these powers? Mostly, a subtle influence over the mind. Making a king favor a particular argument, weak though it is. Guiding the direction of an angry mob. There was one powerful sorceror, in the south. He died before my time, but I have met priests who served him. He claimed to be able to invoke monsters and control them on the battlefield. It was not true. What he was able to do was invoke an unknown dread in the hearts of the enemy, and after they had fled, they invented stories of monsters to excuse their behavior. Over time, they even convinced themselves that their stories were true.

It is easier to imagine a memory of a thing, than to imagine the thing directly.

There were some who gained supernatural knowledge of the Nile, the source of all fortune in our land, for good or ill. A priest who was given a glimpse at the river's future by his god, was given great power, if he understood how to best take advantage of his situation. Spending or storing just the right amount to prevent famine, relaxing hostilities with foriegn neighbors if a period of weakness was approaching.

Sometimes powers were granted as a test. Few passed. Man's greed and ego transcend all logic.

I spoke with one priest who had gained knowledge of the stars far beyond what our astronomers know. He tried to show me how the complexities of the planets motions could be explained through simple circular motion, if the motions were all centered around the sun. I could follow his diagrams, but when it came to imagining the world around me as he described it, I could not see the implications. He also tried to explain the distances between the stars, but he struggled with inadequate language, and was only able to hint at scales and voids that terrified me as it was. (Ah, if only I could go back and show him the terrifying vistas I have discovered beyond our universe, that dwarf even what he had seen!)

There have always been those, scattered throughout the ranks (including the occasional king or prince), who mistake worship of tradition with understanding and knowledge. They lazily repeat the most ancient traditions they can find, assuming in their own smallness that their ancesters were masters of all. In this way strict orthodoxy replaces all curiosity and effort. Assuming the ancients understood the ways of the universe, it is enough for these people to praise that lost understanding, thinking perhaps that some of it might magically rub off on them.

Low level priests often think mythical powers are real, and they are embarassed they do not possess them. Thus they exert all their effort pretending they do, never having the chance to critically think about the world, or do anything that might lead to actual knowledge or powers. Their obsession with pretending to have powers prevents them from ever gaining any.

Their self-deception is even greater than the deceptions they foist on the masses.

The publicly known myths? The rituals shown however briefly to the crowds outside the temples? All nonsense. Theatre productions. Which is not to say that there has never been anything of value in our sacred traditions. There were some small number of great scholars scattered throughout the early dynasties, and some in the even more ancient times. People who sought and accumulated true understanding. But their accomplishments are very quietly recorded in the margins of the scrolls. The loudest historic figures are all politicians, brilliant masters of the most mundane and brutal aspects of life.

One exception I can point to is King Djoser's premier. As he was fully occupied with the responsabilities of his office, he did not have time for arcane study. But he understood its value, and supported a few scholars who made great discoveries in secret, unknown to the public. Some of their knowledge might have helped his reputation as a healer, but mostly their work has only survived in the most obscure of texts, handed down through long-lived secret cults. The copy I saw when I was just beginning my studies had been too corrupted over the centuries to be useful. It would be interesting to go back and try to pick out the original meaning, knowing what I do now. But perhaps the incorrect text showing the various layers of misunderstanding over hundreds of years are now the most interesting element of the scrolls. All ligitimate studies converge on the same truth, but misunderstanding meanders down many surprising and innovative paths.

I consider myself lucky that I did not delve too deeply into any one particular cult or secret school of knowledge. Following one approach too far makes you blind to any other ideas. And the higher ranks of cults spend all their time on cult politics, not secret knowledge.

I dabbled in many areas in my early days, and was very lucky a find myself the student of a few very wise men, whose passion for knowledge was true and ideal. My path meandered and many of my peers ridiculed my slow progress. When I finally rose to a position of power in the temples, I was twenty years older than my predecesor had been when he took the position.

But oh, my position was so much better than my peers realized! My understanding of the public mysteries, the political mysteries, the historic traditions, and the obscure secret truths was clear, as was my understanding of how all of these interacted, in both conflict and balance.

I would not refer to myself as a master, but I did have powers, and I was beginning to take great strides forward in my studies. There is a tipping point in any field of knowldge when you suddenly go from understanding a few disconnected things here and there in an otherwise unknown expanse, to understanging the overall domain, with many scattered gaps, that you slowly work to fill in. I was just reaching this point when the ebb and flow of the dynastic powers destroyed my comfortable world, almost overnight. My king was overthrown, and all of us who served him stood in chains.

