"I show you the land in turmoil. What should not be has come to pass."
--Egyptian account of civil strife, 1st Intermediate Period
IN LATE EVENING the sun cast the western cliffs into shadow as it set, the shadow growing long and staining the wide flat sands as if the land were bleeding. Away from the cliffs, still occasionally struck by light, five shadows moved slowly northward.
They were far from the river, away from the floodplain; the sand kicked up by the hooves of their mounts glittered redly in the waning light. Once in a while they would disappear beneath the darkness cast by an outcrop of rock, only to reappear on the other side, seemingly from nowhere. It was good there were no villages or towns nearby; any inhabitants would have been surprised or even terrified by the looks of the traveling group. For while they had the looks of humans, two of them men, two of them women, their faces were not human; the two men had faces as of dogs, one a wolf and the other a dark-furred jackal; and the women had the features of cats, a lioness and a lynx, their eyes glowing yellow-green as they glanced over their shoulders at the desert behind them. And the animals they rode were not donkeys, they were antelope--wild kudus, their horns spiraling upward in a vain attempt to scratch the sky. The fifth shadow was a wolf trotting alongside them, a gleaming white ostrich feather upon its head. Together they looked like a gang of desert demons searching for a tomb to crawl in or a hapless villager to snatch. Though the way they glanced around them showed they were anxious of being caught themselves.
The sun disappeared behind the western cliffs. The group's eyes adjusted to the darkness. The wolf strayed to the side to sniff the ground. The women and the jackal-headed man continued watching the desert around them, each of them armed and ready to fight should they have to. Only the wolf-headed man refrained from nervous watching, though he kept his ears pricked, one hand on the hilt of his sword. The hooves of the kudus crunched across pebbly gravel. Somewhere, a nightbird cried out.
The wolf-headed man abruptly brought his kudu to a halt, jerking his head to the side and scanning the desert. The other four froze; five pairs of eyes scoured the stone, the sand, the cliffs; the lynx-headed woman slowly brought up her bow and reached for an arrow. The jackal-headed man held up his hand and shook his head, a movement so slight as to be almost imperceptible. The lynx-headed woman paused before nodding. She lowered the bow.
Far to the south, toward the river, a jackal yipped.
The jackal-headed man's lips curled away from his teeth. He reached to his side to grasp a carved ivory boomerang. The lynx woman readied her bow; the lioness woman lifted a heavy ax. The wolf growled, the fur on his hackles rising.
The wolf-headed man's kudu pawed the earth nervously; its rider stilled it and held up a hand to the others.
"Wait," he whispered between clenched teeth.
They did. The desert was too quiet; what few sounds did come set their teeth on edge. Fear of the unknown was bad enough; now that they knew what followed them, they were even more afraid.
The nightbird called again, closer this time.
"Just a bird," the wolf-headed man said aloud, waving them to move forward. His eyes told the others to prepare themselves. They nodded and followed, pretending to lose interest in the noises. The kudus trudged onward.
They were allowed for a short while to continue traveling before a horde of hideous, long-snouted creatures descended on them, riding animals even more hideous, screeching and howling and waving their weapons at the air. The wolf-headed man waited until the last possible minute to turn around and attack, howling as well. The other four turned as one and launched themselves at the horde, the lioness woman swinging her ax, the lynx woman letting loose an arrow. The wolf-headed man charged at a straggler, drawing his huge bronze sword and raising it over his head.
Instantly all was confusion. The attackers, about six or so blunt-eared, bat-winged creatures in heavy armor, hadn't expected much of a fight. But the travelers were going to give them one. The lioness woman continued swinging her ax from side to side as she rode through the melee, letting out a battle cry; the ax's half-moon blade connected with one of the creatures right in the middle. He grunted and fell from his mount, which immediately pulled away. The jackal-headed man tossed his boomerang; it struck another of the creatures in the head, knocking him out. The boomerang hummed; a blue sheen enveloped it and it came swinging back to its master, who aimed and threw it again.
