Netherworld's Gate Sample
Within the temple’s innermost sanctuary, an elderly Sumerian priest hovered over a silver basin. Its crystalline water slowly clouded to reveal a portent. As his heavily kohl-darkened eyes gazed into its depths, his arthritic hands trembled, his spotted, bald head creased with wide-eyed concern, and finally outright horror. Dark tendrils of evil reached out from the earth, spreading unchecked throughout the land. With a pallor the color of goat’s milk, the priest gestured to his assistant. Tersely he said, “Immediately, call a priestly council. We have grave matters to discuss.”
The following day, all thirty-seven members of the priesthood answered the old one’s dire command. As their number formed, a low rumble of conversation resonated within the blue-glazed walls of the temple’s outer sanctuary. In the sputtering lamplight, the raised-relief tiles depicting fearsome dragon-lions seemed to breathe fire and flick their tails with impatience. They too appeared to understand the gravity of the moment.
“Thank you, my brothers, for answering my call. I have received a portent of great consequence. We have a crisis to forestall. In seven years’ time, the earth will be torn asunder and the dark hordes of the Netherworld will be released upon our land. We must prevent this.”
“How?” asked a colleague some twenty years his junior.
“We must journey forth with an astronomer, a scribe, architect, and foremen. Along the way, we must find the labor to construct an impervious barrier to seal over this coming rent in the earth.”
“Where will this ‘rent’ appear?” asked another.
“Far to the west, beyond a great river, in a rocky desert. We will follow the caravan routes north and then west, and from there, the stars will guide us. They will show us the way. Without question, this journey will be long and arduous.”
“Where will we find the required building material?” queried a third, an architect by trade.
“Our city’s guardian, the blessed Goddess Nammu, creator of the world, will guide us as she always has,” the old man stated with absolute conviction and a tight fist. “I suspect that we will find many eager allies among the Egyptians, who will help us complete this mission.”
“Egyptians!” another retorted with a rude snort. “Those bigoted and haughty non-believers! I will not help their kind or kin in any way.” At the end of that tirade, the priest stormed off and left the others to stand and stare at each other.
Sensing the fast arrival of a crisis point, the old priest remarked, “It is true that our neighbors to the far west are arrogant. But we must see beyond this. The rent in the earth will take place in their land. Some among you might be tempted to say, ‘let that be their burden’. But once the dark demons of the Netherworld are unleashed upon mortal kind, it would only be a brief matter of time before we too would be engulfed by their wretched hordes.”
Now looking around, pausing to confront the face of each who remained, the old priest continued.
“I seek men to join me on this journey west. I seek not children who I must attend to,” he said with a nod in the direction of the departed one.
After much discussion, it was agreed that an expedition of twenty would undertake the journey. The old seer, Giskhim by name, would lead it.
* * *
Overland trade in the ancient Near East coursed along routes long-established since prehistoric times. Giskhim’s band began its journey by joining a caravan of donkeys and carts, which traveled north from the city state of Ur, along the western bank of the Euphrates River. After several days, they turned west and continued on across a vast wasteland to the Levantine coastline. While the route was indeed “long and arduous,” dotted with solitary wells of odd-tasting water, they crossed without incident.
Upon reaching the Mediterranean, all gasped in wonder and awe for none could imagine such a vast, blue, watery expanse. Its cool and refreshing breezes buoyed their spirits greatly. Their journey south along the coastline took the Sumerian band past well-provisioned towns with great stone fortifications instead of mud brick, past harbor wharfs bustling with trade and filled with sailing ships from distant lands. This they noted by counting no less than six different styles of mast riggings. At every turn, a new marvel seemed to appear before them, so many they began to lose count.
Reaching the eastern frontier of the Egyptian delta, Giskhim’s entourage passed from waterless desert to verdant cultivation as far as the eye could see. Many remarked upon this vision. Turning to their astronomer, a man named Tirigan, the old priest asked, “What is your reckoning of how far we have journeyed?”
Checking his tally on a clay ledger, the astronomer replied, “Seventy days have passed since we left our beloved Ur, Venerable One. A donkey’s pace can be variable. So, to answer your question, Venerable One, a great distance,” was the man’s final answer, to which the old priest merely grunted.
A handful of days later, Giskhim and his fellow travelers reached Memphis, the capital, after passing by countless farm plots and lush groves of date palm trees ripe for picking. Here the expedition took in the city’s great white fortification walls and its seemingly endless wharfs along a great but contrary river, which to the Sumerians, flowed in the wrong direction.
“How can this be?” One asked. “The rivers of our homeland flow opposite. I am confused.”
