Punishment

Trumpets blared like the cries of elephants, and drums cracked louder than a thunderclap. The populace of Waset, capital of Egypt, poured out from their mudbrick houses to gather alongside the city’s main avenue. Fathers hauled their sons onto their shoulders, mothers let their daughters stand beside them, and youths stepped aside to make way for the elders on their walking sticks. Shaded by palm trees and the rearing statues of gods and past rulers, the people waited with buzzing eagerness for the upcoming procession.

None of them looked behind to notice the white-robed stranger.

His eyes, framed by tawny skin paler than the dark brown Egyptians, peered from the veil over his face. None of the natives would cover themselves as much as he did, with the men preferring linen loincloths and the women gowns that stopped below the breasts. The stranger may have felt hot under his robe, hot as the flames that had devoured his tribe’s goat-hair tents. But he had meant it that way.

The musicians’ drums continued to rumble, joined by the rattling of sistrums, the shrill whine of flutes, and the twanging of bow-shaped harps. Women sang, men chanted, and dancing girls pranced and shook their oiled bodies at the parade’s forefront. On both sides of the avenue, the spectating citizenry clapped, cheered, and stamped their feet, kicking up clouds of dust.

The white-robed stranger lowered his turban over his ears to block out the heathen clamor, to little avail. The noise tortured him even when muffled.

Behind the dancers and musicians marched rows of soldiers, hooting as they beat their hide shields with their spears, axes, and curved khopesh swords. The bronze of their weapons gleamed bright and clean below the late morning sunlight.

The last time the white-robed stranger had seen those weapons, they had been washed red with the blood of his tribe. He clenched a fist around the hilt of his own scimitar which rested under his belt.

Horses crowned with waving ostrich plumes trotted next, drawing the gilded chariots on which Egypt’s elite fighters rode. Clad in bands of leather armor over their chests, they grinned and waved at the audience as they passed. More than a few young maidens in the crowd showered the charioteers with lotus flowers, hoping to receive winking glances in exchange.

The drumming escalated into a booming frenzy when the Crown Prince of Egypt himself rode in on the final chariot. Jewelry of gold and precious stones dazzled all over his lean and muscular body. He did not look at the spectators, but instead had his blue-crowned head tilted up to face the sun, as if basking in both its warmth and the glory he had earned on his last campaign.

Last came the spoils of the Prince’s recent victory. Tan-skinned men, women, and children shuffled in lines yoked to one another, with hands bound behind their backs. The Egyptian onlookers’ cheering gave way to jeering as they pelted the captives with rocks, handfuls of dirt, and epithets too vile to describe.

The white-robed stranger retreated into the shadows of an alleyway. Those were his people being dragged behind like stolen livestock. His cousins, his brothers and sisters, maybe even his mother, unless she had fallen like his father. Half of his entire tribe had already died fighting these Egyptian devils, and he did not even want to find out what fate they had planned for the rest.

He would sooner die than watch his people suffer. But not before inflicting one last blow.

The white-robed stranger glided down the empty streets that ran parallel to the main avenue. He turned and climbed a ladder onto one of the houses’ palm-thatched roofs, crouching behind its parapet. This house overlooked a limestone platform rising from a plaza at the avenue’s end, in front of the Pharaoh’s towering place. On this stage stood the old Pharaoh of Egypt himself, accompanied by his comely Great Wife, a circle of officials, and guards along the rim.

The white-robed stranger unslung his bow and pulled out an arrow from his quiver.

The music silenced at last once the Crown Prince and his procession reached the plaza. As the soldiers and musicians assembled around the stage, the Prince hopped onto it from his chariot and knelt before his father and mother.

“It is good to be home, dear Father, Lord of Upper and Lower Egypt,” the Prince said aloud. “You will be pleased to know that I have crushed the treacherous Israelites as you commanded. Never again will they terrorize our eastern provinces!”

The white-robed stranger bared his teeth in a snarl as he drew the arrow against his bow, pulling the string taut. These Egyptians had convinced themselves that his people, the children of Israel, were terrorizing them. Never mind that it was Egypt that had broken into his homeland like ravenous jackals hungry for territory and tribute. And it was Egypt that would ravage anyone who dared question their tyranny.

Their lies would not go unpunished.

“Elohim be praised!” he hollered as he released the arrow.

It shot through the Crown Prince’s skull, and he crumpled on the stage into a puddle of his own blood and brains. All the Egyptians’ eyes rose to goggle at his assassin on the rooftop.

“I am Hoshea of Israel,” the man in the white robe said. “You have raped, massacred, and enslaved my people. It is you who have terrorized us. So, indeed, I shall repay the favor by terrorizing you in turn!”

Tearing out his scimitar, Hoshea vaulted from the roof onto the plaza with a shrieking battle cry. The Egyptian soldiers and guards charged after him on all sides until they had him fenced in with their weapons. He did not even think of flight. Vengeful wrath blazed throughout his entire brain as he slashed, hacked, and parried his attackers while spinning like a desert whirlwind. His once white robe turned red with blood, both from the Egyptians and his own wounds.

