Sakhmet Stories - The Witch And The Thief: Part Four
The sighs of melancholy were all that one could hear in the streets of Sakhmet. There were no children laughing in the sandpits, no market women squabbling over who saw the ripest ummagine first, no men laughing as they share a chilled glass of sand shake. Instead, the only sound that permeated through the thick silence were the soft sighs of the grey Neopians who roamed aimlessly through the streets. They eyes swayed slowly from point to point, never really focused on anything or anyone. All that they did was to listlessly dragged themselves from their sad homes to their sad workplaces and back to their sad beds when the time called for it.
Then, it happened.
It started out slowly at first - a small, innocuous patch of stone appearing on their tails or their limbs. However, that small stone patch started to spread like a drop of dye in a pitcher of water. Slowly, but ever so surely, people began to turn into stone. They were slumped over their fruit carts or their curving vases, too deep in their despair to notice. But the lesser they moved, the more they turned into stone.
And just like that, the people of Sakhmet became statues; preserved in whatever posture or shape they were in before the next stage of the curse took effect on them. Some were statues leaning against their clay houses, others were stony figures holding on to a bag of groceries.
Time for a solution was running thin.-----
Meanwhile, Nephthysma and Sethos were still deep in the desert dunes, walking in the direction that Sethos had placed them on. As they climbed a particularly steep slope of sand, they were relieved to be greeted by the majestic sight of Sutek's tomb. It stood out in a field of golden sand, with its pointed tip majestically rising through the skies above. Next to Sutek's tomb were a few smaller Gebmids, each one congregating neatly in a row with Sutek's exalting tomb in the middle.
Nephthysma stopped in her tracks, taking a moment to savor the beauty of the Gebmids. When she finally decided that she had remembered enough of the picturesque scene that rewarded the past few days of walking, she hustled forward to join Sethos. The eager Techo had already began making his way down the sloping dune, alternating between careful steps and playful sliding to reach the bottom of the incline.
After an hour or so of walking, and a lunch stop at the insistence of Nephthysma, the pair found themselves facing the building blocks that made the base of a smaller Gebmid at the end of the row. Sethos fished out a piece of gum from his pocket, and began chewing at it gleefully.
"I asked you to come prepared, and you brought that?" Nephthysma leered at Sethos, as he shrugged and continued slapping his gum in his mouth. Ah well, she thought to herself. At least the journey here was smooth, as the statues had promised. There was no need for his daggers or her magic since the episode with the Lupes, so what harm could a little gum do.
"There's no entrance here," said Nephthysma, changing the subject. She began glancing from left to right to survey the Gebmid. Though smaller than Sutek's tomb, this Gebmid was still significant in stature. Its imposing structure cast the pair in its shadow, providing some respite from the heat.
"Come this way," said Sethos, leading Nephthysma to rock that lied behind the Gebmid. "Builders of the Gebmids had made a second exit in case the main entrances were filled in. When they completed construction, they sealed off the tomb and the spare entrance, but I've managed to squeeze past the crevice in the rock."
He paused, turned around and looked at Nephthysma, and said "You'll fit in, but your cape might be a little bulky. If you want to fold it and keep it into your little bag, you can put it back on later once we're inside."
The crevice was indeed a tight squeeze. It led to a tunnel that was as dark as it was deep. Using her amulet once more, Nephthysma put it around Sethos' neck and allowed him to lead the way. After a few minutes of warily climbing down the tall, damp steps, the Techo and the Usul found themselves in a chamber.
"I think I've climbed enough steps to last a lifetime!" Sethos heaved, as he rested his hands on his knees to catch his breath. The walls of the chamber were painted with magnificent symbols and pictures. On one wall, a doorframe stood ominously without light. Nephthysma strained her eyes to get a closer look at the paintings, and marveled at the intricacy of the brush strokes.
"Oh Sethos!" she sighed, mesmerized by their delicate undulations and brilliant colors. "These are beautiful!"