Giskhim just smiled broadly. “Horgal, have you not already seen during our journey many wondrous things? This is yet another, my brother. Let us learn together as we did in scribal school.”
That evening while sighting off the stars, their astronomer told the old priest that his goal was near—only one or two days away. For old Giskhim, already long weary of their trek, it had all seemed but a dream.
Their journey south now progressed by boat along the wide, but contrary river, and took them past many breathtaking marvels. Flocks of colorful water birds took to the skies at their approach, shading them with their passage. Flowers that floated on the water and covered the river’s banks perfumed their noses. Beyond the bushy banks, they saw irrigated fields ripe with wheat and barley.
“This land seems all too perfect,” another remarked. “Where are the armies stationed? These villages that we pass are without defenses. The entire land is one vast unmolested farmer’s field.”
“Do I detect jealously in your words, Senada?” the old priest observed.
In response, his colleague just shook his head.
But within the rushes that lined the river’s banks lurked dangerous creatures, dark and treacherous-looking, with long mouths filled with teeth. These they liked to display proudly in the sun while tiny birds picked at morsels. Far more fearsome, the Sumerians noted that their boatman gave wide birth to a basking group of large and wallowing creatures, which floated with only the tops of their heads exposed. Occasionally, they would rise up, yawn their jaws wide, brandish their long curved teeth, and bellow. Never had the Sumerians seen or heard the like before.
Their river journey ended at a vast limestone plateau that overlooked the river’s course. Its western landings were busy with activity. Here the boatman proudly told the foreigners of the construction of the Pharaoh Djoser’s mortuary buildings, which had begun under the watchful gaze of the king’s master architect, Imhotep. This narration the scribe, Surgal, translated for the rest as best he could.
Leaving the river boat, Giskhim and his followers espied a vast artificial plain had been cleared atop the limestone plateau, upon which shallow water channels crisscrossed. As jugs of water filled the interconnected system, measurements were taken, and so by such a clever device did the workmen level the funerary structure’s foundations.
The Sumerians, mesmerized by the scale of the undertaking, stood dumbly about in wonder.
“They all work as if of one mind,” one remarked.
“None work under the lash,” said another.
Interrupting this gawking gaggle of foreigners, the master architect Imhotep briskly strode over to confront them. In spite of his lofty station, the man wore a sweat-stained cloth head covering, a once white kilt marred with streaks of red surveying ochre, and common papyrus sandals.
“Who are you and from where do you come?” he demanded with his hands on hips.
Giskhim, impressed by the man’s demeanor, motioned to Surgal, who moved to Giskhim’s side to act as his interpreter.
The old seer’s words now reached the Egyptian’s ears.
“Most honorable overseer, I am Giskhim of Ur.” The priest bowed and gestured broadly, “We have traveled far and long to your land on an earnest mission. We have just paused here to marvel at your architectural skill.”
The meaning of these words Imhotep had to piece together as Surgal’s skills as an interpreter were not as good as the scribe thought. Taking in the old priest, Imhotep responded, “Most venerable Giskhim of Ur, I have heard of this faraway place. I can only imagine your journey.” Now glancing up into the cloudless sky, “May I offer you and your company some refreshment and shade?”
“We would be so honored.”
Imhotep’s bandy legs quickly led the Sumerians to a viewing stage over which an awning was stretched. After the architect barked out several commands, numerous pillows appeared, as did many jugs of fresh, cool beer.
One of Giskhim’s retinue whispered to another, “So much for the rumors of Egyptian rudeness and inhospitality.”
Once everyone had been seated and refreshed, Giskhim addressed Imhotep. “Honorable One, your hospitality is most appreciated.”
“Venerable One, you are most welcome, but my curiosity has been piqued. You mentioned you and your friends are on ‘an earnest mission’. What is it?”
Giskhim looked down to his arthritic hands clutched in an attitude of prayer while he constructed his answer. Most generous and wise Nammu, please guide my words.
“Honorable Imhotep, several months ago I received a portent, which foretold an awful event. A tear will violently be made in the earth, which will open the Netherworld and allow the release of demons of pure evil. We, my fellow priests and I, wish to find this nearby place. Then when we locate it, we wish to build upon that spot an everlasting structure that will forever block evil from invading our world.”
Imhotep sat impassively as he listened to the old priest’s words. This seer, who had traveled so far and endured so much, all to address a dire prophecy. This awful thing the priest described, Imhotep knew Egypt’s own high priests had predicted and worried over. But they lacked the horrific specifics that this Sumerian shared.
So, as was his way, the master architect asked bluntly, “Where is this place?”
Giskhim summoned to their circle of conversation the company’s astronomer, Tirigan, who had been respectfully listening several feet away.