The sharp cold point of a spear plunged through his heart from behind.

Hoshea did not scream from his pain. He had done what he set out to do. Much as the armies of Egypt had terrorized the children of Israel, so too had he struck terror into their hearts. Even the draining of his strength could only soothe him. With his vengeance wrought on behalf of his people, the time had come for his anger to subside and give way to the bliss of Paradise.

The last thing Hoshea would ever hear was the Pharaoh of Egypt announcing that the Israelites’ crime would not go unpunished.

The Peril of Kush

For the first time in his life, Teriahi laid one foot upon the summit of Amun’s Mount. His leg wobbled under the burden of nervous shame the instant his leather sandal contacted the sandstone. Only royalty and priests could set a single step atop this ancient plateau, the first outcropping of land the Creator had drawn up from the floodwaters of primordial chaos. Any mortal commoner, even a captain of the armies like himself, would profane this hallowed ground with his mere presence. So had maintained generations upon generations of tradition.

Nonetheless, desperate times called for desperate measures. And seldom before had times been so desperate for the people of Kush. Amun, in all his divine wisdom, must have understood that. And indeed, despite Teriahi’s worst fears, the Creator had not dissolved his leg or inflicted any other punishment for his trespassing. He sighed in relief.

His soldiers marched behind him, some equipped with gleaming bronze spears and ox-hide shields, others with the bows and quivers of arrows that were the pride of the Kushite nation. The hides of lions and leopards, the ruling predators of the desert, fluttered in the wind over their linen loincloths. They would need all the bravery of those beasts, and then some more, for the battle that awaited them.

After them followed a procession of priests with shaven heads and leopard-skin mantles, beating frame drums and chanting hymns to Amun as they ascended the steps carved into the Mount’s side. They formed a circle around an alabaster altar that stood in the precise center of the summit, burning its brightest white under Ra’s late morning sunlight. Their leader Seb, the wizened High Priest, cast an anxious glance at Teriahi even as he sang beside his followers.

Teriahi winked with a smile. Deep inside, he shared the High Priest’s doubts, but this was his strategy they were carrying out. He had to display some form of confidence.

Four Egyptian slaves, whose deep mahogany-brown skin was one shade lighter than the pure ebony of most Kushites, hauled a tied-up calf onto the altar. These youths would have been captured in one of the many skirmishes between Egypt and Kush, and many in the royal council had insisted that it was Egyptian sorcery at work that periled the kingdom now. But they would first have to lure the peril in to find that out. Teriahi watched as the slaves cut open the calf’s flank with a sacrificial knife, putting it out of its lowing misery, and letting the blood and entrails leak onto the altar and stink up to the heavens.

They waited. The priests continued their drumming and chanting, aided by the Egyptians rattling their sistra, while Teriahi and his soldiers crouched behind the limestone columns that ringed around the altar. The solar barge of Ra sailed to its zenith in the sky, burning almost as hot as the flames that had bombarded Kush and devoured so many men, women, and children. Including Teriahi’s own.

Even hotter burned the pain of his losses, and his desire for vengeance.

Gold glimmered in the cloudless sky, and a shrill screeching roar answered the priests’ summoning chants. Teriahi unslung his bow and fetched an arrow. The priests silenced their music to scatter back from the altar, but his heart thumped much as their drums had.

With a whooshing dive, and a sweep of giant bat-like wings that could have blown the braided hair off everyone’s scalps, the peril of Kush landed before the altar on Amun’s Mount.

It craned its serpent’s neck downward to sniff the gutted calf with a crocodilian snout, swishing its spiny lizard’s tail behind. Its scaly armor shimmered bright gold and blue as it bent down to gorge on the carcass, tugging away strips of flesh which it swallowed whole. The horns twisting from its head were those of a gazelle, and the claws of its hind feet resembled a falcon’s. The whole beast must have been built from the parts of other animals, as if someone had mixed them together in a sorcerous recipe. It was, as the councilors had claimed, the spawn of hybrid magic.

Teriahi placed his arrow against the grip of his bow and pulled the string with slow, silent care. He aligned the arrow’s barbed head with the spot above the creature’s eye, aiming for the brain. The bow wavered in his sweating palms, and the string creaked in his fingers. The stone of the column Teriahi leaned against chilled his skin worse than midnight.

He let go. The arrow flew into the base of the creature’s horn.

The pupil in its reptilian eye shrank to a tiny slit, and the beast released a shrieking cry that pierced through Teriahi’s eardrums. Throwing up its wings and pushing itself back into the sky, it sprayed from its maw a torrent of fiery venom that descended all over the plateau. Men screamed out their lives beneath the roar of the flames that consumed them. Even Teriahi himself had his skin seared off in streaks across his body.

