Midnight had fallen and silence reigned in the grand temple, the lavishly decorated stone corridors were empty and devoid of all signs of life. The absence of activity only served to amplify every sound in the empty corridors, making every step rebound in the stillness. Ankhenset bit her lip, halting her movements when she heard murmuring nearby. She wasn't meant to be in the temple at this hour and priestess or not, it would be difficult to talk herself out of trouble, should she be caught.
Peaking round the corner of the doorway, the petite teenager was greeted by the sight of two guards, stood just outside the temple. As she pulled back, she caught sight of movement and as she was certain it was not just her long black locks, carefully poked her head back around the opening. A cobra was behind one of the guards, reared up and ready to strike at the slightest agitation. Now came the dilemma, did she continue on and hope they either noticed the snake, or moved on with their rounds, or, did she warn them of the snake's presence and deal with what consequences that brought her?
Just as her decision was made to speak, the men walked away and the cobra relaxed its pose, slithering away in the opposite direction. Sighing softly, tension released from her shoulders and they dropped back down to their normal position. Feeling calmer, and a little safer now she knew where the watchmen were, she continued on her way. Clutching her bag of precious scrolls, she let the calmness of the night wash over her, soothing her worries and any remaining tension.
She found a sense of peace and serenity in the cold embrace of the dark hours. One could achieve a connection to the divinity of the temple that could not be found during the heat and bustle of the day. Of course, many feared the night and what could be hidden within the impenetrable black. For such people, every flicker of a shadow or the slightest of noises instilled a sense of fear, their imagination creating horrors that simply did not exist.
Finally reaching the entrance to her destination, her lips upturned naturally. There was solace in the inner sanctum, the presence of a force greater than humanity that was always there. The others in the temple feared that their divine protection left them at night to ensure the sun rose again but she knew better. Even if he was protecting the Golden Sun Boat, he never left them entirely, one need only come to this most sacred of places to know that, his presence was undeniable.
Stepping inside, she shut the door softly behind her. Lighting more lamps to allow her to see clearly, she then knelt in front of the dais and set more incense to burn. Making offerings to the god in his own sanctum was simply a necessity and given she was invading his space to study, it was certainly only the polite thing to do.
Once her oblations and prayers were completed, she took one lasting look at the golden statue of Seth. It was yet another thing she wasn't allowed to do but the rules that people made didn't matter to her, it was about what he thought. The pure feeling of love, support and affection that swelled within her every time she looked upon him made it clear enough to her that he did not disapprove of her presence. Placing a hand over her heart, she smiled again. This was home, here, with him. Like an invisible embrace, she was wrapped in his protection and it was a comfort without words.
Shaking her head at her distracted thoughts, she settled down and removed the scrolls and her writing tablet. Khanudjhuti had spent much time when she was younger teaching her to read and write hieroglyphics and still the librarian watched over her as a parent would. Though giving her access to the scrolls and turning a blind eye to her coming to the sanctuary and even lying for her, would perhaps not be considered quite so much parental.
She had been so very anxious when she arrived at the temple and had fled when a ruckus had started between some soldiers. They found her hours later, curled up asleep in this very sanctuary, below Seth's statue. She had not gotten into trouble for it that time, as she had been too young to know better, though the High Priest had been quite firm with his insistence that she was not to enter the sanctum again. Khanudjhuti had told her the story years later, adding that they had never figured out how she had found her way in there. Some of those working there, himself included, believed it was the will of Seth and that was, of course, his justification for aiding her so.
Smiling at the memory, a gentle warmth spread from her heart outwards. She turned her attention back to the scrolls, knowing her time with them was limited and that she needed to study them thoroughly and take what notes she wanted. Khanudjhuti would be in a lot of trouble if it was discovered he was giving her access to them and would likely be removed from the temple, which was not something she wished to be responsible for.
Hours drifted by unnoticed as she poured over the materials in front of her, eventually the passage of time became impossible to ignore as the effects of lethargy set in. Stifling a yawn, Ankhenset stood up and stretched her arms above her head, shaking her limbs before settling again. Her mind wandered incessantly, reminding her she should be in bed. Her eyes stung and she closed the heavy-feeling lids briefly before stubbornly refocusing on the scroll in front of her.
Running her fingers along the not-quite-smooth surface of the papyrus, she found her place and continued reading, using her fingers to keep track of her progress. She pushed through the fatigue, knowing she had to return the scrolls to Khanudjhuti that coming dawn. Repeating the mantra that "the sooner she finished, the sooner she could retire" to keep her going.
