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Black Sands by Violet Gryfindor
Chapter 9: In the House of the Goddess
The quote found in the middle of this chapter is from Shakespeare's "The Tempest", III.ii.137-141.
In the House of the Goddess
The hands grew closer, fingers outstretched, their shadow severing my head. At first I froze, helplessly staring at the scene playing out on the mirror's stark surface.
A small cry escaped from my strangled throat, and I tried to reel around, but recognition of his hands stopped me, the soft ends of his fingers pressing into the jacket, apologetic, reassuring. My heart was beating too fast, lungs drawing breath too harshly. I could not politely pull away from him to say a curt “good night” and shut the door. The ends of his fingers grew into his palms, holding my shoulders in a firm grasp. His lips drew close to my ear.
“I am sorry to have frightened you,” he whispered, brushing back strands of hair with deft, dare I say, eager, fingers.
In the mirror I could see his face, the widow’s peak of his hair catching the light, mingling pale flesh with the stain of bloodied hair. His eyes rose to meet mine in the mirror, and from their depths, I could see the answer for which I had waited.
“I leave the decision in your hands, Helen.”
From the men I had known, this would be an admission of weakness, something to be scorned and defiled. From this man, it was something else. A kind of concession. I was powerless, yet he placed all the power in my hands. I wanted to ask him about his wand, the handkerchief, but I was already lost, the feel of his breath at the back of my neck shoving reason into the deepest, darkest hole of my skull.
I gasped when he touched his lips to the nape of my neck, but then he began to pull away, hands loosening their hold, taking the jacket with them.
My legs lost their weakness. My heart stopped its course. My breath came only called for, between each taste of the brandy I stole from his mouth. The jacket fell from his hands and he closed the door behind us, my hands grasping at his chest, his coming to rest on my waist before moving to the small of my back, pulling me to him.
He hesitated only once.
“You are certain of your decision?”
I looked up, but not as far up as I had once expected. Had he given me height along with the power to chose my way?
“Are you?” I touched the line of his jaw before he took my hand in his, pressing the palm against his mouth.
Time began to move at a different pace. The sands in the hourglass dropped one by one, like articles of clothing, falling at an impossible lack of speed, each touch followed by another somewhere else, every ounce of being following hands, mouths, the caress of his toes against mine. The sun was high and the world stood still, or was it going backwards, around the other way, the moon shining its silvered light through the window? I could not tell.
The water was as glass, its surface a brilliant sapphire, its shade only matched by the sky. I saw it as he reached to extinguish the candle. His eyes were black pearls, his cheeks garnets, the world made of jewels and burnished metal, their light blinding in the darkness. It was Ra himself driving his chariot across the heavens. I could almost see him, a glowing shadow hanging above me, his head painted with scarlet and gold, the stars reflected in his eyes. I closed mine against the brilliance, mesmerised by his movement, his curious tenderness.
Again and again, our mouths met and my body arched to meet his. I felt myself change.
We lay, at last, together, without any sign from him that he desired to leave. His head was on my shoulder, my hand sorting through his hair, his breath warm on my breast, his hand splayed across my ribs, body curled against mine. Neither of us reached for a blanket. I felt him find sleep before I dared to close my eyes again, his heartbeat slowing, breath easing, muscles loosening. I did not think myself tired enough to sleep, every nerve still resounding at his touch.
And yet, even so, it did not take long to dream.
...and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
...when I waked, I cried to dream again.
Nothing seemed to move except the light. It endlessly shone and reflected back again, its power beyond knowledge, its speed beyond imagination. Nothing else moved in this land, this unreal world that felt more real than it should. I wondered how I could exist in this paradox.
I lifted a hand and it moved at the correct pace. I was not slowed, only time, just as it had been before...when...during. Nor was I defenseless, my wand was in the pocket of my–
Robes. Black as those from school or worn by those who worked at the Ministry, the equivalent of the London city suit for Muggles. Not that different, we were, when one really thought about it, the similarities ringing forth as sparks of light in the midnight sky, so long after night falls and so long before morning rises. I rejoiced within to wear these robes again; so long had they been hidden away in the bottom of my trunk, moth-eaten and turning to dust. But now... but now.... things were as they should have been, should always be.
I looked to my left and he was there, the one who would be known as Emile Cadogan, far into the future of the world, some three thousand years.
He looked it, too.
Dressed as an ancient, his linen garments blended with his pale skin except in that it was tinged with blue, untouched by the biting rays of the sun. His wrists were bound in gold inset with coral and turquoise, revealing his wealth, his power. He looked at me, but said no words, though I heard ideas in my head that could only have been his, the thoughts that only made sense for him. I could feel his touch from within, shy refinement disguising... what?