One of the creatures, bigger than the others and with bright red ear lappets hanging down the sides of his face, snarled and went at the wolf, which was snapping at the legs of one of the mounts. Before his sword could strike the wolf it was knocked aside by another. He looked up just in time to feel the pommel smash into the side of his head. The wolf-headed man shoved him to the ground and went to the aid of the lioness woman, who was struggling with another creature over possession of her ax. A deep slash to the arm settled the matter in the lioness woman's favor; she and the wolf-headed man attacked the creature together. He pulled hard on his mount's reins, losing balance and falling when the mount reared up. He scrabbled to his feet and staggered off, bawling like a wounded calf.
The wolf-headed man tried to follow, only to find himself blocked by the mount, which was frantically looking for a place to run. He glanced to left and right before realizing he'd never catch up. He craned his neck and cupped a hand to his mouth.
"Maftet!" he shouted; the lynx woman turned in his direction. "Finish him! He can't return to the palace!"
The lynx woman nodded. Their plans couldn't be jeopardized. If news of their location got out, everything could fail.
She fitted an arrow and, drawing back the bowstring, let it fly. The fleeing creature stopped in his tracks, his spine arching as the arrow embedded itself between his shoulderblades. A second later his muscles relaxed and he slumped forward.
There were two more creatures left. One, seeing his leader lying on the ground, a sword-gash in his head, screamed and dug his heels into his mount, twirling his club in the air. The wolf jumped and knocked him off, sinking his teeth into the creature's leg. The creature tried to swing at him; the wolf ducked and the boomerang thudded against the creature's throat with a sickening crunch. The creature's eyes went wide; he choked and clawed at his throat ineffectively. The wolf, hovering nearby, moved in and quickly finished him off with one bite, rather than watch him suffocate. Then he joined the others.
The last creature had been busy trying to revive his companion, the first one struck by the boomerang. When the wolf-headed man turned toward him he quailed and dragged his comrade to his feet, throwing him across the back of one of the mounts and leaping atop another. He kicked the mount in the flanks; it squealed and galloped off, the other following.
"Stop him!" the wolf-headed man shouted.
The jackal-headed man hurled his boomerang. It struck the creature's wing, tearing a ragged hole through the membrane. The creature screamed with pain but only goaded the mount harder. The lynx woman fired more arrows, but the rider was by now out of range, and disappearing quickly across the cooling sand.
The travelers watched him go, saying nothing. There was no preventing it now; the palace would learn of their whereabouts, and more of the creatures would soon be joining them. It was inevitable.
There was only one thing to do, and that was what they'd been trying to do already.
They had to reach the Delta.
The jackal-headed man pulled his kudu up close. "I'm sorry," he said. "I should have aimed higher."
"You did what you could." The wolf-headed man turned away to inspect the creature he'd felled. The others dismounted and they stood looking down at him.
"This is one of his captains," the wolf-headed man said, indicating the creature's red ear lappets. The others shuffled their feet uneasily. "He'll be sending out others soon."
"We were lucky this time," the wolf said. He sniffed the air and a breeze ruffled the feather he wore. "Next time, they'll be better prepared."
The wolf-headed man nodded. "We have to make better time. For all we know some of the Kana have already reached the Delta. They could be waiting for us."
"What if they've found him?" the lioness woman asked.
He shrugged. The truth was, he'd been worrying about that himself. "Then I don't know what." He turned away from the Kana captain and got back on his kudu. He glanced over his shoulder at the wolf.
"Khenti." The wolf looked up at him. "Go on ahead of us. I know the Apsiu; they won't notice you're missing if we meet up with them again. Go on to the Delta and find him. Remind him of who he is. Bring him back to us so he can do what he's meant to."
The wolf nodded and loped off silently. The other four watched until he was nothing more than a tiny dot darker than the rest of the shadows; when the land had swallowed him up the women and the jackal-headed man buried the bodies as quickly and quietly as they could, while the wolf-headed man kept watch, his sword still drawn. By the time they'd finished shooing off the remaining mounts, and were on their way northward again, the last of the light had drained from the sky, leaving it black and speckled with stars. They didn't stop to make camp. They'd lost too much time already.
They had to find him. Soon, or else their land was doomed.