He collapsed onto his knees wincing from the pain that gnawed away at his strength. What remained of his soldiers volleyed their arrows and spears at the monster as it flew in a circle overhead, continuing to decimate their ranks with more jets of fire. The entire summit of Amun’s Mount had turned black with charred rock and burnt corpses.

That reptilian demon could not desecrate such sacred ground and get away with it. Nor could Teriahi let it wipe out the fine generation of soldiers who had served beside him, much less all the other people of Kush. He had already seen too many lives taken away from him.

Somehow, he had to put out the brute’s fire. Or stop it from coming out in the first place.

With tears pouring from his eyes, Teriahi forced himself back onto his feet and slipped out another arrow from his quiver. He drew it back against his bow while the flying monster veered to face him, jaws agape with a roar. The roof of its mouth swelled aglow with fire.

Again, Teriahi let go. This time, the arrow struck the beast right in its swollen gland.

The explosion engulfed its head with the very flames it had used to destroy so many of its victims. Shrieking shriller than before, it thrashed and squirmed like a fish on a harpoon, swatting its wings, as the burning spread all over its body. Once the fire had covered the entire creature, it crashed down onto the Mount as an enormous skeleton of blackened bones that splintered on impact.

Sweaty and racked with pain and exhaustion, Teriahi heaved out a deep breath. “What in the name of the gods was that?”

Seb, High Priest of Amun, laid a hand on his shoulder. He smiled with the half of his face that hadn’t been singed off. “I believe that is a dragon, a monster created through hybrid magic. But I know not whom it was that sent it after us, or why.”

With a sizzling hiss, the dragon’s bones dissolved into streams of smoke. In their place lay the naked body of a man with tawny brown skin, a color too light for a typical Egyptian or Kushite. With his hooked nose and thick beard of loosely curled black hair, he appeared to have come from one of the easterly races, such as the Arabs, Canaanites, or Babylonians. Yet branded into his shoulder was a string of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

“He must have been a slave of the Egyptians,” Seb said. “Probably a sorcerer working at the Pharaoh’s behest.”

“Then we know whom we will fight next,” Teriahi said, clenching his fists.

The easterner’s chest rose with a groan, and he opened his eyes with a few blinks. Teriahi grinned. If his people could capture this man as the Egyptians had captured him, they could find a use for him too. Once a terrible peril of Kush, he could become its strongest ally.

Cold of a British Winter

Cornelius had weathered through several years’ worth of discomfort throughout his career. But he could never get used to the barbaric cold of a British winter.

Back in Rome where he had been born and raised, winter was a mild and rainy affair that took little time to yield to the dusty warmth of spring and summer. In the African province where he was first stationed, and where he first laid eyes on his dear Fabiana, winter was even briefer and almost balmy. Yet here in Britain north of the Imperial border, winter was long, dark, and cruel, drowning the land with the wet white powder known as snow and stinging Cornelius’s face with icy air. His cheeks, once tawny brown like the typical purebred Roman, had turned red as a rash from this frigid assault.

He imagined that Fabiana, his poor sweet Fabiana, would have suffered even worse from this foreign new climate.

Cornelius trudged as one of eighty legionaries on patrol through the forest of skeletal trees. Their leather boots crunched and bored down into snow that almost reached up to their knees, and the clouds of breath they exhaled added to the thick white mist which floated around them. Overhead the sun, to the extent that it could be discerned at all, had begun to drift down from its noontime zenith towards the trees in the west.

“Why, in the name of Sol Invictus, is it afternoon already?” Marcus, who marched beside Cornelius, squinted and blinked his eyes. “I could have sworn it was sunrise only a few hours ago.”

“Welcome to Britain at wintertime, soldier,” Centurion Lucius muttered from the troop’s front line. “Though if it’s any consolation, I like it even less than you do.”

Lucius turned his head back to give Cornelius a smile of warm reassurance. As Fabiana’s father, the centurion shared with her the same deep, dark brown skin tone common to Africans. The snowflakes clinging to his tightly curled beard made it seem even more peppered with the gray of middle age.

Cornelius wrinkled his nose from the rancid stink of rotten flesh. He tilted his head up, and an even fiercer chill struck him from within as the blood drained from his face.

Continue reading “Cold of a British Winter”

The Perfect Shot

Rain pounded like drumbeats onto the thatched roof of the bamboo observation tower. It must have been the seventh or eighth rainfall Sid Francis had seen over the first two days of his safari. Supposedly, this was what passed for the middle of the dry season deep in the Musiyinti country. Small wonder they called it the rainforest.

Sid swatted away at a mosquito which whined dangerously close to his face. Already the little devils had marred his pasty Kanuck complexion with a bombardment of red bumps, each and every one of them an itching reminder of his lacking the foresight to bring bug repellant. Or maybe he had simply been too cheap. Sid had already spent a third of his living on a suitable new camera and another third on reaching here from halfway across the world. It was too easy to gloss over a variety of important little details in that kind of hassle.