“My colleague, the Honorable Imhotep wishes to know the place which we seek.”
Pointing in a westerly direction, the star-gazer said, “Over that rise, perhaps a day’s walk from this place.”
laughter. This entire region suffers from it! As a result, my draftsmen and workmen struggle mightily each day to keep their figures accurate and survey lines straight.”
After the trembling stopped, the Sumerian quickly gathered himself, stood, and trod toward the san
Imhotep grunted from atop his donkey, turned this way and that, and said, “Venerable One, you will need a rubble causeway to move building material upon. Next, you must send masons far upriver to find the ‘everlasting’ material you require. Once quarried, that material must be sent upriver by boat, hauled to this site, placed, and dressed. But beforehand, you must prepare a foundation. How do you propose doing all that?”
Giskhim walked over to the architect, looked up into his eyes, and addressed him and him alone, again with the aid of Surgal’s ready tongue.dy depression before him. Stopping, the seer then declared to all, “The rent will be here, beneath my feet.”
Extending his arms out, “Our structure must course along this line for at least forty paces, with a proportional width pleasing to the gods. It must be built of an everlasting stone—not of mud brick.”
Imhotep, impressed by the old priest’s certitude, asked, “When will this calamity occur?”
Calculating against Tirigan’s notations, the seer said, “Six years, seven months, and fourteen days from now.”
“With your kind assistance, Honorable Imhotep.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Because it is in your land’s best interest. Your land will be the first to suffer the demonic host. Its measure of anguish will be the greatest. More importantly, Honorable Imhotep, I have observed you, and you are more than just a man. If you look deeply into my heart, as I have already done with yours, you will better appreciate the absolute necessity of the task before us.”
Imhotep, master architect and magician, did just that and was greeted by the smiling mental image of a much younger version of the Sumerian, who stood alone, proud and straight, within a glowing fog.
Is that you Giskhim?
Indeed, most Honorable Imhotep, it is I as I feel—a much younger man.
How can I justify my assistance in this task? I work at the bidding of my god king, and he is of a certain, steadfast will.
That is simple, Honorable One. Explain to your god king this task as a purely architectural exercise, yet something necessary. In the process, you and your workmen will learn much about the workings of the everlasting stone. Besides, it is well-known that there is much yellow gold secreted among the mountains to the south in a land called Kush. Their traders visit my city quite often.
Imhotep smiled broadly. Giskhim, you are more shopkeeper than priest.
Thank you, Honorable One. The Sumerian thought with a generous bow. My father taught me well in the way of things.
Indeed, he did, smirked the Egyptian. Indeed he did.
* * *
From that day forward, Imhotep conscripted a special cadre of Egyptian surveyors and workmen to build a packed causeway from the river channel to the Western Desert. Giskhim’s architect joined them in this undertaking. The same day, a team of stone masons departed downriver for the red granite quarry of everlasting stone located at the river’s first cataract. Here also, Giskhim’s colleagues accompanied them along with a small expeditionary force, tasked to investigate the rumor of the mountains filled with yellow gold. Then, together, the Egyptian master architect and the Sumerian high priest surveyed the footprint of their future construction. They discussed many forms, but in the end, the pair decided upon one that was enduring—a low rectangle, slope-sided, with a flat roof that diminished the erosion of wind and sand.
* * *
After the passage of three years, Imhotep and Giskhim, now close friends, stood before the completed monument built of everlasting stone—red granite. The Sumerian, now long fluent in the tongue of the Egyptians, conversed directly with Imhotep.
“I and my foremen have learned much from this exercise,” the Egyptian admitted.
“How so, my friend?” the Sumerian queried.
“This is my first construction made entirely of such an ‘everlasting’ material. It has opened my mind to many possibilities for my god king’s inner tomb.”
Nodding with appreciation, “Indeed, while it is beautiful, it is a hard stone. But our work here, Imhotep, is not finished.”
“How so?” Imhotep said with upraised eyebrows. reasonably asked.
“I must commune with the Netherworld’s guardian and tell it the meaning of our purpose. I must establish with it an understanding. Meanwhile you, my friend, must add a regeneration spell that will preserve these stones for all eternity. Or, as your people are wont to say, ‘for millions of years.’”
Grunting with appreciation for Giskhim’s grasp of his language’s nuances, Imhotep smirked. Is there no end to your preparations, Venerable Giskhim?
Yes, there is. But the security of our lands is our first concern.
