Author's note: On May 16th 2010, Ronnie James Dio passed away at the age of 67. On May 17th 1976, Rainbow released their second album titled Rising, with Ronnie being their frontman.And on May 18th 2018, this story was brought to you, in the honour of both Ronnie and Rainbow. It has been in work since November 26th 2017, and was finished on May 16th 2018
ahsut barely let out a sigh as a whip descended on his back once again. He had grown used to the slashes that drew the life from his body and painted the sand with scarlet stripes. The pain was an old friend of his, a constant reminder that he was still alive.
What he hadn’t grown used to was the heat. Even after nine years, it was still the same. The desert sun scorched him and two hundred more doomed souls from above, and the burning sand was all too happy to help by fiercely roasting their bare feet.
Nay, saying that it was always the same was untrue: in truth, it grew worse with time. Nahsut would be happy to give up his eternal soul for a fistful of water, or at least a breath of cool wind to chill his parched body. But it would do him no good. Only the night, when the Sun God slept in the waters of the West, would bring him some refreshment, and a temporal relief from his torment, from the backbreaking labor that was forced on him.
And what a foolish and pointless labor it was. Truly, Nahsut could not see the the purpose of what he did. And yet he did it, day after day, placing more and more stones on the tower that was to go all the way to the skies.
Nahsut still remembered the day he was torn away from his home years ago all too well: a small army of armed men attacked his village. The ones that fought back were killed without remorse. Nahsut himself was foolish enough to surrender, hoping that they would spare his life. His life was indeed spared, but chains were clasped around his arms and legs and he was taken to a distant land across the great sea of sand along with a score of more men from his village. As they left their land behind, the massive pyres that were once their homes cast long shadows of him and his kinsmen, throughout the eerie silence of the night.
Days later, they reached a great chain of mountains, with a small but exotic palace built at its base. Several more groups of chained men guarded by armed soldiers stood waiting. When the chiefs of these men saw the one that led Nahsut’s group, a giant, bald man named Senuhet, who was evidently their supreme leader, they greeted him with barbaric screams.
Soon enough, Nahsut and his group were put under watch by a half dozen large, unfriendly men. Nahsut then saw Senuhet walk out before the palace. He then cried out in a language that Nahsut couldn’t understand. Curtains parted behind a balcony, and a man walked out.
He was old, his grey beard and hair reaching to his chests, but his extravagant red robe and royal stance made him appear somewhat younger. He bore many rings on his bony fingers, and a purple turban adorned by a dazzling jewel sat on top of his head. Senuhet yelled something to the old man, and the old man disappeared behind curtains.
Moments later, the gate to the palace opened, and two young men with shaved heads, dressed in nothing but loincloths walked out, carrying a simple, but evidently heavy wooden chest reinforced with iron. They placed it at Senuhet’s feet, and retreated backwards, their heads ever bowed. Senuhet kneeled and opened a chest. Nahsut leaned over to catch a glimpse of what was inside: it was gold, more gold than Nahsut had ever seen in his life.
Senuhet growled to two of his men, who picked up the chest and carried it off. Before leaving himself, Senuhet spoke something to Nahsut’s group, earning him salves of laughter from the guards, who also left with him. Soon enough, Nahsut could behold them riding away to the North on camels. He never saw them again.
Soon enough, the gates of the palace opened again, and this time, several young men armed with simple spears came out. Their heads were shaved as well, they too wore nothing but loincloths, and they all looked as miserable as whipped dogs. It did not take long for Nahsut to realize that they were slaves. They took Nahsut and the remaining men to a nearby groove of palms. There the old man waited for them. When they all arrived, he regarded them all with contempt and started:
“Scum, you stand in the presence of great Ankh-af-na-khonsu, the most exalted sorcerer of Kemet.”
He paused for breath and continued.
“I am a majestic man, of whom this pitiful pile of sand is surely unworthy. I belong with the gods, and to gods I shall ascend. But to do that, I require a tower of stone, one that will go all the way to the skies. From the top of that tower, I shall take flight, and claim my rightful place next to father Heka.