“Are they here yet?” Sid muttered as he continued to defend himself against the insect’s harassment with his bare hand.

His guide, a lithe Bayinti named Masengu, looked up from her handheld GPS to give him a disappointed frown. Her ebony-dark skin, though decorated with lines of traditional scarifications, remained fragrant with repellant and thus enviably unblemished by the bugs. Not to mention, the brief strips of bark-cloth she wore over her bosom and waist would have made for more comfortable attire in this humidity than the heavy khaki getup Sid had to put on.

“Ah, fuck.” Sid would have gotten out his pack of joints to smoke away the boredom, except he had no idea whether the scent of burning cannabis would attract or scare off the local wildlife. All he could do was continue to stand here on aching feet, watching for anything bigger than a colobus monkey to show up in the mess of foliage, mist, and shadow that was the surrounding jungle. And maybe glance at his guide’s curves a few more times from the corner of his eye.

On second thought, maybe that wouldn’t be so bad.

“Ever thought of a modeling career on the side, Masengu?” Sid asked, tapping a finger on his camera.

She thrust at him a glare almost fiercer than the tranquilizer rifle she had slung over her back. “You mzungu men are all the same.”

Sid laughed, not the least offended even if she had almost said the local word for white people like a slur. “It’s a compliment, trust me. A good shot of you would fetch as much as any tyrannosaur. Of course, I’ll split some of the profits with you, 50/50. What do you say?”

Masengu rolled her eyes with a smirk. “As long as you don’t ask me to pose nude.”

A deep rumbling groan resounded from the jungle. Except for the pulsing of his heart, every muscle in Sid’s body turned stiff as rock from the surprise.

“They’re coming after all.” Masengu was looking at her GPS again. “It’s a whole herd. Get ready, and stay quiet.”

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The Elephant Joust

The gong rang and reverberated, and the gates to the arena ground open. In rode Huan Xi, Imperial Prince of Zhongguo, on his elephant Longwei. Both he and his mount glimmered with platelets of polished leather armor under the afternoon sun, with bronze blades glinting on the elephant’s tusks. Spreading a proud smile across his pale yellow-brown face, Huan Xi waved with lance in hand to the audience that filled the terraced seating to his right.

Everyone on that side of the arena waved back with cheering and hooting of his name. These men and women were all Zhongguans, Huan Xi’s subjects, come to see him joust for the prize he desired more than anything else. From the lowermost seating there watched the Empress herself, his mother, with a bright pink robe of silk and cherry blossoms in her bun of graying hair. Her eyes twinkled with both Imperial pride and maternal love, but Huan Xi noticed her wringing her hands together with nervous anticipation.

He would make her so proud. This he swore by Zhongdi, Lord of all the Heavens.

Another gong rang from atop the arena’s far end. Afterward there thundered exotic drums as an opposite pair of gates began to part. The right side of the arena fell silent, but the spectators seated along the left erupted into cheering and chanting in a very different language. These other people, dark brown-skinned with brief linen garments, hailed from the ancient kingdom of Khamit far to the southwest of Zhongguo. On their lowest seating was their old Pharaoh Kahotep, with his blue- and gold-striped crown and braided goatee. He flashed a smirk in Huan Xi’s direction.

The Prince of Zhongguo searched the Khamitans’ ranks for a glimpse of Berenib, the Pharaoh’s lovely young daughter. It was over her hand that the joust had been arranged, yet Huan Xi could not make her out anywhere. He could not even find her next to her father or any of his officials. From what he knew of her character, she did not seem like the type of woman who would avoid the sight of blood in the arena, but he was at a loss to explain her curious absence otherwise.

Maybe Kahotep had meant to present her only after the event, for whatever reason. Regardless, as long as Huan Xi had the memory of Berenib’s exquisite beauty in memory, he did not need to be reminded of why he fought.

Longwei the elephant raised his trunk with an anxious rumble. Huan Xi patted his brow while whispering the most soothing words he could muster. In spite of their size, elephants could be skittish animals, but the Prince had to wonder what had intimidated his steed all of a sudden.

The answer came once the other side’s gates had fully opened. The animal that lumbered out onto the arena floor was the strangest and most enormous elephant Huan Xi had ever seen. It dwarfed Longwei by at least one head in height, but the oversized fan-like ears it had outspread gave it the appearance of even greater size. The scaled bronze armor that this hulking southern monster donned almost blinded the Prince of Zhongguo with its dazzling brilliance, as did the blades fitted onto its tusks. And these tusks, of course, ran longer and thicker than those of Longwei or any other elephant Huan Xi had observed.

On this bizaree specimen rode the Khamitan champion, a slender youth with bronze bands around his torso. A mane of black dreadlocks ran out from behind the gold lion’s mask that covered this individual’s entire face. He waved his own lance at the Khamitan audience, and they too cheered and waved back, but none hooted anything that sounded like a name. Huan Xi could not imagine any reason for that odd omission.