"Mmmm, yes...they are..." he said, distracted by something else.
Sensing his befuddlement, she turned around and asked what the matter was.
"It seems..." Sethos started slowly, verging on breaking out into a nervous chuckle. Thankfully, his wits told him that wouldn't be wise. "Well, it looks like the pathway is different."
"Different?" the witch asked, perplexed by Sethos.
"Yes...different. See, the last time I was here, this door turned right. I'm unquestionably sure it turned right. Yet this time, the doorway leads forward and into another tunnel." He looked at Nephthysma, his face cold with a new realization.
"Nephthysma, the tunnels have changed."
At first, she couldn't believe her ears. She laughed dismissively, rolling her eyes at what she thought was a lame attempt at a joke. She thought he was pulling her tail, but before she had the chance to chide the Techo, the walls and the ceiling began to vibrate. A loud, long groan echoed through the chamber, hauntingly trailing down the tunnel and into its dingy abyss. It was as if something large was moving overhead.
The pair looked at each other. Nephthysma didn't know if she could believe Sethos and the absurdity of his perception. But if that groan that so tangibly shook through the chamber was not another tunnel shifting, then it - whatever "it" was - was clearly something far worse than moving tunnels.
"Even if you're wrong, Techo," Nephthysma said as she swung her cape back around her shoulders. "The only way is forward, so that's where we have to go."
On and on the pair went, the pathways growing more foreign to Sethos. All the while, he kept muttering to himself, as if his inaudible mumbles would've suddenly inspired a solution. It was time to face facts: they were hopelessly lost.
They continued on for a few more turns, when they soon found themselves thrown off their feet. The tunnel trembled violently, as loose sand dusted over their heads.
"WHAT'S...GOING...ON?" Sethos yelled, his voice barely discernible over the thunderous roar that filled the tunnel.
"I DON'T KNOW SETHOS, BUT I THINK...THE TUNNEL IS MOVING!" Nephthysma screamed in reply, barely keeping her balance as she narrowly missed a falling piece of ceiling rock. As abruptly as the tumult began, the tunnel suddenly stopped shaking. The air was still again, save for a few loose rocks falling to the floor.
"Are...are you alright Sethos?" Nephthysma inquired, panting in shock that they were caught in a turning tunnel.
"Yeah I am, but do you see that?" Sethos was transfixed on a soft glow that radiated in the distance. "Or am I seeing things?"
As she picked her staff off the floor, she saw it as well. It wasn't by any definition a strong glimmer of light, but it was light. "I see it too, Sethos," Nephthysma whispered, striding ahead of Sethos, who was dusting his tunic off.
The closer they came to the light, the stronger it became. In the biting cold of the tunnel, they even felt the warmth of the light tickle their cheeks, which drew them closer like moths to a flame. Then they heard a still, small voice humming a low tune to itself.
Mixing their shrinking courage with their growing curiosity, the pair inched slowly past the corner to find a lone Geb painting a wall on a connecting tunnel. He stood on a pedestal, with a flickering candle on one side and a tray of paints in another.
"Erm, hello?" Nephthysma asked, carefully employing a friendly tone so as not to startle the Geb. As good as her intentions were, the Geb was still taken by surprise.
"Oh! You frightened me!" he said dropping his paintbrush. His alarm soon turned into enmity when he realized they had come from the outside world. "You're not supposed to be here!"
"Ssssssh!" Nephthysma begged, "We came here to break a curse that's turned everyone in Sakhmet grey." The Geb seemed unmoved.
"We mean no disrespect or malice! We merely came to return a stone that..." she stopped mid-sentence, realizing the pickle that she spoke herself into. If she mentioned the gemstone, she knew things would not have a happy ending. And yet, she needed a good-enough reason for the Geb to show them the right path.
"...that we stole from a thief back home." She figured that if they were trying to right a wrong, then maybe the Geb would be lenient enough to help them.
