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After Life

This time, he thinks before he opens his eyes, this time he’s made it to Duat.

For a moment too, he almost believes it. There is the scent of the goddess’ perfume melting slowly over her head. There is the desert grit that coats his face before it is carefully wiped away. And the priest’s incantations are almost right. If he wills it, he can pretend that it is a novice going through his ceremony for the dead. The music gives it away.

It is wrong entirely, and in the centuries since he was first awakened, it has always been wrong. “The music is lost,” one of his former masters had told him, “because your people had not yet invented a means of writing it down.”

He opens his eyes to a cruel facsimile of a temple to Osiris. An attendant with the mask of Anubis stands watch beside his coffin as others cut away his wrappings and clean him for presentation. His new master, for he has never seen this face nor clothing before, has foregone the pretence of dressing as Osiris and in a little way he is grateful for that. In the early days, before they had learned that they need not use his god to control him, it was the only way they thought would work.

Beside his new master is another man, this one wearing similar clothing but the ibis mask of Thoth. He carries no scroll, another change, but a strange tablet of some material that does not look quite like stone. This era’s Ma’at is tall and dark-haired, her eyes the colour of lapis lazuli, and she meets his gaze directly, her lips and nails as red as blood.

They did not bother with Ammit. Her form is a statue sitting silently beside a scale. His heart lurches when he notices, and then again when he feels the pull of his missing burial amulets. The rage that surges shortly after is an old friend.

“Is it awake?” his new master asks.

“Yes,” says the woman as Ma’at. She looks away from him to a device in her hand, similar to the one this Thoth carries, and says, “And right on time. Our honoured guests are here, and they brought the amulets as you requested.”

He almost sighs when he hears this. So, he is to be an assassin again. The times when he is not awakened to kill are so rare, he holds the memory of each as dearly as the impressions of the life he had before he became this thing. His heart is so heavy with his sins now, he knows that only Ammit is waiting for him in Duat.

His new master is speaking again. He says, “Do you think he can understand me? I don’t want to try saying all that gibberish again. I’m in enough trouble with the Big Man Upstairs as it is.”

“His last few keepers were English, one of them was curator of the museum he was housed in and it’s his work we’re using, so I would say, yes,” says Ma’at.

“Excellent,” says his new master, grinning. He walks over to the coffin, looks in and says, “I’m just going to say it, I need you to kill some people for me.”

The attendants continue their work undressing and cleaning him. Thoth looks at his tablet, Ma’at looks at hers, and Anubis stands silently, apparently uninterested in what is happening in front of him.

“Well, I suppose you’re going to kill them anyway, pull of the curse and all that. But I don’t want you to think of this as some kind of master-slave relationship. Things are different now. We’re in the twenty-first century, more than ten thousand years after you ‘died’. I want this to be a partnership. We’re going to do amazing work together and as long as you do what you’re supposed to, I’m not going to put you back in your box here in some musty old basement storage, okay? How does that sound?”

He looks at his new master, a tall, slim white man with long dark blonde hair pulled into a topknot, a full beard, a fitted coat and pants of a silvery material, a white undershirt and white shoes that are not leather, softer than what his last master wore. The man’s hands are covered in rings and bracelets, there are at least two necklaces around his neck but the most important is the pharaoh’s uraeus on the second pendant. He cannot harm his master or himself or try to leave his service as long as he wears it. He thinks again of Ammit waiting for him in Duat and says, “I am at your service.”

The people he must kill tonight, to retrieve his amulets and return to his master for safekeeping, are, for once, not kings and their families. It almost offends him that he has been awakened to go after these soft, frightened men who cry for help that will not come and pray to gods that cannot hear them. Then the memory of strangling a young boy once burns through him as he surprises one of the men in a bathroom and he tries not to think of anything until the last man lies dead at his feet.

When he returns to his master and presents the amulets, Ma’at takes them from him and his master says, “I need a name for you. I heard someone scratched yours out from your coffin a long time ago so that means you were a bad man everyone wanted to forget. What was it? What did you do?”

Everything before his first awakening is a blur. He has the sense of a woman’s perfume, of the feel of ink on his fingertips, the sounds of children’s laughter and a woman’s smile, of dust and blood and duty. There is a song in his head for which he cannot quite remember the tune. He says, “I don’t remember, but you can call me Set.”