“Magnificent steed you got there, Khamitan,” Huan Xi called out. “May I ask for your name?”

“My champion is one of few words and a hidden name, I’m afraid.” It was Pharaoh Kahotep who spoke from his seating. “But you may call the elephant Nofret. Believe me, it was a small mercy on our part not to send a male of her breed here.”

Longwei had his head lowered and legs huddled together in submissive intimidation. Nofret on the contrary held herself high before him, still keeping her big ears outspread, and the rumble she gave was rough like a menacing growl. Huan Xi did not even want to guess what a male of her breed looked like.

“Shall we begin?” Kahotep asked out loud.

There was a pause of silence across the whole arena, except for the whisper of the wind and the rumbling of the elephants. The Empress of Zhongguo had her hands wrung to their tightest as she looked towards her son. The sweat on his brow had turned cold, and he hugged his lance close to his armored chest. But he could not let his dear mother or their people down. Much less his sweet, beautiful Berenib.

Huan Xi nodded, as did the Khamitan champion.

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Blessing of the Moon

Faraji wiped the last speck of blood off his scimitar and held it up against the campfire’s light. Even after all the nicks and scratches it had collected over years of combat, it still shone with an almost heavenly brilliance. The inscriptions in its blade, written in cursive Aradyic, invoked the Moon’s blessing of strength towards whomever wielded the sword. Thus far it had never failed Faraji, and certainly not during his latest raid.

Around the fire his warriors bantered, joked, and laughed with each other, as warriors across the world always did when resting at camp. They were all Kiswahans like himself, dark brown-skinned with off-white kanzu tunics and turbans over their black, tightly curled hair. In truth, their physical features differed little from the miserable heathens they had yoked and manacled to one another in the darkness at the camp’s edge.

But those sad-eyed idolaters, naked but for loincloths of woven bark and jewelry fashioned from cowrie shells and dinosaur teeth, were not lovely to look at. Even the nubile young women in their ranks had their skin blemished with hideous scarifications of pagan significance. They may have been kin to the Kiswahan race by blood, but the old superstitions they clung to made for a very different, barbaric culture.

A faint yet high-pitched cry, almost like some kind of flute, whistled from the black depths of the surrounding rainforest. Even with the nocturnal humidity and the campfire’s warmth, Faraji could not deny the chill prickling his skin from that eerie noise. He had made a whole career of penetrating these jungles from the east, braving an immense variety of beasts and heathens alike. But never in all his previous ventures had the Kishawan slaver heard such a sound.

Then again, the jungle housed more species of creature than could fit in all the world’s menageries. It might have been nothing more than some rare bird that had sung. Regardless, it did not call again. There was nothing to fear.

“Bwana!” Hasani, Faraji’s right-hand fighter, rushed to his side and tapped his shoulder. Sweat sparkled on Hasani’s terror-wrinkled brow. “I think I saw something.”

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Mark of a Muvhimi

Nyarai crept through the tall grass with her hunting bow in hand and an iron ax by her hip. Her tawny halter-top and skirt, both banded with wavy brown stripes, further hid her within the yellowed savanna. Perspiration dripped from her brow, chilling her dark umber skin in spite of the baking afternoon sun.

The other Vavhimi had chosen her too young. No way in Mwari’s name could Nyarai do this and survive.

Ahead of her the stegosaurs ambled in the field amidst scattered aloe and cycad trees. Any single one of the lumbering giants could feed all her neighbors back in the city, with the pebbled hide providing shields for the Mambo’s royal guard. The pentagonal plates that shimmered like copper on their backs would bring in a fortune from merchants in all directions. So would the ebony spikes glinting at the tips of their tails—assuming they did not get Nyarai first.

No, she could not let her fears drown her hope. She was a Muvhimi, a hunter of the Vazhona nation, and she could not let her peers down.

Nyarai slipped an arrow from her quiver and laid it atop the bow, aligning its head with one of the stegosaurs’ rumps. On the far side of the field, the savanna gave way to a woodland of mopane trees where the other Vavhimi awaited. They had sent her not to kill any of the stegosaurs, but to drive the herd into their trap.

It was a simple, classic strategy when described out loud. Nyarai could only plea to Mwari the Creator, and to the spirits of her foremothers, that it would be as simple to carry out.

She drew her bowstring with tender care, not letting it creak. Still the bow wavered in her clammy grip. The stegosaurs lowed and grazed, and she prayed in murmurs that they would not smell her.

Nyarai let go.

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The Battle Roar of Sekhmet

Egypt, 1350 BC

I entered the sanctuary area at the back of our hut with a bowl of gazelle meat. Beside me my niece, little Nebet, hugged her miniature drum as if it were a doll. The likenesses of our forefathers and mothers watched our passage with painted eyes, their altars adorned with weapons and the gold flies their valor had earned them in life. But it was the gilded likeness of Sekhmet, she of the lion mask and blood-dyed gown, who awaited our arrival against the wall. Despite the dimming of the sunlight through our hut’s narrow windows, Sekhmet’s amber eyes blazed with the same fire that had emboldened generations of our ancestors.