Eventually, she had made note of various spells and incantations, things she could practice another time, when the scrolls were back safely where they belonged. Returning everything to her bag, she double-checked that nothing was out of place. Anything moved or left in the room that shouldn't be there would cause problems, so no matter how tired she was, she needed to be thorough.
Glancing again at the statue, her mind wandered back to her initial arrival at the temple. She could understand the belief that her arrival was ordained and that Seth had chosen her, given what happened. Some of it she remembered, other parts, she knew only from what others had told her. What no one knew was how she had come to be at the temple in the first place, or where she had come from.
She was only around the age of five when she wandered into the temple grounds. She remembered being tired and thirsty but she could recall nothing of her parents or home, or how she had come to be there. Unfortunately, there had been a group of 'undesirables' in the area at the time and they had been quick to notice her arrival. What came next was blurry but she had been told that the group had approached her and were not gentle. The priests had noticed the laughing and cajoling but it wasn't until they heard her scream that they realised something was wrong.
Before anyone could act, lightning suddenly struck the ground nearby, startling the men. Those present swore that the sky had been clear and the weather calm only moments before. Swiftly after this, a sandstorm appeared, causing the ruffians to flee. Through it all, she felt calm and despite the wind driven grains being so close by, she remained completely untouched. That was her main memory of that day, the sensation of protection and that she did not need to be afraid because she was watched over.
Soon after, calm returned and the priests hurried over to her, bringing her within the temple. Khanudjhuti had told her of the murmurings of her being chosen by Seth, especially at the sight of her birthmark. The inch-long mark on her inner left wrist did admittedly resemble the Was sceptre, the symbol of power that was very much associated with him, that was undeniable. Between that and the incident, her arrival had made a big impression on those who witnessed it.
When the High Priest of the temple had questioned her on who she was and where she had come from, they realised quickly that she recalled nothing of her past. Apparently, she hadn't even remembered her own name, so the decision was made to take her in. In need of something to call her and considering what had occurred, they named her Ankhenset, 'life of Seth'.
Smiling wistfully, Ankhenset yawned again and after bowing her head to the idol, turned to leave. As soon as her hand reached the door, she was hit by a surge of power that made her hair rise from the sheer electrical charge. The presence was one she knew well, though far stronger than she could ever recall feeling it before. Her heart told her she was in the presence of her god but her mind told her the idea was ludicrous, one of the divine would surely never appear in person, let alone to her.
Toying with the idea that her exhaustion was playing tricks on her mind, she pushed forward to leave when she felt fingers run through her silken hair and she could ignore it no longer. Even so, she paused before turning, not sure what to expect. When she finally looked back, she fell to her knees, bowing lowly before the temple's god. Reeling, her thoughts left her mind and in the blankness, all she could do was follow the protocol that had been drilled into her since her arrival.
The form the god had taken was etched in her mind, despite the brief glance she had had before prostrating herself. It was the appearance of the golden statue upon the altar, that of a man, strong and lithe, clothed in a gold-dressed linen kilt and a blue shirt. Golden sandals adorned his feet, while bracelets, armlets and a collar necklace decorated his bronze skin. The only thing that visually set him apart from any royal or noble was his head and neck, the form of the god was unmistakable. The 'Seth animal' was nothing that existed in the world, it was an image unique to him alone.
A hand was placed on each of her shoulders and a gentle pressure encouraged her to rise, she offered no resistance, though kept her eyes lowered. Her mind still swam, unable to conceive that her beloved divinity could possibly be before her. Part of her knew it was all real but the unfathomability of it made her more inclined to believe that she had fallen asleep and this was nothing more than a bizarre dream.
"Look at me, little one." The voice was audible and yet seemed to resonate inside her head, sounding human and yet not, there was something about it that seemed not quite of this world.
Doing as she was told, she met his gaze. Her breath caught in her throat as she looked into his depthless pools and the endless knowledge they held within them. While his inhuman features made reading his face impossible, his eyes spoke volumes. She was loved and accepted, there was no doubt of that but he was not there for that, something weighed heavily upon him and he had come to her about it.
"Yes, my Lord?" She asked softly, once finally she remembered to breathe.
"You are an intelligent girl, well versed in reading others and circumstance, you know why I am here."
"There is something I am to do for you."
"Not for me, for all. I know you need rest but we must discuss this now, there is not the time to waste."
"Yes, my Lord."