"I have ripped you from obscurity and given your worthless lives a purpose. You shall build me this tower, even at the cost of your lives. But night comes, and you need rest. Tomorrow, the construction begins. Rejoice, scum! You shall take part in the construction of the greatest wonder this world has ever seen!"
Nahsut and the rest were taken away. All of their hair save for eyebrows was shaved of by some slavegirls, and at the end of it all stood another slave with a searing iron rod that bore the brand of the wizard: an ankh with crude wings etched on the side. Many screams rose in the air that night as the iron burned flesh, reducing men to slaves. Nahsut’s own brand was on his left shoulder, a lifelong reminder of who he belonged to.
All of the new slaves were then led to a field of makeshift tents where they would sleep. They were rallied near fire, where one of the household slaves dealed out weak soup from a giant cauldron. Nahsut took his bowl with gratitude. It reeked to high heavens, but Nahsut forced himself to drink it down. He was weak from the entire day of walking, and knew that he had no other choice. After all, he would need all the strength he could get: he had a lot to do tomorrow.
While the rest of the workers slept, he and some of the stronger men huddled around the dying embers.
"I say," started Pisem, a giant with ebony skin, "that the one that calls himself a wizard is nothing more than a fraud. A powerless old man with but a handful of unwilling protectors. What is there to stop us from taking his life and our freedom the very next sunrise?"
"It may be as you speak," answered Amenei. "But what if it is not? Would a man of his ambition truly ward himself with but a few wretches? What if he commands unclean forces that could grind our very bones to meal? Would it not simply be more prudent to flee under the cloak of darkness, and let that son of a dog rot in his own madness?"
"Rust! Bitch!" growled Chemmis, whose scarred face shone grisly under the pale moonlight. "You would abandon those that slaved under his fist since before us? Verily I say: you are no better than him."
"Calm yourself, brother," spoke Nahsut. "Save your anger for the one who deserves it. And you, Amenei," he countinued, turning to face the one he spoke to. "Have you so much fear of one feeble charlatan that you would leave behind those that share our plight?"
Nahsut's words struck their mark: Amenei lowered his head in shame.
"And even if we were to run now, we would not live to see the next sundown," said the old Rashidi. "There are no oases within miles from here, save for one that feeds the wizard's home. We must supply ourselves with water and whatever food we can take from the palace, if we expect to live to see our homes again. And if in doing so we free those poor souls and punish the one that took our freedom, all the better."
His words were met with murmur of approval.
"So," said Nahsut, "it has been decided?"
"It has," spoke Malik, the fiercest of them all in both body and spirit. "When Raa sets sail, we shall take what is ours."
And with that, they retired for the night. Nahsut fell to sleep feeling strangely powerful.
Tomorrow morning, Nahsut was woken by the first rays of the rising sun beating on his eyelids. He got up on his knees, every nerve in his body feeling empowered. Suddenly, he noticed a shadow next to his own. Nahsut turned to face the owner of the shade, no doubt one of his fellow conspirators here to scold him for oversleeping.
And he screamed.
His scream roused the nearby workers who snapped from their dreams, and screamed as well, causing a wave of sound to awaken all of the workers in the field, who also screamed. And they had the reason to.
What stood next to Nahsut was one of hundreds of nearly identical figures scattered randomly among the workers. They were all huge in stature, wrapped completely in wispy dark cloth, leaving only their glowing yellow eyes visible. Dark smoke seemed to emanate from every part of their being, and they all carried long whips. No sound came from them, but their silence only made them more horrid to watch.
Faint memories came to Nahsut's mind. Memories of time when he was but a boy who hasn't yet seen his tenth summer. When his mother used to tell him stories of the land far away to the Nor'east.
He knew what those specters were: daeva. Demons of the underworld, that existed for the sole purpose of tormenting the damned for all eternity.
Trying his best to retreat away from this unnatural being, Nahsut heard a faint chuckle. He turned to his left and saw the wizard. He stood only about a stone reach from him, leaning on a staff, seemingly amused by the mass terror that his minions caused.