I had been working on preparing a special ritual. Researching it for over a year. I was ready, but had been putting it off, rechecking my sources, testing small invocations. The idea of achieving immortality was truly intimidating. But when disaster appeared, I dropped all hesitation. I must perform the ritual before I lost my position, or I would never have the chance.

It seemed to work. I felt an immense surge of power, completely unlike any prior sensation. Was I now immortal? I would not know for a very long while... I laughed - it had not occured to me before how hard it would be to test for success.

Unfortunately, I was taken prisoner, and the fact that my final ritual involved the sacrifice of fourteen servants was used by the victorious to demonize my king's entire administration in the absurd trial they put us through.

My small band of followers who knew of my persuits managed to disappear into the general population as the authorities descended on me.

Given the parellels between our politics and religion, any trial related to a change in power involves a lot of accusations of heresy and blasphemy. The charges were leveled against everyone in my King's family and administration, but I was their star villain. The priest/prosecutor alternated between screaming condemnation and praying for light and guidance. All for show. When they were through with their agonizing soul-searching, they came to the conclusion that the newly ruling powers desired.

Most of the high-ranking condemned were sentenced to immediate execution. Lower ranks were exiled, and some below that were to be sold into slavery. Only a few were singled out for special attention. Our King was to be held in chains in the newly consecrated temple for one year before his execution. His primier was to be held in a solitary cell, suposedly as extra punishment, but obviously because his understanding of the state would be so useful to the incoming administration. They needed to keep him around as an unofficial advisor.

And I was given a very special sentence, highly publicized, to be buried alive in a deep unmarked tomb. Allegedly this was a combination of punishment (the terror and misery of my last hours as I ran out of air) and disgust (they would not soil their hands executing such a foul being as myself).

My first thought was to carefully supress my smile and pretend to be horrified at the verdict. "Woe is me! You have won, you have completely defeated me!" All the while laughing inside. I was immortal! They had decided to let me live, in a cell I would innevitably find my escape from, one way or the other. The details didn't concern me now. Time enough for that later.

But a few minutes later a feeling of paranoia began to creep into my thoughts. The head judge gave me a look that seemed far more knowing than I expected. Did they actually understand my secret? Was that the reason for my special sentence? Using my immortality against me as an eternal punishment? Had I somehow let them walk me into the worst hell imagineable?

I clenched my fists. No! If those who condemned me dug me up in a decade, a century, a millennium, would they find a senile shriveled up wreck begging for mercy? No! I vowed that I would emerge stronger and more powerful than when I entered my prison, no matter how long it might take!

I suppresed the thought, and returned to pretending to be horrified. My will has been crushed! I lie here at your feet utterly defeated and helpless! Ha ha ha.

I saw a hint of uncertainty in the judge's eye.

We shall see. We shall see.

Though I live in absolute darkness, my captors still left me plenty of reading material to occupy my aeons of captivity. Carved deeply into the inside of my sarcophagus prison is a list of my supposed crimes, and the verdict of the judges. Judges who are long since dust. I suspect when this was carved, most of the people involved thought of it as a religious, decorative thing. It was an indictment to eternity, before the gods. But one or two people at the very top knew of my secret, my immortality, and intended it to be part of my punishment. In an eternity of nothingness, all I would have to distract myself is reading a long inventory of my own crimes.

Reading is very slow, tracing the carvings hieroglyph by hieroglyph with my fingertips. But I have the time. I try to ignore it but eventually, innevitably, find myself reading their words again. Their judgement. Their condemnation. Their curses. But after countless repetitions I found other words as well. Words unintended by those who tried, convicted, and buried me. Secret words hidden in the periphery. The ornametntal carvings that should have been nothing but waves on the Nile, birds in the sky, leaves of the papyrus, folds in flowing robes, curls in hair. There I found subtley hidden carvings. Subtle enough to be invisible to the eye, but to fingertips searching aimlessly for century after century...

I found the hidden words. The hidden message. A message from my followers! A promise of release, of rescue on the appointed day!

In four thousand years the stars shall be right. An alignment of what is above and below. Celestial forces up above and secrets down below, passed on for so many years, generation to generation. My followers' distant descendents, not having heard anything from me these thousands of years, nonetheless shall return and free me from my prison.

Without access to the outside - to wind, rain, river, sun, moon and stars, I could do nothing with my existing magical knowledge and powers. Also, much of my power rested on an ability to bend the minds of weaker individuals, subtle mind control. But now - no nature, no people. I could not use my powers at all, much less develop them further. How to progress? There must be a way. No prison is perfect, and I have an eternity to study every possibility.

