“OUTSIDERS!” The mortal shouted down to his leader.
Harut nervously watched as the gates slowly lowered, revealing a score of guards.
“I thought she said we were welcomed here...” he whispered to Twi’el.
“She said Ra is paranoid. Just stay quiet and allow me to speak.” he whispered back.
Harut found himself alone with Twi’el yet again. Though he understood why, the idea did not sit well with him. He had a mission to complete, which required him to put his grievances aside, for now. Athena and Asbeel were hidden in the distance, ready to provide covering fire should the meeting go awry.
One of the guards stepped forward adorned in a strange headdress that appeared to be some type of bird to Harut. His tanned, sun drenched skin was exposed by a gawdy and impractical chest piece that was clearly designed to show off status as opposed to functioning as armor in combat. His legs were covered by a fine, white, silky cloth. Within his right hand, he carried a gold, ceremonial scepter. His left hand gripped the hilt of a strange curved sword that was fastened to his waist. Harut silently wondered why a guard would dress for show rather than combat.
“What is your business here?” the guard spoke in a raspy voice.
“We seek an audience with the wise Amun-Ra.” Twi’el answered.
The crowd of guards snickered at the thought of outsiders obtaining an audience with their reclusive leader.
“Ra does not take visitors.” the guard responded.
“We seek something of mutual interest.” Twi’el stated.
“Oh? And what would that be?” the guard asked.
Twi’el paused, unsure if he should divulge the nature of his mission. “A very dangerous foe wanders these lands. The same one we believe responsible for slaughtering your settlement.”
The guard paused, taking a moment to think of his next response. It was obvious that Twi’el’s message took him by surprise.
“Why don’t you tell me, and I will decide if you deserve an audience.” he finally answered.
“I’m afraid that information is for your leader only.”
“Then feel free to leave, before we force-“
“Horus!” A voice shouted from the back of the crowd, interrupting the guard.
The guard, or Horus, closed his eyes in frustration and let out a sigh. “Ma’at.” he grumbled.
A woman emerged from the crowd of guards. She was dressed in a much simpler attire. She wore a cloth red dress with a matching headband. She too carried a scepter, though it was emerald green, and far more simplistic than the one Horus carried. Her hair was as black as the night sky, and she was strikingly beautiful.
“Ra wishes to see the outsiders.” she said to Horus.
“Outsiders have no place in Aaru!” he shouted in defiance.
"And it is not your place to make such decisions!” she fired back.
Horus grumbled a few obscenities to himself and ordered the guards to move back into the walls. Should the outsiders prove to be treacherous, Ma’at would simply have to defend herself. He was not placing his guards at risk after being embarrassed like that.
“I apologize for our Overseer. He can be a bit overzealous.” she stated while making eye contact with Twi’el and Harut.
“I…uh…er.” Twi’el stuttered, awestruck by the woman’s beauty.
Harut rolled his eyes at the sight of a ‘fearsome’ Kingdom angel struggling to speak with a woman. “My companion and I must speak with Amun-Ra immediately.” Harut said, cutting Twi’el off. “He may have knowledge that could help us all.”
Ma’at smiled. “Ra has been watching you for several days now. He is aware of your presence. Tell your companions hiding behind the dunes they can join us as well.” she said with a wink. She turned away from them and headed back towards the opening.
Twi’el was still staring as she walked away.
“Seriously…” Harut said, shaking his head.
“Uh…I will go get Athena and Asbeel.” Twi’el said as he came back to reality, a little embarrassed at himself for drooling over this woman.
The four of them reconvened inside the gates where Ma’at was waiting for them.
“Athena.” she said, as if she was greeting an old companion. “Something truly must be dire for you to return.”
“Your assumption is correct.” Athena stated.
“I’m afraid Ra is not going to be pleased to see you again.” Ma’at said. “Working for Duat… let’s just say you are the first and last to be welcomed back into the city after such an offense.”
“I needed to eat, and they paid well.” Athena responded.
“There is no judgement here. I, for one, tire of the petty squabbles between Ra and Anubis.” Ma’at said with a chuckle.
“Indeed. It’s a tale as old as time.” Athena responded with a smirk of her own.
“Come, Ra is waiting for us in the throne room. It is unlike you to travel with companions.” she said to Athena, shooting a look to the other three in her company.
“Yes, of course. This is Asbeel, Harut, and Twi’el. They are working with me.” she said.
The cold, dismissive statement from Athena stung Asbeel. He understood there was no need to shout about their relationship status from the mountain tops, but the complete lack of acknowledgement bothered him more than he cared to admit.
Ma’at looked down to Twi’el’s left arm, noticing his hand was missing. Twi’el quickly covered the stumpy appendage, embarrassed to let her see it.
“Are you all Olympians?” Ma’at asked.
“No…we are of the Kingdom of Eden.” Asbeel responded.”
“Kingdom?! We had received word that the Kingdom fell!” Ma’at said, surprised to see three Kingdom angels this far out.
“The Archangels and those loyal to them fell.” Harut said shooting a glare at Twi’el. “We fought to liberate the Kingdom from their clutches….most of us did anyway.”
“Harut! Enough!” Athena quietly whispered, jabbing him in the side.
Harut silenced himself, but still continued to cast an uncomfortable glare in Twi’el’s direction.