His master smiles at this, and replies, “Sticking to the theme, I like it. You can call me, well, O. I read a lot about your magic before I woke you up and a lot works on knowing true names. It would be pretty foolish of me to give you that, even if we’re in this together.”

His master turns away to leave with Ma’at and Thoth, but the words are out of Set’s mouth before he can stop himself, a habit left over from his last master who encouraged his questions. “Who were those men I killed? They were not warriors and they are not kings.”

His master stops to stare at him, eyes wide, then exchanges a glance with Ma’at. Set waits patiently for his response, resigned to punishment. Instead, Ma’at shrugs and his master turns back to him and replies, “Rivals for the throne. You know about court intrigue, right? Well same idea, different type of kingdom. You just helped us become the head of the largest, most powerful corporation in the world. I look forward to our future endeavours.”

Curse magic sustains him, in the form of his new master’s life force and the uraeus. (He does not think his new master has suspected this yet and he decides, as he has before, not to share this with him.) With no need to sleep or eat, he finds other ways to occupy his time until his master dispatches him to recover his amulets and kill their keepers.

The Internet is the most magical thing he has ever seen.

In the millennia since his death and reawakening, Set has been silent witness and sometimes active participant in the transformation of human society. He had remained in Egypt, as his home is now called, until the French invasion. He was there when their kings became pharaohs, when the Nubians were replaced by the Greeks and Romans and finally the Arabs. He stood quietly at the backs of sultans and helped catalogue history with scribes. The Library of Alexandria is still his favourite home.

When the French came, and later the British, he helped his Arab masters fight them for a time, until spies betrayed their secret and he was almost destroyed. It was a British nobleman who took him home and kept him as a curiosity. He was re-taught history he had lived from the perspective of men who could only speculate. He was interrogated for information he did not have about an Afterlife he had never seen but had been promised many lifetimes earlier. They soon grew bored of that, and a new master claimed him from the museum that had been his second favourite home, like the Library remade full of treasures taken from places he could barely fathom, and set him back to his dirty work. They had practiced on night women first in the filthiest city he had ever seen, but the brutality of his last work cost him the use of his new knives.

In his previous life, he is sure that he had never imagined the world to be so big. He had known of the Asians and the Mediterranean and other Africans, but there were places in the north where water fell from the sky so cold it would not melt but piled up until it threatened to crush everything it touched. The trees that were not stubbornly green, looked burnt, the air was too hard to breathe, and he slowed considerably. They learned his limits and kept him to warmer latitudes.

He has learned new weapons and techniques of fighting, new tongues and styles of dress. He has helped his masters win wars and topple kingdoms. He has helped them retrieve lost things, be it people or treasure. But they always return to the killing. It is the one thing his undying state is good for.

In all this time, he has never seen nor imagined anything like the Internet and he had walked the streets of London after the telegraph had come into use. Thoth teaches him how to use a computer one afternoon, “in the event we need you to clear stuff. We have people for that, of course, but if you’re onsite and can access things faster, this is better.”

He learns about movies, which are apparently plays that they have recorded and can replay later whenever they want. He watches his way through most of the “Top 100 Films of All Time” before letting recommendations guide him. The mummy horror movies are a guilty pleasure. He learns about the many different music styles of the new era and assembles his own playlist. He has long given up on hearing the music of his people again, but the new music of Egypt is an excellent replacement. He even finds the time to take up an interest in sport, spending hours watching the dressage and horse-racing and polo. What his king might have given to see a fraction of this! What his people might have done if they had this power!

Briefly he contemplates and then discards the idea of escape. Even if he managed to get away, Egypt is changed, and he has lived long enough to know that no nation should have an immortal ruler. Especially one so easily compromised as he with his amulets.

When it happens, it is in an instant.

O believes that he is the first master that Set has ever had to encourage his cursed assassin to learn of the world around him. He is careful to keep mentions of his name to a minimum within Set’s hearing, but he otherwise gives his pet free reign. O considers himself benevolent, and eventually, that he and Set have a rapport that makes them friends. He starts spending time with Set in his basement rooms, telling stories of his day and his employees and the spread of his “business empire” through the world. O is inspired by conquerors and compares himself to kings, for, “We’re the new Caesars carving out empires on a global scale. Hell, if we keep this going, I might even get the monopoly on space.”