His plan was foiled. The wizard somehow knew, which is obviously why he conjured these impure spirits to guard them. Feeling rage boil inside him, Nahsut let out a cry and charged at the wizard, bound to break the old man’s neck. A whip whistled through the air and slashed him across his back. Nahsut yelled in pain, falling to sand mid step and sliding several cubits away, closer to the wizard.
Through the scarlet limbo of pain, he got on his elbows and faced his tormentor. The figure was still in the exact same spot, but it now held its whip slightly higher. The purpose of this gesture was as clear as glass: never do that again.
As Nahsut tried to pick himself up from the dirt, he was struck in the face: a savage blow with a blunt object, that knocked him on his back and drew blood. Nahsut moaned in pain and grasped his slashed lip. The wizard now stood above him. His face bore no expression.
He raised his staff and struck Nahsut beneath his ribs. And again. And again. Nahsut curled in pain, trying to no avail to stop the flurry of hits that rained upon him like the burning ice. The wizard seemed hellbent on punishing his disobedient slave.
The blows finally subsided, and Nahsut felt a bony hand grasp his neck. Next thing he knew, his face was only inches away from the wizard’s, whose eyes regarded him with rage and insanity.
“Never again raise your hand on me, filth,” hissed Ankh. “I am your master now and forevermore, and you shall do as I say to you, or I shall send your miserable soul to the halls of Anubis. Do you understand?”
Nahsut did not answer; the madness in the old man’s grey eyes frightened him more than it should.
“DO YOU UNDERSTAND!?” screamed Ankh, sprinkling Nahsut’s face with droplets of saliva. He dropped Nahsut to the ground and resumed hitting him with his staff.
“Yes! Yes!” screamed Nahsut.
The wizard stopped his assault and leaned on his staff again.
“I… swear on father Osiris never to raise my hand on my master,” grunted Nahsut, strugling for breath.
The wizard seemed pleased with this. He pointed his staff to the far end of the field. Nahsut stood up, and, followed by the strict eyes of daeva, limped there along with the remaining slaves.They started digging up the sand. A monotone process that consumed time with the pace of a crushed insect. Sun burned ever stronger as Raa climbed to the zenith of the sky. Nahsut felt strange gratitude that he was not among those sent to cut stone block from the quarry in the mountains. But over that gratitude, he felt weakness and worthlessness: in just a moment, his bronze resolve was broken, his desire for freedom extinguished like an oil lamp in the strong wind. He could not go home. He could not disobey the wizard. He could only build. The only ember of hope he had left was that the myriad of his fellow slaves, a number that exceeded seventeen hundred souls, would be enough to finish the construction soon.
How mistaken he was.
Within just seven moons, three hundred workers went to the West, from dehydration, starvation, accidents, or the relentless whips of daeva. The wizard was of no help, refusing to treat even the lightly injured ones, and leaving them in the desert for the jackals to pull them apart and about.
Moons turned to years. Had Nahsut not lost a track of time long ago, he would have known that is had been five summers since he took upon hammer and chisel. He was now among the half of the surviving workers, carrying great blocks of stone, chiseling them to size, and putting them in their place.
One day, an incident occurred. While Nahsut was carving yet another limestone block into shape, a loud crash broke through the monotone buzzing of the building site, and in a blink of an eye, all heads were turned to the source of the sound. It was a young, raven-eyed man named Menhotep, one of the slaves in charge of carrying the chiseled blocks to the tower. Not far from him, a half dozen of clay pots containing gypsum laid in shards, their contents spilled all over, shattered by a stone that Menhotep discarded. He now stood tall and immobile as a pillar, gawking defiantly in the direction of the wizard’s palace.
All sound in the construction site ceased. The daeva were still, seemingly unsure on how to punish the transgressor.
Only moments later, Ankh limped into the construction site. Almost immediately, he noticed the rebellious worker, and the challenging glare that now stood to meet his own.
“What manner of evil spirit possessed you to do such a thing, filth?” asked Ankh in a seemingly calm voice. “You do know that you will now be punished, do you not?”
The young man didn’t even flinch at the wizard’s threat, despite knowing that the old man meant what he said.