She shifted her position from sitting on her lower legs to crossed-legs, knowing that the conversation was not going to be brief. Seth settled in front of her, taking her hands in his own. They were rough and hardened, the hands of a warrior, yet they were warm and gentle at the same time. It showed him as the protector she knew him to be, even if too many others would never believe that to be true. Despite that, she waited on bated breath, knowing that the show of comfort and support heralded the coming of a task of high stakes and immense pressure. A knot was forming in her stomach as the dread built and her shoulder and back muscles tensed. Whatever this was about, she knew in her heart that she was not going to like it.
By the time the discussion ended it was nearing three in the morning and despite her need to rest, the fear coursing through her made her forget her weariness. Indeed, her instincts had proven true and the situation was rife with dreadful possibilities. The tightness in her throat felt almost like she was being strangled as the true weight of everything fell upon her. As the crushing pressure bore upon her, strong but gentle hands took hold of her and the next thing she knew she was held securely in the warm embrace of Seth. Finally she could breathe again, as all the negative thoughts and feelings simply drained away in the safety of his hold.
"Hush, little one. Do not be afraid, for I would not come to you were I not certain of your success and you shall not be tasked with this alone. Release yourself of the darkness threatening to consume you and use that agile mind of yours, you will know the answer. I will be watching over you also, always."
Ankhenset nodded, snuggling into her beloved god. She knew that despairing would do her no good but she could not help her fear, there was so very much at stake and she did not hold the same faith in herself that he apparently held in her. There was too much to think about, to make sense of and while her adrenaline was far too high for her body to recognise its need to rest, her mind was struggling to grasp all it had been told.
Seth repositioned her, gently running the back of his fingers down her cheek. "You should leave now, it will not be long before others come and you have the need to return those scrolls while opportunity allows. State you are unwell and get what rest you need and make your plans, by tomorrow night, you must be gone if you are to ensure you are there in time."
"Yes, my Lord."
As soon as the words left her mouth, her exhaustion returned and she yawned. When her eyes reopened Seth was gone and the ambience of the room returned to normal. Bowing once again to his visage, she picked up her bag and stood, exiting the shrine and walking briskly through the temple's halls. She knew at this hour the sentries would not be close enough for them to hear her echoing steps, it was more important for her to get back to the living quarters as soon as possible.
Slipping silently across the open courtyard, she kept her senses on alert for any patrols and entered Khanudjhuti's residence. Removing the scrolls from her bag, she placed them on the low table. As she stood, a hand was placed on her shoulder and she jumped before turning round, her heart thundering in her chest.
Khanudjhuti smiled apologetically at her, though it was with a reprimanding tone that he spoke to her. "You look exhausted Ankhenset, have you really only just returned? If you don't rest you'll make yourself ill and anyone could have seen you leave in this light. You need to be more careful."
Smiling softly, she knew his tone was only from concern. "Something occurred, though I cannot explain to you what. Could you tell them I am unwell and have my duties covered? Rest aside, there are things I must do today."
"Are you okay An'?"
"Yes, I simply have much on my mind. I am sorry to ask and for whatever might come. Will you do this for me? Will you trust me?"
"I know you well enough to know this is serious. As long as you promise me you'll take care of yourself, yes, of course I'll trust and support you, as always."
"Thank you. I should go to bed, thank you Khanudjhuti. If I have not made it clear enough, I do so very much appreciate all you do for me."
With that, she swiftly left him, not wanting to wait for what words might come. Her mind was in no state for such a conversation and she knew she must not repeat what Seth had told her. As much as she trusted him, it would be unfair to place such a burden on him. Either way, he would worry of the consequences and knowing he was powerless to change anything would only serve to hurt him.
Returning to her own room, she bolted the door behind her. Resisting the urge to simply slide down the door and feel sorry for herself, she crawled into bed after slipping out of her sandals, all of the normal rituals ignored. She knew Seth would be more interested in her resting than anything else, so what did it matter?
As the thoughts twirled around her mind, she wished for them to disperse and leave her in peace. She so desperately needed sleep but that was unlikely to come while her mind was so active. Leaving the temple could lose her all she valued, it could cost her life and perhaps that of others and there was nothing to say she would not fail regardless and simply make things worse. Ignoring Seth however, could lose her and everyone else far more. She would disappoint him at the very least and perhaps lose her connection to him entirely and if everything was really so dire and she was born to stop it, ignoring the call could… In the end, for all that was said, it came down to two options. Did she give into her fears, or did she do as she was bade? Either way, she risked everything.