* * *
Four days before the dire portent was due to take place, the venerable high priest died in his sleep, forever ignorant of whether or not his efforts were in vain. The members of his retinue discovered him in still repose, slack-jawed, and unmoving. Panicked, they called for a physician. Upon arriving, the poor man could do nothing
“Honorable Imhotep, we have constructed together, with great effort and skill, a mortal structure. Now, we must add its magical defenses.”
“What do you have in mind?” the master architect as the priest’s body had already become cold. The Sumerians were inconsolable, because in their religion death represented not a glorious new beginning for a life well-lived, but rather a trial of anguish as the soul passed through several phases en route to a hard-earned enlightenment.
Imhotep, also much disturbed by the man’s passing, was overheard speaking over the corpse. In truth, the architect prayed for his soul. “Venerable One, who taught me the true measure of one’s life, you have gone West without witnessing the final test of your many labors. Your wisdom and conversation will truly be missed, old friend. Good journey! Let nothing forestall your course to paradise. Let nothing harm your ka.”
Having bid his farewell, the master architect then did a pious thing, something a son would do for his father. He ordered the man’s body be prepared for the afterlife in the Egyptian way. This his retinue allowed, as they believed it might somehow aid the journey of the old man’s soul.
The next day, three days before the prophecy was to unfold, Imhotep personally surveyed and found a suitable place of burial for the venerable Sumerian. In a cleft overlooking the finished and glistening red monument, Imhotep instructed his master foreman, Sa-neb, to construct a modest place hidden from prying eyes. This the foreman undertook several days after the portent’s passing. Finally, Imhotep personally composed Giskhim’s burial inscription, and instructed his master scribe to oversee its excellence in execution.
After the passage of seventy days, when Giskhim’s mummy was completed, Imhotep personally saw to his final internment. It was a private ceremony attended by the old man’s followers and Imhotep only.
* * *
On the day foretold, the dark master of the Netherworld, the Devourer of Souls, could not contain its ebullience, for it sensed the imminent approach of the seismic disaster. For the first time in its primordial existence, the demon experienced hope that it and its minions might be freed. As for the puny mortal structure, the evil primordial cared not, believing it would fail before them like a crushed eggshell. And with its fall, the Devourer and its kind would be free to invade the Mortal Realm and make it their own—dashing to bits the Creator’s carefully laid out plan. Not forgotten, the demon intended to deal with its primordial nemesis, the Guardian of the Netherworld, which ensured the permanence of the Netherworld’s boundaries. It too would free the Devourer’s wrath.
The seismic event that Giskhim had so accurately foretold was triggered by no terrestrial force. Rather it would be the passage of a dark, supremely dense mass that passed dangerously close to the earth. Fortunately, it careened off the upper atmosphere before continuing on with its celestial wanderings, but not without notice. Just as the moon caused the many tides on a daily basis, this sojourner from deep space did the same, but for one time only. As one might imagine, its near-earth passage affected far more than just the tides. For the asteroid’s gravitational pull tore at the upper atmosphere causing spectacular effects, rippled the landscape of the planet, and caused destructive tides. In places, rivers left their courses. By some miracle, the planet’s magnetic poles remained in place.
Within Egypt, the rippling of the landscape wreaked havoc upon the Great White Wall of Memphis, the proud fortifications of the capital. These Imhotep would immediately address at the bidding of his king.
Meanwhile at the Sakkaran Plateau, the first two levels of the king’s funerary structure shifted, cracked, and in several places failed. Limestone blocks tumbled in a sudden avalanche. This caused the master architect Imhotep to reconsider his plans for his god king’s final resting place. The result would be a grand revision and expansion from two to five levels, which would overlook the river valley. As a consequence, Imhotep designed Egypt’s first pyramid and King Djoser would be remembered for all time, as would his master architect.
Just west of Sakkara, in a lonely and secluded vale, rocks fell and cracks split along its northern and southern cliffs. Yet, the monument constructed by mere mortals over the Netherworld remained stubbornly steadfast. The structure’s massive and everlasting stones budged not one finger’s breath as they sealed over the newly-formed rent in the earth. Imhotep’s powerful regenerative magic had ensured their soundness.
Meanwhile, far below, their false hopes dashed, the Devourer of Souls and its minions screamed as one in absolute fury and frustration. Meanwhile, the Guardian of the Netherworld just smiled with supreme pleasure.
* * *
The everlasting labors of the ancients would remain unmolested in that desolate and long-forgotten place of shifting sands and weathered rock walls. The twenty Sumerians who participated in its construction grimly knew they would never again see their families nor homeland. This they had discussed beforehand. Those Egyptians who had assisted them were made to understand the need for discretion. These workmen were presented with a choice—either a quick death, or take a terrible oath—after which their tongues were removed. By such extreme artifice the structure lay undisturbed for millennia.