Set speaks again before he can think better of it. “Your children would anyway.”

O, sprawled across a rolling chair at Set’s desk, while Set idly curls a weight, stops tapping his pen against his thigh and asks, “What did you say?”

For a moment, Set thinks he has finally done it. O’s benevolent treatment was always temporary, after all, for in the end all masters are the same. And like all masters he will eventually die and so will Set’s servitude until the next awakening. But his master has asked a question, so he replies, “I have studied your space programmes. Even they admit that they are several years behind on expanding into space. Even if you started on it yourself, you would not live to see it happen.”

O stares at him for almost a full minute after this speech, then stands up quickly. Set puts down his weight but makes no other move, determined not to show fear. O does not come to him but turns and leaves. The door closes behind him with an ominous click and Set remains in his seat for the rest of the night.

O does not reappear for several days. Set spends that time the usual way, watching movies and listening to music and preparing himself for his next mission. He cannot imagine what his master might be planning, so he does not try. He has only just stumbled across fanfiction, and he is quite interested in seeing how others have handled the “Horror World” movies his mummy films belong to.

He is deep in a coffee shop AU when O bursts into his room, marches over to his desk and slaps a photograph down onto it. Set does not start, but he looks up at his master as O commands, “You will retrieve this woman and bring her here, unharmed. If there is paperwork she requires, you will bring it along as well.”

When O removes his hand, Set sees a woman with medium-brown skin, waist-length dreadlocked hair decorated with tiny gold pieces, and a curvy build. The photographer caught her hurrying between buildings on an Oxbridge campus, a bag on one shoulder, coat hanging open, and a stack of notebooks and binders in one hand, a cup of some hot beverage in the other. She is young, but not very, and possibly unmarried if the bare fingers of her left hand are any indication. She is also quite beautiful. As far as Set knows, O is not married himself. He looks up at his master and says, “Do you want me to steal her for you to become your bride? This is not a custom my people practiced.”

“No-no,” says O, waving away his comment. “I need her work. She is researching a theory about magic in your ancient society. Since you insist that you cannot recall certain things, and we only have what we need to keep you going, we’re going to need her help. This is the next phase of our partnership, Set. After this, we shall be unstoppable.”

Set agrees as he must and prepares for immediate departure. Night has fallen by the time they arrive in England, Ma’at leading the mission to Dr Monica Janelle Webb’s Oxford apartment. Set rifles through the woman’s office while he waits for her to return from a department get-together.

Dr Webb is neat. Her apartment is spotless and carefully organised, but not impersonal. There are photographs of family and friends on the wall. Her favourite colour is yellow, for there is a touch of it everywhere. She has a map on her living room wall where she has pinned a postcard from all the places she has visited. O does not care for subtlety in her kidnapping but Set hopes he is able to take her away with minimal damage.

When Dr Webb finally stumbles into her apartment, it is nearly two in the morning. Set waits until she has shut and locked the door, removed her coat and shoes, and then he bursts out of the darkness.

She gasps, jerking back into the door and collapses in front of it, eyes wide in horror at the sudden appearance of a strange, large-built man in her home. Her eyes grow even wider as she takes in the green-tinged pallor of his skin and the golden gleam of his eyes and the ancient spells tattooed into his exposed flesh. When he looms over her, she whispers, “Oh my God . . . ”

“Dr Webb,” he says, and she jerks into the door again, narrowly missing hitting the doorknob with her head.

“You must come with me,” he says and extends a hand to help her to her feet.

She does not take it so he steps forward, grasps her by the arm and pulls her up. That is when she finally starts screaming. He twists her arm and her scream cuts off. She gasps at the pain and whines, “You’re hurting me!”

“I need you to come with me,” he repeats. “Where is your work on magic in Kemet? You need to bring all relevant documents.”

“That’s what this is about?” she asks, incredulous, as he drags her to her office. “Is this-is this some kind of Illuminati thing? I-I-I . . . listen, if you want my research, half of these books belong to the university and a lot of this information is available on the Internet. You don’t—”

“I know,” says Set, cutting her off. “But we need you and your work together.”