Ma’at simply observed, noting the hidden shame behind the one-handed warriors seemingly unfazed expression.
“Ra was saddened to learn the Ancient Angels perished. Despite their…hunger for power, they were his brethren for eons before the split.” Ma’at said, trying to change the topic.
“They were sadistic, cruel, and vile creatures.” Asbeel bluntly responded.
“I’ve heard some stories.” Ma’at answered, letting their imaginations fill in the blank.
Ma’at led them through the dirt roads of Aaru. The streets were lined with the strange trees of the desert lands. The citizens of Aaru stared at the travelers, curious to see outsiders venturing within the walls of the city. It was clear to the four of them that Aaru was not fond of visitors
After several minutes of trekking through the city with the high sun beating down on them, Ma’at and the five companions arrived at the palace in the center of Aaru. She gave a nod to the guards posted outside, who quickly moved to open the doors, welcoming them into Amun-Ra’s home.
“So…um…is this Ra…dangerous.” Harut asked nervously.
Ma’at laughed at the questions. “He is a very fair and noble leader. Ra outlawed executions centuries ago, slavery was outlawed eons ago, and he allows the people of Aaru to govern their home. He acts more as an advisor, only taking command in times of crisis.”
“That doesn’t answer my question.” Harut said.
“In short, Ra is only a danger to his enemies.” she said with a reassuring smile.
They moved through the rooms of the palace which were adorned with golden sculptures, masterfully crafted artwork, and trinkets from all across the lands. The floors were a pristine marble, and the ceilings stretched far above them.
“No guards accompany us.” Twi’el whispered to Athena.
“Amun-Ra does not have a need for guards. Even among the Ancients, he was considered powerful.” Athena whispered back.
“That’s comforting.” Twi’el sarcastically answered.
Asbeel noted the whispering between the two. He could not help but feel jealousy. It appeared that Twi’el and Athena had forged a deep connection during their travels. Logically, he knew there was no romantic involvement, but he still felt slighted, nonetheless.
Ma’at lead them to another set of golden doors and halted in front of them. “Ra will summon you soon. In the meantime, he has asked that you be shown to your quarters for the night. Please, go through and clean up. A hot meal will be served shortly.”
Harut’s face lit up at the thought of a warm meal. “Finally! Something that has not been dried and salted to death!”
Athena jabbed him in the side again.
“I mean…er…thank you for your hospitality.” he said, correcting himself.
“Of course.” Ma’at said with a slight bow, as she opened the door for them to enter.
The four weary travelers entered through the sparkling doorway into lavish accommodations. In the center of the large room was an unsettling fountain, spewing crystal clear water from the mouth of strange sculpture. Twi’el approached the stone figure and stared intently at it. It was a disfigured beast, unlike anything he had ever seen roaming the lands surrounding Eden. The eyes of the sculpture appeared life-like, almost as if the statue was watching the four of them.
“What kind of creature is this?” he asked.
“An artist’s rendering- an interpretation.” Ma’at replied.
“Nu, one of the primevals.”
“Primeval....Like a primordial?” Asbeel asked, equally intrigued.
Ma’at’s green eyes darted towards Asbeel upon hearing the word primordial. “Different regions have different names for them, but yes. Nu is a legend of these lands. Some refer to Nu as the abyss…Tell me, what do you know of primordials?” she asked.
“No more than you do.” Athena quickly interjected, seeing through Ma’at’s line of questioning.
“Of course.” Ma’at replied. “As I said, please make yourselves comfortable. I will inform Ra of your arrival.”
“Thank you.” Athena said back.
“Once the golden doors shut behind Ma’at, Athena glared at the three men in her company. “Do not volunteer information! She may appear a simple servant, but she is cunning, observant, and dangerous….Understood?”
“I am not your servant!” Asbeel shouted back.
“I did not say you were. You do not know these people.” Athena responded. The abnormal outburst from her lover took her by surprise.
“What am I to you?” Asbeel said, fed up with Athena’s cold demeanor.
Twi’el and Harut’s eyes widened. The conversation was clearly about to get personal. The two of them stepped away from Asbeel and Athena, allowing them some modicum of privacy.
“What do you mean?” she answered, avoiding the question.
“I work with you. Is that all I am to you?” he asked.
“Of course not!” Athena responded. “You are simply being sensitive.”
“Well, perhaps I’m compensating for your complete lack of emotion!” Asbeel responded. It was clear that Asbeel’s anger had been bubbling underneath the surface for some time now. “Am I anything more than a warm body to keep you company at night?”
Athena stared blankly at Asbeel, angered that he would have such a personal conversation within an earshot of Harut and Twi’el.
“Can’t talk?!” Asbeel shouted. “You don’t seem to have issues speaking with Twi’el!”
Harut chuckled as Twi’el appeared to shift uncomfortably, overhearing his name mentioned in this lover’s quarrel.
“I am not having this conversation!” Athena fired back, dismissing Asbeel’s feelings.
“Then I am no longer-“
The sound of the golden doors opened again cutting the argument short. Ma’at stood on the other side. It was unclear how much she heard.
“It appears Ra can fit you into his schedule now.” she said with a disarming smile.
Athena stormed past Asbeel towards the doors. Harut and Twi’el followed, while Asbeel remained several paces behind them.
Twi’el could sense the group was starting to fracture.
He could only hope they would hold together long enough to locate the primordial.