"And what is this gemstone? I don't believe you." The Geb still seemed to be adamant in dealing punishment on the intruding pair.
Sighing, she fished out the gemstone from her bag and showed it to the Geb.
"Holy suns of Sutek!" the Geb exclaimed, his raised pitch echoing through the empty tunnels. "That's...that's...that's...from the Room of Infinite Light!"
"The Room of...what?" Sethos blurted out.
Hopping off his pedestal, the little Geb scurried to their feet to get a better look at the gemstone.
"The Room of Infinite Light," the Geb replied, distressed by the sight of a rare gemstone in the hands of a foreign witch. "See, each Gebmid serves a purpose in protecting the people of the Lost Desert, and this Gebmid supplies the inhabitants with happiness, joy and friendship. If you take away so much as one rock from this Gebmid, the spell is broken and the Neopians of the Lost Desert will lose their reason to be happy."
The Geb moved his gaze from the gemstone to the Techo. "They've turned grey, haven't they?" His voice was ominous, as if he already knew the affliction that plagued all of Sakhmet.
Nephthysma explained that the people of Sakhmet had indeed lost their colors, and that was why they were here to break the curse.
"You don't have much time, Usul." The Geb turned around, his voice dull with despair. "It won't be long now before everyone in Sakhmet turns to stone."
His words rung through the tunnel like a gong clashing in an noiseless room.
"St...stone?" Sethos asked. His palms were moist with sweat, feeling the sting of regret pierce clutch onto his throat.
"Yes," the Geb replied gravely. "Stone."
"Well, can they change back?" Nephthysma asked, doing her best to keep her voice stable.
"The curse is only temporary for the first night. After the moon gives way to the sun the next morning, those who have turned to stone shall remain so for eternity." The Geb picked up his brush, and stared at the spot he was painting before. His brush did not move.
"Well we are here to return the stone. There's still time! Can you help us? Surely you know the way. Am I right?" Nephthysma asked, stressing on her desperation.
"The tunnels change all the time, so I can't be too sure. I can try, but that's not going to help you much" the Geb lamented.
"Then all you need to do is try," she replied.
The Geb turned around to face the duo, and recognized the desolate nature of their request. That they were in such misery to have asked the help of a Geb that they barely knew and met mere moments ago was enough for him to agree to help.
He led them down winding tunnels, dangerously sloping steps and up narrow pipes. They passed through dozens of chambers, each more strikingly painted than the last.
"Your paintings are sublime, little Geb!" Nephthysma said, gawking at the radiant art that enveloped around her.
"Awww it's just something I liked to do, but thank you Usul," he replied, bashful at the first compliment he's received in years. From then on, every tunnel, chamber, crevice, wall and ceiling that had artwork was given a thorough explanation. Some stories happened in the Lost Desert, others were fantastical tales of faraway lands, oceans and vast kingdoms. Though skeptical of their authenticity, Nephthysma and Sethos were happy to find some alleviation in the thrill of the Geb's wonderful and rich ability to spin a story.
They found themselves in front of a stone door. It was the only door they had encountered so far, and something told Nephthysma that they were about to see something extraordinary or daunting. Before she could say a word, however, the Techo rushed forward and began pawing at the door.
"This is it...THIS IS IT!" he cried in excitement.
Nephthysma turned around to thank the Geb. However, before she could utter a word of appreciation for his help, the Geb had mysteriously disappeared.
Next to the door, a button jutted out from the wall. Sethos reached out to press it, and the doors parted down the middle, sliding open to reveal the room. Even for Sethos had already been there once, the room took their breath away.
Every inch of the room - from ceiling to floor - was covered in gemstones that were spectacular in color and clarity. The stones reflected the light emanating from Nephthysma's amulet, throwing captivating trails of light all over the room. In fact, they were so transfixed on the beauty contained within the Room of Infinite Light, that they barely noticed the door sliding to a close behind them.