He releases Dr Webb to collect her work but instead she stops and stares at him. “You know?” she asks, disbelief clear in her tone.

“I know of the Internet. I know of many more things than you think possible, Dr Webb. I have witnessed the same stories play out across time for thousands of years and I am tired of it. Humanity may change on grand scales, but in the minutiae, they are the same. The rich will always scheme to become richer and oppress the poor. Kings and emperors gave way to presidents then reformed as CEOs of multinational corporations. Charisma and confidence will carry you far in life, even into the depths of hell. And there is nothing for me in Duat but Ammit, if I ever die. But you, your life is short and fragile, worse now that a powerful man has taken an interest in you. Come with me quietly and I might find a way to save your life, fight me and your end will be painful and swift.”

Her mouth is open, and her eyes are wet with tears. He watches as his words sink in, and then she closes her mouth, gives him a grim nod and turns to start packing up her paperwork. He retrieves her cellphone from her bag and crushes it in front of her. When her briefcase is closed and bulging, she stacks a pile of books seven-deep beside it and says, “I should return these books, but I was still using them. It will be a while before they notice they’re missing.”

“I shall return them when you’re finished,” he says, stepping forward to take her arm again.

She is wearing a black lace sheath dress and black stockings, her hair wild and loose after their struggle. She is still beautiful. She takes up her bag and books and he calls for Ma’at and the others to take them away.

By the time they have returned to his master’s estate, Set is not entirely surprised to learn the reason for Dr Webb’s abduction.

They are standing in the temple that Set had awakened in, Dr Webb beside Set, and O facing them with Ma’at and Thoth. Anubis is silent at the door.

“You’re going to make me immortal,” says O.

“You’re mad,” says Dr Webb. There are fresh tears in her eyes, but she has stopped shaking.

“Probably,” says O, nodding. “But you’re still going to do it. You have met Set, you know what he is.”

“Impossible, is what he is, and what you’re asking.”

Anubis takes a step away from the door and Dr Webb backs into Set. O lifts his hand, staying his guard, and replies, “Let’s not make this more difficult than it needs to be. You know that Set is possible because he exists. You have been researching magic practice in Ancient Egypt, with specific reference to the curses that have been the inspiration of so many movies. You’ve probably dismissed half of what you’ve read as pseudoscientific nonsense based on ignorance and superstition. I’ve read your work, Dr Webb. I think you have it, and I want you to use it on me.”

Dr Webb stares at him, then at the others with him and says to Ma’at, “The process of mummification would kill him. And you will kill me when he dies. I cannot do this. I don’t even know how this man is alive.”

“Not alive,” says Set. “I died and was given a new life. They cursed me and cut out my name. I cannot enter the Duat and if I do, Ammit shall devour my ka.”

They all stare at him and Dr Webb says, “See? It’s . . . even if I managed to succeed, then you’ll be just like him. You won’t die, but this will be your life.”

O is shaking his head, and when she finishes, he says, “All of that is taken care of. You will not be doing an embalming either, just the ceremony. And it will work, and when it’s over, I’ll have Set return you to your home.”

Dr Webb does not look convinced, but Anubis is still at the door and Ma’at is as a stone, unmoved. Dr Webb takes a final glance at Set and says, “Okay.”

As with his life, Set has no recollection of his mummification. O gives Dr Webb one day to review her work and the information on Set that he provides, and then they return to the temple. Set checks the news reports and as yet, no one has noticed the doctor’s absence.

Ma’at and Thoth are once again observers with Anubis, recording the process on their tablets. Set now knows that the devices are computers. Dr Webb ignores them as she lays out the implements for a ceremony she clearly does not expect to work. Her hands only shake a little.

The attendants are back, employees of O who know of Set and sometimes accompany him on missions, and as Dr Webb begins reciting the incantations, they wash and wrap O’s body. He is unconscious, having consumed a draught of some liquid that will place him in a deathlike-sleep. The spells on O’s skin have been carefully copied from Set’s. The amulets he wears are originals, assembled from ones stolen and traded back and forth millennia ago. For safety, his uraeus and Set’s are kept by Ma’at.

