Kemat awoke as the Egyptian sun rose, slowly illuminating the two serpent-headed statues that stood to either side of the closed door of the river entrance into the temple. She languidly rose from her coveted place on the ground, her brown skin tingling with anticipation. It was the duty of her daughters to keep watch over the entrance and, in times of peace and plenty, to ensure that it was opened in the mornings. Their pharaoh, their goddess, welcomed worship in the temple, even from those of common blood. Before she had been chosen by Pharaoh Nitocris, Kemat had never been allowed to step foot in a temple, the privilege belonging only to those of royal blood. The resurrection of her goddess had changed many things in the lives of her fellow Egyptians. Kemat treasured her role in recreating Nitocris’s journey from the underworld back to the earthly plane in a ritual completed every morning.
The water lapped against the acacia wood and she rushed to wake her daughters so that they could raise the door to welcome the sun. They woke obediently, happy to rise from their pitiful reed beds, but happier to follow the prescribed rituals set forth by their mother priestess and their goddess. The women were dressed in simple white linens, crisscrossed around their bodies, and tied in a simple knot at their backs.
The twelve women worked together on either side of the canal, each using two hands to grip the papyrus rope to lift the door up high enough to allow small boats into and out of the temple pool. From the river Nile, a canal had been dug up and into the immense temple, the water ending at the stairs which led up the side of the cliffs.
Kemat lowered herself into the clear water and slipped under the door that was steadily rising above her, leaving her daughters behind her. Past the door, the canal opened into an immense basin, a large, flat island in the middle. It was to this island that she swam, her long white hair flowing behind her. She gracefully rose out of the water and onto the steps, water dripping against the brown and white tiles as she ascended.
The island housed a large U-shaped structure made out of immense sandstone blocks that had been brought up from the south. It accommodated hundreds of people who worked in the temple and the surrounding lands. Several were up already, tending to the various temple gardens, training to be priests or priestesses, or preparing for the pharaoh’s day. While Kemat knew that there were various people bustling around the grounds, the only ones here in the immediate area were herself and twelve others. She glanced at their naked and hairless bodies as she strode with purpose through the middle of the open square.
These were twelve of the Viperidae, the chosen ones who had been promised an immortal life in service to the goddess. They would sacrifice themselves to her, their souls stored in her kingdom of the underworld, forever bound to her. Their bodies were covered with scars, signs of their dedication. Her cursory glance assured her that none of the cuts were fresh. It was a violation of the awakening ritual to present yourself unclean.
At the center of the courtyard stood an alabaster altar carved into the figure of a giant cobra. As Kemat got closer, the naked women approached her from both sides, stripped her of her white linens, and replaced them with a long black shawl that hung loosely from her shoulders. They fell into step behind her and strode to the other side of the altar, Kemat walking up the center aisle to face the sun rising in the East. The Viperidae split into two separate groups, one approaching the center platform from the North and the other from the South. Each sister picked up a smoking censer as they went, the smoke of burning opium surrounding them.
When they stopped, the high priestess stepped to the altar, the Viperidae joining in a circle around her and the sacrificial bowl. They each placed their censer at its proper place around the enormous bowl. The women started a whispered chant, repeating the name of their goddess and pharaoh, “Nitocris.” Kemat removed the ceremonial staff from the altar and stepped outside of the circle formed by the gently swaying bodies. She circled the Viperidae, dragging the staff through the black sand on the platform. As she walked, she started relaying the story of Nitocris to the winds, enchanting her words, envisioning them reaching the ears of all in the land.
“Nitocris, the last of her line, faced death armed with her innate power and the spells of her ancestors. She was not content to do as others had done before her. Not content to lie down before gods who would judge her. No. Nitocris would conquer death, just as she had conquered these lands in life.”
The chanting was louder now, the bodies of the Viperidae taking on a pattern of frantic writhing. Kemat had circled them four times. She began again, louder this time.