The chamber was long, and had low ceilings. In fact, Sethos was slightly hunched over as he and Nephthysma split up, walking to separate walls to admire and absorb the sheer splendor and richness that was bestowed before them. Even the floors were paved in gemstones! Every color imaginable was manifested into a gem; smaller collections of gems came together to form a pictograph, which in turn became part of a larger mural. They were so caught in their excitement, that they didn't hear the soft hush of sand pouring into the room from the corners of the chamber.
"Right Sethos, let's get to it." Nephthysma said, snapping our of her daze. "Where's the gemstone supposed to go?"
Sethos began retracing his steps, when he stopped and stared at the corner.
"Neph, this didn't happen the last time," he said, his voice quivering.
"What on earth are you talking about, Sethos?" she asked.
The Techo feebly reached down, and grabbed a fistful of sand. "This."
They rushed to the door and tried prying it open, but it wouldn't budge. Panic rose in the room, as the sand level steadily ascended to their ankles.
"Let's just put the gemstone back, maybe it'll get us out!" Nephthysma said, her voice hurried and curt.
Sethos grabbed her wrist, and pulled her to the center of the room. There was a groove in the ceiling the shape of a Scarabug, and it was the lone empty space in a ceiling full of glittering gems. She fished the stone out of her bag and handed it to Sethos. Positioning it under the groove, the Techo meticulously placed the stone into the ceiling. It was a perfect fit, and for a moment, he allowed himself to feel some reprieve. He let his palm go.
The gemstone fell from it's inverted holding spot and tumbled into the sand. Flustered, the duo jumped at the stone before it was lost in the rising sand, bumping heads in the process.
"What is happening?!" Sethos yelled out, repeatedly forcing the gemstone into the hole. Each time he did so, the sand seemed to pick up speed, filling the room at an even greater speed than before.
Nephthysma grabbed the stone from the Techo and jammed it into the hole, before watching it fall into the sand. However fast her reflexes were, she couldn't catch the stone before it was covered by a wave of sand.
"NOOOOO!" she shrieked, frenetically pushing sand out of the way in search of the lost gemstone. Sethos joined in the frenzied search, digging into the waist-deep sand. As he threw heaps of sand over his shoulder, his toe grazed over a strange feeling on the floor. His head darted up, looking for Nephthysma. She was nowhere to be seen, but he merely assumed she had dug deep into the sand in search of the gemstone that was under his foot.
Carefully, he reached his fingers into the sand, straining at the pressure of the burgeoning pit of sand that surrounded them. He felt the gemstone safely in his palm, and pulled it out of the sandy abyss, throwing some loose sand into the air in the process.
"Found it!" he proclaimed, but he heard no word. He looked around, and a inching sense that something had gone wrong began to overtake him. He called out to Nephthysma.
He called, again. No answer, again.
By this time, the sand had reached their shoulders.
He looked at the groove once more. If he tried to ram the stone back into it, the sand would speed up so much they would suffocate. He was lost, when an idea struck him like lightning on a stormy day.
He stopped chewing his gum, and pinched off a sliver of it. Rolling it into a ball, he pressed it onto the gemstone till it was just enough to cover a fraction of the base. He took in a large gulp of air, and jiggled the gemstone back into the groove. The sand was up to his nose.
The gem stuck! As it did, the sand began to subside into the gaps between the bricks of the floor an the walls. In the far end of the room, a door that mirrored the one they entered from, slid open to reveal an exit path.
"Jumping juniper leaves, that was close!" Sethos said, letting out his mouthful of air. He was in such an ecstatic mood that the emotional crash that followed felt harder to bear. For laying on the floor where she had been digging, was an unconscious Nephthysma.-----
Throughout the entire journey, he had never been close enough to notice that Nephthysma smelt of fragrant oils and had a small mark on the tip of her left paw. But as he carried her to a corner, he realized that the Usul was still very much alive.
