The Place of Truth was in a state of near panic. Since the murder of Nefer the Silent, Master of the craftsmen's Brotherhood, all the inhabitants of the secret village -- men, women, children, even animals -- had come to dread the sunset. As soon as the sun sank behind the mountains to begin its nocturnal voyage to the heart of the underworld, all the villagers went to ground in their little white houses. Soon, a malevolent spirit would leave Nefer's tomb in search of prey.
One young girl had only just managed to escape from it, but no one dared trouble Ubekhet, the Wise Woman, who had withdrawn into mourning and despair since the death of her husband. She and Nefer had been initiated into the Brotherhood together; and they had become mother and father to the little community, which was centered around thirty craftsmen who had "heard the call," and their families.
"This can't go on any longer!" exploded Paneb the Ardent, a dark-eyed giant of a man. "We're skulking like rats and all the pleasure's gone out of life."
His wife, Uabet the Pure, was frozen to the spot by his anger. "Perhaps the ghost will eventually go away," she suggested timidly.
She turned to check on their children. All was well. Their two-year-old daughter, Iuwen, was peacefully asleep in bed, and Aapehti, their rebellious fifteen-year-old son, was drawing caricatures on a fragment of limestone in an attempt to forget his fear.
"No one but the Wise Woman can pacify her dead husband's soul," said Paneb, "and she no longer has the strength. They'll end up blaming me again -- just you see if they don't!"
Paneb, leader of the starboard crew on the Brotherhood's symbolic ship, was the adopted son of Nefer the Silent and Ubekhet, and he adored them both. Yet a man who was beneath contempt, a traitor and a murderer hiding in the very bosom of the community, had tried to have Paneb accused of his spiritual father's murder. Although acquitted by the Wise Woman herself, the big man still felt suspicious glances following him around.
"I must resolve this matter myself," he decided.
Uabet, who was as frail as her husband was strong, threw herself into his arms. "Don't take such a risk," she begged. "Nefer's ghost is especially dangerous."
"Why should I be afraid of it? A father doesn't strike down his own son."
"This is more than a ghost hungry for vengeance. It can enter people's bodies and stop their blood circulating. No one, not even you, can defeat it."
At forty-one, Paneb had never been stronger and he had never yet met a foe who could match him. "I refuse to behave like a prisoner in my own village. We must be able to move about freely, at night as well as in the daytime."
"You have two children, Paneb, and a fine house worthy of a crew leader. Don't start a battle that is lost before it's begun."
Paneb took his wife by the hand and led her into the second room of their home, which was spotlessly clean, for Uabet was always on the lookout for the smallest speck of dust.
"Look at this stele, which I carved myself and set into the wall. It shows Nefer's radiant spirit, his immortal soul, which sails in the sun's ship and bestows its gifts upon us. The Master brought this Brotherhood to life. He could never bring death to it."
"But what about the ghost?"
f0 "My father's secret name is Nefer-hotep, and 'hotep' means 'sunset, peace, plenty.' His ghost must be haunting us because one of the funerary rites wasn't performed correctly. We were all so overwhelmed by his murder that we must have made a serious mistake, and so Nefer's soul has appeared like this to demand the peace it yearns for."
"But what if the ghost's nothing but an evil spirit, greedy for blood?"
Paneb checked that he was wearing the two amulets vital for embarking on such a dangerous adventure: an eye of Horus and a scarab. The eye was a gift from Ched the Savior, the master artist who had revealed the secrets of drawing and painting to him. The precious talisman had been given life by the Wise Woman's celestial power; it enabled Paneb's eyes to see aspects of reality that eluded other men. The scarab had been hewn from the Stone of Light, the Place of Truth's greatest treasure, and it represented the righteous heart, the bodily organ that could perceive the invisible world and the eternal laws of harmony.
"Can you see my name?" he asked.
Uabet checked that the words PANEB THE ARDENT were correctly written in red ink on his right shoulder. "One last time," she pleaded, "I beg you not to do this."
"I intend to prove my innocence, and Nefer's, once and for all."
A strange wind was blowing. Although the houses were tightly shuttered, it had found its way into them, and its mournful voice seemed full of menace.
Aapehti was scared and tried to hide in a laundry basket, but he was the sturdiest young lad in the village, and all he could hide of his stocky body was his chest.
Paneb caught him by the hips and set him roughly back on his feet. "Aapehti, you're ridiculous! Follow your sister's example -- she's sound asleep."
Iuwen chose that precise moment to wake up and burst into tears. Her mother rocked her to calm her sobs.
"I'll be back soon," Paneb promised.
The night of the new moon was dark, the Place of Truth silent. Sheltered behind its high walls, the village seemed asleep. But as he walked down the main street, which ran from north to south, Paneb heard snatches of conversations, whispers and laments.
The little settlement stood beyond the high-point of the annual Nile floods and occupied an entire desert valley, the former bed of a river, bordered by hills that screened it from view.
The Place of Truth lived apart from the outside world, isolated from the Nile valley, between Ramses' Temple of a Million Years and the mound of Djamet, where the primordial gods rested. The village had its own temple, shrines, workshops, wells, grain stores, a school, and two burial grounds where the craftsmen and their loved ones were buried.
Suddenly, Paneb halted. He thought he had seen someone slip into one of the smaller alleyways.
Unafraid, he gazed at the houses of eternity in the western burial ground. Most of them were topped with small pyramids made from white limestone, and when Ra was visible in the sky they glinted with a dazzling light. Brightly colored stelae, little gardens planted with flowers and shrubs, and welcoming white-fronted shrines prevented the place from feeling funereal; here the Brotherhood's ancestors watched over their successors.
Usually, all was peaceful. But tonight, on the path that led to Nefer the Silent's tomb, Paneb detected a hostile presence.
What if it was only the traitor, playing the ghost to lure him into an ambush and kill him? He rejoiced at the thought; nothing would give him more pleasure than cracking open the liar's skull!
Nefer's last home was as vast as it was splendid. In front of the entrance to the shrine, which the living were allowed to enter, Ubekhet had planted a persea tree. It had grown extraordinarily quickly, as if in a hurry to spread its benevolent shade over the open-air courtyard where banquets would be held in the dead man's honor.
Paneb walked through the pillared gateway, which was fashioned like the gateway to a temple, and halted again, in the middle of the courtyard. The hostile presence was stronger and closer. But where would the ghost emerge from? It must be from the slit in the chapel wall, made so that Nefer's living statue could look out over the earthly world.
The big man approached with measured step, as if exploring the place for the first time, although he knew it better than anyone, since he had decorated the whole of his spiritual father's tomb himself.
If he had rushed in, as he usually did, Paneb would not have seen the red shadow leap out of the funerary well, which had been filled with stones. The specter tried to strangle him. He managed to free himself just in time and struck it in the face. But his fist met empty air.
Twisting and turning like a snake, the red shadow tried to find the best angle of attack. Paneb ran to the shrine, where a torch was smoldering. He kindled it into flame, then strode toward his enemy, saying contemptuously, "I bet you don't like the light!"
The red shadow's face was not Nefer's -- and it was distorted, as though in terrible pain.
As soon as the fire touched it, the ghost vanished back into the well.
"You won't hide from me in there!" roared Paneb.
He tore up two paving slabs, jammed the torch between them, and began to empty the well stone by stone. Whatever the danger, he was determined to reach the evil spirit's lair.
Copyright © 2001 by X0 Editions
English translation copyright © 2001 by Sue Dyson