“Nitocris faced seven gates. At each gate, she faced a choice. Should she bleed, piercing her body open to feed the thirsty ground? Or should she leave a piece of her flesh? With each sacrifice, she invoked the words of her mothers, claiming each gate for her own and increasing her power over this land of the dead. For each gate she passed, she got closer to Apep, the snake god who had brought chaos down upon her family and cursed their lands and bloodline.”
As Kemat finished her seventh circle, she raised the ceremonial staff high into the air and brought it down hard against the earth, calling a lightning bolt from a cloudless sky. The electric bolt charged through the staff and then circled the Viperidae, their heads thrown back, eyes open to reveal only white, unseeing orbs, mouths open in silent screams.
As the electric circle dissipated, Kemat stepped back through her unmoving daughters to the altar, setting the staff aside. From the east, each sister awoke from their trance one at a time, lowering their heads in a rhythmic circle, a synchronized cascade of annular motion. She took from the large golden bowl, twelve crowns of red poppy flowers, and placed one on each of the hairless heads bowed before her. The smoke from the censers rose up and formed a hazy sphere in the air as she continued the ritual. She passed her hand in a circle above the red candles, speaking again as the seventh one produced a flame.
“When Nitocris opened the final gate, Apep came into sight, towering above her, his fangs bared.”
They had all read the scrolls of Nitocris. Kemat knew that as she relayed the ritual version of her goddess’s trials, the Viperidae would envision what they had learned as children. She thought back to her first reading now.
Apep was so large that Nitocris could not see past him. Everywhere she looked, she saw only the red scales of his writhing body, twisting and rippling on all sides around her. She sensed a huge cavernous space beyond him, dark except for the reflection of flames that she saw in the glittering of his scales. His forked tongue flicked out and picked up her scent, returning it to the roof of his mouth where he could taste her. At once she became entangled in his thick body and he began to raise her high into the air. Her khopesh, the blade matte black, was pinned between her back and his skin.
She was clothed in white linen, the wrappings hiding an obsidian scarab embedded in the skin between her breasts. It had been polished so that the surface shone like a jewel, flecks of gold running through it. As she was lifted into the air, she began to call to her enchanted heart scarab. It changed from a deep black to a bright red, the gold shimmering as it began to heat in her dead chest. The legs of the magical scarab dug deeper into the flesh of her body, lengthening and wrapping around her heart. By the time Nitocris was at eye level with the beast, his body had wrapped around her torso. She stared at the reflection of her dark face in the white eyes of her attacker. A woman determined to live again stared back at her. The snake god reared back his head, released a strange growl, and then struck at her face, his fangs piercing her eyes, sinking into the jelly and releasing a squirting deluge of blood. The serpent released a searing flow of magical venom into Nitocris’s bloodstream and her beating heart quickly spread it throughout what was left of her organless body. Venom depleted, Apep reared back his head, Nitocris’s eyes tearing away from her face with a squelching pop.
Immediately a brilliance exploded in Nitocris’s mind and an excruciating pain flooded her senses. It focused her anger against this beast, the devourer of the souls of her mothers. Her blood rained down upon her chest and sizzled against the scarab, entrenched deep within her mostly cavernous body. She imagined the jeweled scarab in her mind’s eye and called it forth. Her scarab-encased heart exploded out from her body and burned into the flesh of the snake, absorbing the magic that allowed the creature to maintain his immortality on this plane. The impact of the heart scarab caused the serpent to loosen his grip. Nitocris was able to free her arms and released her weapon, the brass hilt hot in her grasp. She reached up a hand to bury it deep in the snake’s body, ripping out his heart while slicing off his head. Apep quickly released her, and she slid down his scales until she stood among his thick remains.
Her khopesh hung at her side, Apep’s hot blood still dripping from the blade. Although he was now dead, she could feel the muscles of his body still writhing around her, the segments of his skin twitching reflexively. She raised his still-beating heart to her mouth and began to eat. The warm meat was salty but as she ripped into the center of the heart, sweet blood gushed into her mouth and she sucked it down greedily. She finished the heart, swallowing the last of its tough, sinewy meat. Her face was covered in red and pain throbbed behind her empty eye sockets.