Many times I had knelt before her as I did now, lighting the meat I laid at her feet. The scent of its burning recalled battle after battle of blazing tents and enemies being speared, shot, or cleaved into pieces. The warmth channeled the sun’s blazing heat, which glossed my dark brown skin with perspiration. Even the crackling of flesh breaking down into ash became the cracking of bones and shields as I yelled the battle roar of Sekhmet in my memories.

This evening I would consult our matron for a different battle. This time, our enemies were not Kushites with ochre-reddened hair and leopard-belted kilts. Nor were they easterners like the Hittites or Babylonians, with light-skinned faces and loosely curled beards. No, they were Egyptians like ourselves, fellow children of the Black Land who had fallen under the influence of the false Pharaoh Akhenaten.

Already they had dragged little Nebet’s father away to slave away in the lair that tyrant had built for himself and his cult of lies. I did not even want to guess what his minions had done to her mother. Only I remained to protect and teach the girl over the past year, and never would I let her suffer the same fate as her parents.

I gave her a nod and she pounded her drum with more unbridled passion of a temple ensemble. Together we sang our prayer for Sekhmet’s vigilance, for her guidance, for the courage with which she would imbue us in the face of war and persecution. The fire on my offering continued to flicker on our ancestors’ faces as their spirits’ voices joined ours in a greater chorus. The thumping of my heart became a rhythm complementing Nebet’s drum, as did the war drums that had thundered before all my past battles. Alongside the music’s growing fury there rose an energy within me that flamed as hot as Sekhmet’s gaze. As she opened her jaws to bare her fangs in my vision, so did I.

It built up from my breast to my throat, ready to be released over a climax of cracking drums and shrieking cries.

Instead came the hoarse bray of a royal trumpet. Then followed silence, and finally the rapping of a bony knuckle on our door.

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Jungle Queen TV Pilot Assignment

This is a TV pilot treatment I was assigned to write for an online creative writing class. I wrote this with the idea that it would be used for an animated cartoon targeted at girls under age 12, though given the violence I think an older target audience would be more appropriate. For some reason I’m not quite satisfied with the outline I wrote for the hypothetical pilot episode, but I am still fond of certain character and setting concepts behind the project. If this doesn’t actually become a TV series, I might use it for prose stories or some other project.

IKABA THE JUNGLE QUEEN

TV Pilot Treatment

LOGLINE

Ikaba, the young Queen of Mayombi, has to protect her jungle kingdom’s citizens from perils such as dinosaurs and other wild beasts, bandits and pirates, and renegade cults; all while managing the responsibilities of her office and her rambunctious little brother.

CHARACTERS

IKABA – The protagonist of the show. She is the twentysomething Queen of Mayombi, having inherited the throne from her departed mother Mwala. She venerates her mother’s spirit as a role model and a source of guidance for her burdensome responsibility; she wants more than anything else to follow in her mother’s footsteps as Queen. On the other hand, she finds the day-to-day running of the kingdom and its bureaucracy to be tedious at best, and she would much rather hunt or go on adventures in the jungle with her younger brother Kengo.

KENGO – He is Ikaba’s younger, teenaged brother who is studying to become the next military advisor and highest general in Mayombi. He has absorbed enough information from his studies to develop a tactician’s cunning, but his adolescent restlessness and craving for adventure drag him and his big sister into trouble on a regular basis. On the other hand, he has a passionate, idealistic heart under his rambunctiousness and shares with Ikaba a ferocious opposition to injustice.

BOMNA – This plump, middle-aged woman is Ikaba’s majordomo, or second-in-command. But in practice she functions as an advisor and almost a substitute parental figure for the Queen and her brother, constantly lecturing her on her responsibilities and holding her accountable for the day-to-day running of Mayombi. Though she comes across as nagging and pompous, Bomna has a genuine desire to steer the young Queen to the right track and can be affectionate and even huggable when she calms down.

LUKO – A gaunt and bald older man who is the High Priest of the Sun, the almighty creator and supreme deity in the Mayombian pantheon. He is a scholarly gentleman with a broad and extensive education, with his strongest passions being the natural sciences and medicine (he has experience as a healer as well as a priest). He has a cheerful disposition and a mischievous love for pranks and jokes, much to the irritation of his peers (especially Bomna), but his encyclopedia’s knowledge of science, history, and religion make him a valuable source of information for Ikaba’s leadership. Plus, even Queens need something to lighten the mood every now and then.