He took her staff, and laid it by her side, and began fishing through her bag. Sethos knew that he was by no means a trained doctor in the practice of magic, but his friend needed his help and he was desperate for a solution. However, when he stuck his hand into the bag, it was empty. He began to sob helplessly, as he stumbled back a few steps and hit the floor in a weeping mess.
Clunk! It sounded like metal hitting the floor. He fished around his pocket to find the metal vial that Nephthysma had given him. He remembered her words, that he was to drink this in his time of need and he would be healed.
He dashed over to Nephthysma's side, uncorking the vial in the process. Propping her up with one arm and gently opening her mouth, he carefully poured the potion into her mouth. As the last of the bright pink liquid dripped into the witch's mouth, Sethos laid her back down on the cold, hard floor.
It started with a quiet cough, but then Nephthysma erupted into a hacking fit as fine grains of sand puffed out of her and disappeared into the air. Sethos ran over to her, and hugged her tightly. She was still weak, but he swore she gave a hug in return.
"You're back!" he said, through the whimpers of his tears.
"I guess we're even now," she replied, coyly smiling at her friend. She stopped short of another word and looked around the now-empty room. "You did it."
Sethos nodded quietly. "Now let's get out while we can. Can you walk?"
"With my staff, I can" she said, her hands reaching out for her staff and hoisting herself back on her feet. With slow steps, they walked through the door, ascending a steep flight of steps till the reached the crevice in the rock.-----
The moon hung in the sky, disappearing behind some clouds as the sun began to rise. The stone statues of the Sakhmet people remained still. A sharp gale of wind shot through the town, and just like that, the rocky exteriors of the people chipped away to reveal the Sakhmetians' brilliant colors.
People seemed to emerge from a daze, as if they had awoken from a long nap. They looked around themselves, continuing to busy their hands with things to do as their minds worked out the odd feeling that something happened to them. Something did happen to them, but their memories were foggy about its details, and it remained that way forever.-----
Outside the city walls, a small cluster of tents stood out like a sore thumb amidst the stretching plain of golden sand. Nephthysma and Sethos walked up to a dull beige tent. On the right, she noticed an empty pen, with dust filling the feeding bowls. She figured that these were where the family raised their flocks of Anubis once, when the days of the family were happier.
She walked in behind Sethos, to find him a bawling mess once again; only this time, he knelt by his sick mother, telling her how much he missed her. He wiped his face with the collar of his tunic, and turned to Nephthysma.
"She's a desert witch, mother. She's here to help you, okay?"
Nephthysma bent over, and with a comforting smile, she began to inspect the sick Techo on the bed. It had a thin mattress, and was hardly comfortable, but it was the best that the family could afford. She took in a deep breath, and fished out a matchstick and a bunch of leaves from her bag. Opening the incense holder at the tip of her staff, she threw the dried leaves in, and lit them with the match. Fanning the embers of the glowing leaves, she closed it and waved it over Sethos' mother.
"What's her name?" she asked.
"Thermutis" he replied.
Nephthysma made one more wave, throwing smoke around the tent and filling it with a strangely sweet aroma. "Thermutis," she said.
Thermutis remained quiet, but nodded her head in acknowledgement, wincing at the pain.
"Take a deep breath of the incense," ordered Nephthysma.
Mustering up all the strength that she had, she took a heaving breath of the smoke in, and in an almost instantaneous moment, the afflictions that plagued her both on the inside and outside, seemed to have disappeared away with the wafting smoke. For the first time in a long time, she could open her eyes.
"Sethos...is that you?" her voice was trembling, for she had not spoken in a while. He rushed over to embrace his mother, who just days before had seemed hopelessly lost to the claws of her illness.
Sethos, through tear-filled eyes, looked to Nephthysma and whispered "thank you" repeatedly to her. Nephthysma nodded, but before leaving the tent, she turned around and looked at embracing Techos once more with a smile of contentment on her face, she left knowing that all was well.