Set feels a ripple of familiarity flow through his own body and wonders if he was truly dead when they mummified him.

When the attendants complete their wrapping, Dr Webb carefully unfurls a papyrus scroll copy of the Book of the Dead, and starts singing. It is a hymn to Isis to carry out the same duty she did for her husband, after she gathered his scattered body parts. The tune is wrong, but then the words bubble up and flow out of Set as the Nile in flood. Dr Webb snaps her gaze to him, but Set does not stop and eventually she adjusts. Set cannot recall ever singing this song, but suddenly he knows the melody as sure as he knows his own name. He is Seti-nekht, warrior general, husband of Nubemhet, and loyal servant of Pharaoh Hatshepsut. His king was not a warrior, but the world they lived in was dangerous, and when Seti-nekht refused to join the uprising in support of his successor, he was given the same punishment as his late ruler. He has had many rulers since.

The song ends, and the room falls silent. Set notices the others’ gaze but something about it feels different. He looks down at himself and sees no change, but he knows something has. His ka is light.

Dr Webb is looking at him too, brow furrowed slightly. But before she can speak, there is a sound from the table before her and they watch as O sits up and starts struggling with his bindings. The attendants hurry over to help him and when his face is clear, he is grinning.

He turns to her and says, “Dr Webb, I think it worked. Congratulations, your theory is correct!”

Thoth walks over to check his vitals, and Set takes his chance. He launches himself at Ma’at and slams her head into the statue of Ammit, palming the uraeus necklace as she dies. Dr Webb scrambles away from her altar, even as the attendants scatter. Anubis starts towards Set, but he is ready for him, breaking apart the scale to throw the bowl at him, and while he is distracted, stab him with one of the poles.

“Oh my God!” Dr Webb screams, dropping to the floor and backing into the wall. She has no fighting skills, so it is best she stays out of the way.

The others recover from their shock, Thoth racing for the door. Set grabs hold of one of the attendants, breaks the man’s neck with a careless twist, then takes his gun and shoots Thoth just as he opens the door. Set’s aim has always been true. As Thoth collapses, Set uses the attendant’s body as a shield from the barrage of gunfire from the others even as he fires back at them. When the clip is empty, he takes another from one of the fallen and continues shooting.

O has not moved through all of this, possibly believing himself immune to harm. Set is content to let him believe that for now.

And then, in a matter of moments, the room is silent. The air smells of blood and gunpowder and death. Dr Webb is whimpering quietly in her corner. Set ignores her and starts for O. In a fluid motion that would not have been possible hours earlier, O jumps off the table and stops before him. Set stares at him, O stares back and says, “I thought we were friends. I did this for us. Did you want to be alone?”

“You did this for yourself. You do not wish to die, and you thought you found the way to do it,” says Set.

O stretches, flexes the newly defined muscles of his arms and asks, “Is this how you feel all the time?”

“I must stop you,” says Set.

O meets his gaze for a beat and launches at him.

Set does shift away, but says, “You must stop, Owen.”

Owen freezes at once, coming to an abrupt halt as if slamming into a wall, and then rears back, eyes wide. Set offers him a smile and says, “Go back to the table and lie down, Owen Andrew Scott.”

Owen does so at once, eyes still wide, though it quickly gives way to confusion. Set follows him as he goes, and when he lies down, arranges Owen’s hands across his chest. Then he says, “You made a mistake when you went after Dr Webb. You emailed her asking questions about her work. Your name is known internationally and while you did well to block all references from me, you could not do the same for her. She told me your name while we travelled back here. It is for the best. I am sorry that it has come to this.”

And with that, Set picks up a roll of linen, and starts rewrapping Owen. He is singing again while he does, a hymn to Ammit who consumes those unworthy of heaven.

About the Author

Shari Paul is a speculative fiction writer from Trinidad and Tobago, the land of oil, music and Carnival. Shari has a BA in Literatures in English, but works as a clerk. She has been published in FIYAH, The Dark, Clarkesworld, and Escape Pod, with reprints in Podcastle and Il Buio. You may find her on Twitter ranting about dramas, music or anything really, when she’s not writing.