She placed her hand against the rough scales of the snake and fixed the tip of her blade beside it. As she walked blindly toward where she imagined the severed head should lie, she cut a deep gorge into the snake god, pulling out his intestine and wrapping it tightly around her arm. She could feel her heart-scarab throbbing somewhere deep in the body of the snake, the magic of the slain deity trapped within it. Upon reaching it’s resting place, she called again to the holy token and it tunneled up through the serpent to her waiting hand. She placed it against the gaping hole in her chest, and white alabaster threads of flesh reached out and claimed it once again.
When she reached the headless end of the body, she sank to the ground and unwound the intestine, tying it in a knot around her ankle. She then began to crawl out away from the corpse, using the intestine to guide her back towards a reference point.
Kemat had imagined herself stricken blind, crawling along the ground in the dark on some plane of existence so different from this one. She had imagined smelling the acrid smoke of fires and felt the helplessness of crawling around on a slippery surface with foreign sounds assaulting her senses. What must it have felt like to imagine that you might never make it out of there? How must her goddess have felt to think that she might crawl the cavern floors for an eternity without ever making it back to this earthly plane?
“Nitocris slew Apep and stole his sight, his venom, and his magic. She found her way back, and through her, we have the chance to live anew. We have the chance to deny the gods our eternal service, unearned. We worship only Nitocris, the Serpent Pharaoh. Nitocris, our goddess. Nitocris, she who dances in blood. Through her, we rule the earthly plane and her underworld, bonded through blood, for all eternity.”
The Viperidae started a shared chant as they circled the sacrificial bowl, “We worship only Nitocris, the Serpent Pharaoh. Nitocris, our goddess. We worship only Nitocris, the Serpent Pharaoh. Nitocris, our goddess. We give our blood to Nitocris. We dance in blood for Nitocris. Nitocris, Nitocris, Nitocris.”
Kemat’s voice rose above their refrain. “We must all face the trials and tribulations of our goddess, our redeemer, our mother. We must give to her freely, what others have taken from us without consent.”
Kemat raised the sacrificial blade with both hańds and lifted her face to the sky. “Nitocris, to you, I give my blood. Nitocris, to you, I give my loyalty. Nitocris, to you, I give my love.” Kemat brought down the knife and plunged it deep into the right side of her gut, dragging the blade through the thickly scabbed flesh to the left side of her body. Blood and intestine spilled into the bowl. She cut the slickened casing of her entrails out of her own body and the segmented tube began to writhe in the blood, one end thrashing around in the air like the tail of a rat trapped in the claws of a cat.
Kemat closed her eyes and turned her mind’s eye to the state of her abdomen, willing cells to mass-produce at an exponential rate, tissues of gut, blood, and skin stitching themselves back together while the Viperidae swayed to her crooning wail.
The woman to Kemat’s right took the blade and made her own offering, slicing into the pink skin at her own throat, the blood mixing with that of Kemat’s in the large bowl. The knife was passed from sister to sister as Kemat continued the words of the ritual.
“Among the worthy, one is chosen each day, to make the final sacrifice and join with our goddess, forever to exist in holy union and immortality. As your high priestess, I alone can judge the worthiness of your sacrifice. I alone can accompany you up the mountain to the high temple, to the waiting arms of our pharaoh. I alone can present you as an offering to become the most revered among the Viperidae, one of the Wadjit.”
Kemat looked into the eyes of each of the women as they contributed pieces of their physical bodies to the glory of their goddess. But it wasn’t just the faces she saw; she knew their most intimate thoughts. She felt the strength of their inner magics, knew their strengths and weaknesses. She made a point to know every single Viperidae personally, magically inscribing each name into the skin above her heart. Through this connection, she could always reach out to one of her daughters. The bonds varied in strength, growing more powerful as she and her daughters shared in the awakening ritual, and even stronger still as the chosen of the Viperidae became Wadjit.
“Choose your sacrifices well, daughters. As today might be the day that you take your rightful place beside the goddess. Your place as an immortal, a protector, a Wadjit.”