Army of the Pharoes

They stood mute at the edge of the desert, scarecrows gently swaying in the wind, as if they already were no longer there. There was a starry sky, a sea of ​​red sand and a horde of soldiers, thousands of men gathered from the delta and the cities and villages, sent out of the empire and away from the sea and the river to where no one had ever been before and from where something had emerged. Far beyond the last western and southern outposts and forts, descended into a godless land where nothing grew except the desert and nothing lived except the dead and what was beyond. While the sun had first risen ever higher until it white stared straight down and burned their shoulders and heads, then cooled and turned yellower and redder and sunk before them, they had wandered through barren valleys that cut across the flat landscape like scars on a pale skin. Jackals had pursued them on their march, prowling like specters in the shades of distorted trees and shrubs along a dried out tributary. The dogs had whimpered and backed away and left the men as they passed through a rift between two mountains where solitary fires burned far up on the slopes casting vast shadows in the dusk, and starving howls echoed between boulders. When they came out of the pass the cold came over them. They continued until steppe gradually passed and was swallowed by a beginning, endless desert. There they haulted, for someone yelled at them to do so, while the ground was yet firm under their sandals and before the sand became too difficult to walk in. Armed with wooden spears with copper heads, clubs with stone knobs, bronze axes and wide wooden shields dressed in dried animal skins. Behind the first horde of thousands of half-naked and indiscernible men in a sea of ​​spearheads, row after row of shiny and towering nubians with bows and arrows with flint and copper arrowheads had been formed. Commanders, dressed in golden helmets adorned with falcon feathers, sat on horses that stingingly stomped around, twisted their heads and snorted furiously.

They had stared blindly at the sun that had followed them from the river and the delta as it now hastily sunk into the endless and alien waste of rolling dunes and waves of stones so small that they soared with the breeze like pollen and dust. The wind stroked vauge and cold, all the more wary, longing to hide, just like the sun. The clear blue sky had changed with the landscape. Above them a black vault where stars had already appeared to witness and grow in numbers, further down a deep blue that stretched out over the desert and below it a fiery heaven, a sharp blood red that marked the horizon and glowed in the sand and melted on their faces and in their eyes. There was an eternity in every last shallow breath, animals wheezing, a distant howl of a lone jackal, otherwise silent and still. Steam rose from the mouths of the men.

They peered into the dark and now they saw it, first as a distant mirage just before the last blaze took flight and died somewhere deep in the desert. A final pillar of light shot straight into the sky, thinning and fading as they begged Ra to return and Nut to linger and Annubis to weigh their hearts well. The last shard of sun vanished in the blink of an eye, leaving them alone. They saw them now. Black shapes against the grave blue everything. Not as soldiers or individual animals, but more like a crawling mass of limbs, a dragging black river of creatures spewed back into the world after being swallowed whole and chewed on in the realm of death. The silence was broken by shrill shrieks that cut through the already chilly dusk and echoed through time. The horses started to throw their heads back and forth, some turned and ran while others collapsed with one last long bellow and pounded their heads against the ground until their eyes stared wide open and their thick tongues fell out of their mouths, like lifeless, fat worms.

They drew closer, floated and swarmed across the dunes, crawling and jumping on all four, like beings born of man and spider, of scorpion and snake. They soon covered the entire field of view and continued to roll over the horizon. The ground shook. “Form ranks!” screamed the commanders, fighting to keep their horses in control. The screams continued to intensify until they teared open the sky, leaving their ears bleeding and ringing. Those calls came from no animal, nor anything living. This had crawled out of the womb of the great night and now it swarmed over the last dunes and rushed towards them under the black, everlasting empyrean and now came the stench. Iron and sulfur, mud and mold in the middle of the desert, swollen corpses in water-filled graves. Suddenly the screams ceased, and it was worse, as if the creatures suddenly caught their scent. The men only heard a ringing in their ears and beyond that a faint rustling, like a huge stack of termites or a swarm of grasshoppers. The archers released and their arrows whistled away over the army and dissolved in the dark, as if they had fired at an ocean.

At the last moment, the creatures entered the flickering light from the torches made of oily rags and sticks that the soldiers had lit. Pale eyes that gleamed in the dark, distorted limbs twisting in every direction, insect-like bodies that constantly changed shape, swarming and melting together as if the chewing continued, as if they had been a single, awesome beast with thousands of wide open gobs big enough to swallow babies whole. Like a wave, they rose and fell against the arrows and spears and shields and the Pharaoh’s army that Nut were meant to watch over and protect, but the soldiers now understood that no gods had followed them here and no gods lived here and the stars no longer appeared on their vault for they had also retreated to a final hiding place, just like the sun and the wind.