“I will work for you no longer, old fool,” whispered Menhotep. “I’ve wasted the best years of my life, toiling, in the heat and rain. Your mad desire destroyed my body, and it almost destroyed my spirit. But no more. Do you hear me!? No more, you bastard!”
The collective intake of breath. Nahsut stared at his fellow slave, horrified. Truly, what on earth would possess him to defy their master?
Ankh still stood in his place. He shook in anger, all pretense of calmness now abandoned.
“Impudent scarab!” he screamed. “I will-”
“Keep your threats to yourself, old man!” bellowed Menhotep. “No amount of whips and chains can hold me here any more! I… am free!”
As every person, living and nonliving, stared wide-eyed, Menhotep turned his back to the wizard, and started to walk towards the setting sun.
He didn’t get far. After only a few steps, no less than seven long whips slashed his back at the same time, driving him to the ground. In a moment, a score of daeva was upon him, whipping him savagely, without mercy. The sand around them was now stripped red, but not a sound came from the lips of the dying man.
It was all over quickly. Daevas moved away from a body that was once full of life. It was now a barely recognisable, vaguely human shape, covered from head to heel in long, scarlet wounds. With a nod from the wizard, two daeva lifted the body and carried it away, over the dune. All present knew that the local pack of jackals would eat well tonight.
Many days passed since then. Days that grew longer, as the precious nights shrinked. Summer was at the doors. Nahsut knew that at least thirty workers would go to the West before the Moon made but a single trip across the sky. He was correct: by the summer’s end, one hundred of his fellow workers were dead. He, unfortunately was not among them. He, it seemed, was doomed to walk across the burning sands for many more a day.
During one such day, Nahsut dropped to the ground, unable to carry on, yearning for at least a moment of rest. In anticipation of the daeva’s whip, that would come at him even if he stood up on his feet that very moment, he clenched his fists in the sand.And felt something in his right hand.
He raised his fist to his eyes, blowing away the sand with his weak breath, to reveal a small black stone.
It was an arrow tip made from the black glass, left there gods know when in a wake of some battle.
Before Nahsut had the chance to inspect it more closely, a whip plowed the flesh of his back. And again. And again. Three lashes: the standard punishment daeva dealt out to those that slacked off on work. The rebellious worker would then have a few moments to get up, or risk another three lashes. Not eager to be whipped any more, Nahsut got on his feet and rushed to his group to receive a new shipment of stone from the quarry. And during his run, he took the arrowhead, and stored it in a makeshift pocket in his loincloth.
Many moons had passed since then. Day upon day of endless monotony: carrying stones from yonder to here, back and forth, ever caressed seductively by a hot wind moving fast across the endless sea of sand. And every night, Nahsut sacrificed a few precious minutes of dream to observe the arrowhead. It shone even more beautiful in the pale moonlight, its many faucets gleaming like countless eyes. Nahsut often found himself contemplating on the little stone: who was the man that fired it? How did it come here? Was it his destiny to find it? But the answers did not come to him. The gods, it would seem, were not that kind.
Still, Nahsut slept somewhat easier with a little rock wrapped in a piece of cloth. For whatever reason, it gave him a strange glint of hope. A small and pale one, but it was there.
Yet still, the world spun on and on. Four more years passed, and Nahsut became but a shadow of his former self, appearing more dead than alive. He was now among of the one hundred and fifty surviving workers. But the construction was nearing its end, and one day, when a long whistle from the top of the tower signed that a final block was in its place, Nahsut fell to his knees, as a tear rolled from his eye. The cheering slowly spread through the camp: their seemingly impossible labour had been completed. The tower that reached all the way to the sky stood before them, crowned with the clouds.
The cheering abruptly died away, and Nahsut was sure that it was because the wizard was now in their midst. Unmistakably, he was among them, dressed in the same robes as the day Nahsut first saw him, followed by the unevenly scattered daeva. He stood before the tower, briefly admiring its titanic height, before facing the workers, and clapping his hands.
“Scum!” he declared, “Your work is now finished! Your purpose has been fulfilled! I shall now go to heaven, to my new brethren!
“You lot, however, shall remain here, to praise your divine master from dawn to dusk, as it befits the new god! You still belong to me, and so it shall remain until the last dawn!”