My every waking moment was spent in pure concentration, building my strength. Not strength of the body, but strength of mind. First of all, I had to develop my concentration to be able to ignore the constant gnawing pain of my existance. Immortality does not mean plump with rosy cheeks, as you sit buried in a tomb with no air, no food, and no water for year after year. My body screamed out in an unending death agony. But I overcame that through pure force of will. My body was giving me information. I accepted that information. I slowly learned to live on and accept my new condition as normal.

I could now get on with my work.

I briefly attempted to use the carvings of plants that adorned the inside of my sarcophagus. I tried to perform some simple spells that would normally be performed in a field or garden, but running my fingertips over carvings of plants was insufficient to invoke the powers of the outside world.

My anger and arrogance would not allow me to give in. The situation was obviously completely hopeless. I did not have an argument against that thought, but I relentlessly did not let that thought materialize. I distracted myself with other problems, any triviality. I would not think that thought.

In my youth I had spent two years studying with a cult that used specially prepared extractions from secret plants that had an indescribable effect on the mind. Their practice of studying in group lessons while under the influence of this concoction was of great help to me now. There was only my mind, darkness, and eternity. Without control of my own thoughts, I would have been reduced to a mindless twitching undead mummy of some sort almost immediately. But I would not give in! Never!

I don't know what I was thinking, if anything, but in desperation I turned my mind inward and searched. I don't know where, just grasping in the darkness for something completely new.

Yearning, stretching, reaching into the unknown void, I do not know how long it took, but finally I found... at first just the slightest sensation of... not quite something, but not nothing. This led to faint pressure, it was like the slightest feeling of... fear... upon my fingetips. I can't explain it any other way. It didn't feel like anything I remembered from outside. But this was enough. Though I knew it would take many years to explore and understand, I had the time, and I knew I had found something beyond our world, and beyond the confines of my prison crypt. It was the beginning of my escape, of my victory.

Years passed as I studied my new discovery. It was several decades before I could begin to actually "see" in this new space. And then many more before I could reach out and interact with the things I found there.

After many centuries I grew strong enough to manifest a presence on a distant land in this space. I spent decades, centuries, building up that persona. I created a life for myself there, a home, a library, a place to continue my studies. I found others in this land and learned everything I could from them. They considered me a most eccentric, but interesting character, and they gave me every assistance.

My quest had diverged somewhat at this point - I did not know what my future held, and what I was now learning was so completely unprecedented that I had no idea what would be useful to me. I learnt everything I could, on any subject. For a while I maintained a particular interest in any knowledge that might lead back to my previous life. But I never came across anything, in their history, geography, or astronomy, that I could recognize from my world before becoming entombed.

I slowly lost interest in my goal of escape from the tomb my real body was in, and the strange second life I had invented became my reality.

Eventually this distant sorceror convinced himself that his recurring nightmare about a buried prison in darkness was nothing more than a dream. I had started completely focused on one goal: to free myself from my tomb and wreck a horrible vengeance on the world that had imprisoned me. This led to the goal of developing new powers in a new world that would let me break free, or of finding a way back to my tomb from the new world, to free myself from outside.

As the memory of my own past slipped away, so did my grasp on these goals.

But I did learn and my powers did grow...

Eventually I began to tire with my mastery of the orthodox studies in this world. I began to persue a tiny distant spark, a feeling that there was something out beyond my understanding and reach. As I approached, ever so slowly, it became more and more familiar, until finally this tiny spark opened up into an entire world and I realized in horror that my recent life was little more than a dream.

The reality was eternal darkness entombed deep underground.

But horror soon gave way to arrogance. I had new powers, and I had outlived those who imprisoned me. I had outlived the entire civilization! And I began to feel that the time was approaching. The stars would soon be right.

Perhaps it was this that had pulled me back from my distant life to my original world? Strange alignments in the sky...

Returning to my tomb felt surprisingly... not just tolerable, but actually pleasant. I realized it was because it was a step on my way back to the freedom of the outside world. It was coming so soon. Distant descendants of my followers still clung to scraps of knowledge and would soon be here to welcome my return. I can feel them. I can feel their excitement in the distance.

My enemies four thousand years ago thought they had buried me in a prison for eternity, but they had instead given me a chrysalis. Even thousands of years are a blink of the eye compared to eternity.

The hour has finally arrived! I hear the scraping of stone on stone as the door to my tomb is slowly dragged aside. The sudden bright torchlight hurts my eyes. From the movement of the lights I know that my followers have all fallen to their knees. I steady myself for a moment and then take my first steps back into the world of men.