NYIRO – A potential major antagonist in the series. She descends from a former dynasty that Ikaba’s grandfather, King Goma, dethroned and exiled for tyrannically forcing a monotheistic and violently imperialistic religion onto the people of Mayombi. Nyiro now runs this cult, the Sunlit Defenders, somewhere in the jungle beyond Mayombi’s frontier, and she has vowed above all else to seize the kingdom back and “make it great again”. Despite her villainous agenda, she is a charismatic and polite young lady who believes she’s ultimately doing the right thing and has a talent for manipulating others’ sympathy.

CHIVUNGE – Another potential antagonist, who shows up in the pilot episode. He comes from a poor rural background and out of desperation has fallen into a poaching career, cutting off the horns of Torosaurus (relatives of Triceratops) for cowrie shells on the black market. A harsh upbringing and the criminal underworld’s cutthroat environment has hardened him into a cynical and ruthless old man, but since he is in large part a victim of poor circumstances, he could be considered a tragic character as far as villains go.

BAO-YAN – He is a young prince of Zhongchou, a Chinese-styled empire across the ocean from Mayombi. His mother, Empress Pei-Wang-Xi, indulged his every whim when he was growing up, so he has developed this inflated, egoistical sense of entitlement to all his desires. When he hits on Ikaba on a diplomatic in the pilot episode, he does not take the rejection he receives well at all and becomes an antagonist.

Continue reading “Jungle Queen TV Pilot Assignment”

Black Mask

A flute whistled in the dead of night.

Catherine jolted up from her bed and panted. Only the glowing blue digits on her clock, which read 11:22 pm, broke up the bedroom’s blackness. It was still enough light to show the contours of the plastic dolls and stuffed animals she’d kept from childhood on her shelves, and shine off the posters of pop stars off her wall. Not one of the shadows cast faint against the pink walls moved.

It must have been some kind of bird. With a relieved sigh, Catherine sank back into bed.

The flute whistled again.

It had a shrill and hoarse voice, almost like those tribal flutes they played for jungle movies. It sounded at the same time a reddish light flashed from her phone’s screen. Bolting to the desk where she kept it charged, Catherine unplugged it with one yank and hammered away its password. A text message appeared in blood-red letters with a scratchy font like scars:

TELL HIM THE TRUTH.

A deep thumping started after Catherine read it aloud. It must have been her own heart, even if its rhythm recalled the pounding of tribal drums more than a pulse.

Catherine clicked the home button on her phone, but it did not dismiss the strange message. Neither did swiping across the screen with her thumb. She pressed and held on the sleep button so she could power it off. Still no effect. Whomever had sent her this text, somehow they had attached some kind of virus which had her phone frozen. Maybe the Internet, with all its infinite wisdom, could explain the problem.

She switched her computer on.

What followed was not the on/off button’s click, but that damn flute. On the computer screen against a pitch-black background read the same message in the same scratchy red letters:

TELL HIM THE TRUTH.

Whom did they mean by “him”? And what was the truth they wanted? Who were they, anyway?

YOU KNOW WHO I AM. YOU KNOW WHOM I MEAN.

Metal clanked and wood banged against wood. One of the shelves on Catherine’s cabinet was rattling as if being shaken by an invisible hand. She hurried and opened it to reveal her pocketknife bouncing inside. One of the larger blades flipped out by itself and glistened with wet red liquid.

This couldn’t be. The last time Catherine had ever used the thing was over a month ago, and she must have cleaned the blade shortly afterward. No one else she knew would have need for it, if they even knew where she kept it. So how did this wet red stuff get on there?

Catherine tapped the liquid, noting its familiar thickness and metallic scent. After her next blink it vanished from the blade without a trace.

The thumping had escalated to banging drumbeats.

YOU KNOW WHAT YOU DID TO ME. TELL HIM THE TRUTH.

These letters on the computer screen were flashing fiery light behind them.

“Tell me who you are first!” Catherine reached one hand back for her pocketknife, but the cabinet door had closed. Pulling on the knob did not budge it by the slightest, even though there was no lock on it. With face paler than the moon, Catherine was shivering.

YOU KNOW WHO I AM. HE LOVED ME BEFORE YOU. AND I LOVED HIM TOO.

No, it couldn’t be her. Catherine had taken care of her a month ago. But nothing else could explain all the riddles, including the pocketknife.

“You’re gone for good, okay? You rotted away weeks ago. Now get over it and stop haunting me!”

The red text on both computer and phone disappeared, restoring the room’s darkness, and the drumming music silenced. Catherine panted while leaning against the cabinet, supported by quaking arms.

A minute passed, and flames exploded in mid-air over the bed. The drums were banging with more savage fury than before, joined with voices chanting in some heathen language. The floating fire surrounded a face of pitch blackness which glared at her with beady yellow eyes. From its mouth of thick red lips sprouted giant fangs and tusks.

“I will haunt you so long as you hide the truth from him,” the monstrous black apparition growled. Something about its echoing voice sounded curiously familiar, though Catherine didn’t know exactly what. “Tell the truth or else!”