His speech finished, Ankh stepped into a little lift inside the tower, and signaled to the small group of slaves, who started to turn the wheels of the mechanism, lifting the wizard to the top of the tower.
Nahsut could now only helplessly scowl. Nine years worth of breaking his backs stood before him, in a form of stone titan. But it seemed that his servitude was only just beginning.
And just as Raa climbed to the top of the sky, the wizard reached the top of the tower. He was now barely visible, so high he was above them. All eyes were now on him, as he discarded his staff, and carefully limped to the edge of the tower. He spread his arms, and the long sleeves of his voluminous robe now appeared as the bird’s wings.
Then he stepped onto the air.
Time stood still for a few moments. Nahsut could barely comprehend what happened, as the stream of blood flowed through the sand at the base of tower.
He slowly turned to his fellow workers. They were all as dumbstruck as him, some even frightened. Never they thought to see the day this would happen.
That they would see their master fall instead of rising.
He turned to look at the wizard’s face: no fear, joy, or madness were to be seen on it. Only confusion. As if this was just one of his miscalculations.
As he turned to his fellow workers again, clouds gathered, darkening the sky. Rain began to pour.
Slowly, Nahsut became aware that the daeva were doing nothing. They seemed to grow ever dim in the cold rain that cascaded from the sky.
As if guided by a will other than his own, Nahsut’s hand burrowed into his loincloth, and pulled out the arrowhead that he still kept with him. He looked at it for a moment, before lifting it to his shoulder. His eyes sought the brand that was scalded into his skin, what now seemed a lifetime ago.
Without hesitation, he cut deep into it. And again. And again. Until there was nothing left of the brand but a bloody mess. He then raised his hands above his head, and, as a smile bloomed on his face for the first time since he was enslaved, howled loudly to the sky.
He was now free.
Like a flood, the realization spread among his fellow workers. Screams of joy, yells, and laughter filled the air, as the survivors came to the same conclusion.
Nahsut turned to a man nearby, whose wide smile mirrored his own. He offered him the arrowhead, and the man took it, understanding what Nahsut meant. He soon passed it on to another man, while blood dripped from cuts on his thigh.
All day did the people spend in the wizard’s palace, feasting, drinking, resting, and tending to their injuries, including those they inflicted on themselves to symbolize their newly found freedom. And all day, the rain fell heavily, sating the thirst of parched land, in a promise of new tomorrow.
And all that time, Nahsut sat outside in the rain, beneath a great palm tree. He did not care much for celebrating, but he had some thinking to do.
What would he do now?
For almost a decade, he knew only the life of the servitude most lowly. He never expected that the wizard would grant him freedom. He saw death as the only way out of his misery.
He remembered Menhotep, who found his freedom at the cost of his life. And he realized. He spent so many years reaching for somebody’s star. Now, he would reach for his own. He would do… whatever he wanted to.
Smiling, Nahsut fell asleep.
He was woken up by the sound of many feet threading on sand. The sun was setting, and the rain had stopped. Nahsut stood up, feeling strangely light and refreshed. He turned towards the wizard’s palace, from which the slaves were now pouring out, spreading out in small groups. Nahsut noticed few women among the bunch, which meant that the household slaves were freed as well.
None of them seemed to notice him, but Nahsut didn’t mind. He turned towards the setting sun, and noticed a strange glow around it.Almost like a rainbow.
Nahsut smiled. The rainbow filled him with hope. Something he thought he lost a long time ago.
As he took a step, he felt something beneath his foot. He stepped aside, and looked: it was his arrowhead. The last worker that had it probably discarded it after he found no more use of it. Its previously black surface was now stained with red, but it still gleamed beautifully.
Nahsut decided to leave it to the desert. Maybe, he thought, someone would find hope in it, just like he did.
For him, it was time to go home. He wondered if his family was waiting for him. How much had his son grown up? If his wife remained faithful? Was his brother able to walk again after the accident? Was his old mother still alive?
He took off into the desert, as the last rays of the setting sun cast his shadow behind him.
Written by Helel ben Shahaar