Catherine screamed. She bolted out of her bedroom and sprinted out of her house into the autumn night’s chill, having slammed every door she passed through. She panted out puffs of steam and glanced up and down the street before her. Only the whistling of wind and the rustling of skeletal tree branches interrupted the lifeless silence, and not one of the neighboring houses shone light through their windows.

Only her own bedroom window it. It flashed flaming red. “You cannot run or hide from me, Catherine…” the black apparition’s voice snarled from within.

Yes, she could. There was one other soul in her neighborhood who could protect her from that reborn demon. It was him.

***

After Catherine hammered on his front door, Josh opened it. Even with half-shut eyes and messy blond hair, he could never lose his dreamy handsomeness.

“Cathy, babe, what’s wrong? You look like you’ve seen a ghost!”

Catherine gave him a wild-eyed stare. “Literally! Let me in and I’ll explain.”

He shut the door behind Catherine. Its peephole blinked the same red glow she had seen earlier, but Josh didn’t flinch as if he had noticed it too. She followed him to his living room where he switched on the light and pounced onto his sofa before the TV.

“What do you mean, literally?” Josh ran his fingers over Catherine’s forehead. “Are you all right?”

“Please believe me, Josh. She came to my place less than an hour ago. She took over my computer and—”

“Who’s ‘she’?”

On Josh’s wall was a framed photo of him smiling and cuddling alongside…her. Catherine pointed to her.

“Get real, Cathy. Ghost or not, Lakisha would never do such a thing to anyone. I knew her too well.”

“Even after she got herself killed in that knife fight? You never knew her like I did, Josh.”

Josh shook his head. “Never believed that. You must have heard some stupid-ass rumor. And why would her, ah, ‘ghost’ go after you for it?”

Catherine’s throat knotted up. “She’s jealous that I took her place. She has to be!”

The living room light switched off. The flute had returned with yet another whistle.

Josh, like Catherine, froze where he sat. “Was that your ghost?”

Catherine nodded while hugging a sofa pillow close to her. “She must have gotten in.”

The photo on the wall swayed side to side, each swing more extreme than the last, until it was spinning.

“It’s her, it’s got be her!” Catherine grabbed the remote control and brandished it like a club. Josh had armed himself with a baseball bat. He swung it at the spinning picture, but it splintered in mid-arc before hitting anything.

With a crack of the drums, the TV switched on with the red text blazing onscreen.

TELL HIM THE TRUTH! TELL HIM THE TRUTH!

And voices were chanting these words aloud like lyrics in some savage tribal ritual.

“What truth are they talking about?” Josh gripped both of Catherine’s shoulders firmly while looking into her eyes. “You were hiding something from me, weren’t you?”

Tears of terror were gushing down Catherine’s cheeks. “She’s lying! I tell you, my love, she has always lied!”

In front of the TV blossomed the flames and the black-faced ghost they carried. The being had sprouted spindly arms and legs from its sides, making it look like some cartoon savage with a giant grotesque mask.

“You think I lie?” the ghost roared. “You would not even have him without lies! It was through lies that you tore me away from him, and it was through lies that you claimed him as your own. What a fool I was, Catherine Gable, to trust you to speak anything but lies! Must I tell him the truth myself?”

Catherine pointed her remote and rattled it like a sword at the spirit.

“And what will that accomplish, you ratchet whore? You’re dead, just as you should be. You can spook me as much as you want, but you’ll never have him back. Never again will a filthy she-ape like you lay her sooty hands on my man! So go away!”

She chucked the remote at the ghost only for it to bounce off and crash back into her skull. From the point of impact ran branching cracks that hissed out green gas with a rancid stink, going down to the tips of all her extremities. Catherine screamed with hateful shrillness as her body burst open in a swelling green cloud. With a fading hiss the stinking gas dissipated into oblivion.

***

Except for the shuddering of his limbs, Josh could not move.

The ghost touched the sides of its face with its arms and pulled it off like it was removing a mask. Once the face came off, it too vaporized, and nothing monstrous about the being remained before Josh.

In its place sat Lakisha, exactly as she had looked before a month ago. Her whole, svelte figure gave off a bright white halo that contrasted with her dark brown skin and cast twinkling light on her eyes and full lips.

The tears were streaming down Josh’s face as he ran to pull her onto her feet. “You’ve come back! But why?”

“To tell you what Catherine wouldn’t. It was her that knifed me to death, for it was her that wanted to take your place. She believed she deserved you more than I did, and her last words have told you why. I could not let her lies live past the next moon.”

Josh embraced her with all his strength. “I knew it couldn’t have been your fault. So now that justice has been done, will you leave me again?”

Lakisha planted one intense moist kiss on his cheek. “My spirit must go like my body before it, but my memory shall be eternal. As shall my watch over you.”

Only Josh remained, surrounded by midnight darkness. His bat lay on the floor, somehow in one piece again, and the photo on the wall showed no sign of damage or disorientation. The only difference was that Lakisha was winking within it.