My chin lifted upwards at his bidding and I knew it had to be a dream. No place such as this could exist in my world, its frescoes vivid with all the colours of life, the columns towering into eternal sky, the stone impenetrable.
This was Philae, in the Temple of Isis as it had been in its glory, all the gods of Egypt envious of Isis’s shrine.
I turned this way and that, taking in each detail with starving eyes, my hands itching for any instrument of writing and parchment, for any way of recording this place, its lines and colours, its image, however adulterated by my feeble hand. Even a camera, clumsy as they were, could never capture what my eyes drew in.
At the end of the hall was her statue, impossibly tall and overwhelming in its perfection, solid marble carved to formed her features, black as death, but blinding in the light. She was life and death and all things, the woman who had collected the pieces of her husband cast across the land of Egypt to save the kingdom from his brother, Seth. The red-headed one.
It was odd that any Egyptian could have red hair.
He touched my arm and I halted. There was no time for distraction, have my mind bend away, drifting from the point where he was. He was the anchor in the river that gushed around me, threatening to drown if I let go for the briefest moment. I watched the water swirl round and round the island, its waters rising and falling, a constant reminder of mortality. My mortality. I clutched at his robes at the sight of the water, constantly rushing, always threatening.
There was no need for him to force me down this road, this path to the goddess. I would go myself, even without his commands to guide me. I could feel the goddess’s power in this place, all of her magic feeding the life of this imaginary world that, like my own world, lay hidden until the right person crossed its threshold.
What threshold? I turned back and saw nothing, no boat, no path, nothing lay behind. Every footstep forward erased the one before. It was a world of nothing, living within his mind and now mine. It was his world, wherever it was, whatever he was. He could not be just another tourist, or even another wizard, this man who....
I did not know.
I knew nothing of him as he had told nothing, had revealed too little in action or habit. A wizard. Married, at one point.
“...It’s like he–”
“Appeared out of nowhere.”
I wondered at the look in his eyes when he had watched me from across the table. It was not the same look in his eyes now in this dream. Once more had returned the demonic stare that saw into my soul, that desired to control, to possess.
Under the pressure, I struggled. At least, I yearned to struggle, and I shut out the glittering world with obstinate, wearying eyes. After the darkness of the night, this world was blinding, painful, overwhelming a mind still fresh from– from that which–
Another breath and he had hold of me again, his hand encircling mine, fingers brushing against the tiny hairs, his skin cool and soft upon my rough, fevered flesh. The air grew thick, each step a chore, each breath a hated necessity. In the distance I could hear the chanting of a long-unspoken language, forgotten in the sands of time.
I had no memory of arriving here.
The thought was a tiny crack in the wall. Water splashed onto the island. Sand raged at my feet, mingling with the water to form something nameless and terrible.
“What is this?”
My words were a hollow echo in this space of endless height.
He looked at me and the waves receded, yet not as much as they should have.
“You said you would take me to Philae.”
His voice was distant, coming from the stones themselves, his lips not moving.
“You couldn't come here yourself?”
I felt so small beside him. He walked with the pride of ages, all the greatness of the history of the Egyptians propping up his shoulders and neck so that his head was held high, eyes seeing only the sky, too haughty to bother with the mortal realms, far below.
“Only one of your kind can bear me.”
The word ‘bear’ in this context did not inspire confidence, not when the image of my sister-in-law clouded my vision, the load she bore a fatal one, the child sucking the life from her veins until nothing of her remained, her already weak magic faded away to nothing. She had watched as they had taken it from the room before she died, and she had continued to stare at the door even though I spoke to her, held her hand.
I shuddered, and he breathed through his mouth as though to taste the air. Just like a snake.
“Why me? There are lots of other wizards and witches about.” It was a struggle to retain mastery over emotion. The last thing I wanted to do was bear anyone...or anything.
He blinked slowly, eyes sharpening their gaze as his lips turned up in a ghastly smile, the grin of a gaping skull. “I know.”
The water drew closer again, but the sand rose against it, against us, wiping away the paintings, the carvings fading against the hewed stone. Soon it, too, would deteriorate, the rocks falling down upon us, turning all back into sand. The gods taking back their own.
“What are you?” My voice was now pitifully soft. It was the same question that Moody had asked me, his voice painfully quiet, suspicion pouring from each syllable.
I received no answer.
The water drew higher, higher, its tendrils licking at my heels, splashing upwards.
The sand rose in storms, twisting, turning, rising higher and higher above the water, above the cavernous temple to the sky.
He was still there, untouched by all.
Water and sand filled my lungs at the same time, drowning, suffocating. There was nothing, nothing to be left, nothing to be found, the world lost within the clutches of this villain, this villain who had stolen the body of my... of my... and now would steal my life.
I saw his arm above me, reaching down, the same hand I had seen in the mirror grasping at my throat, squeezing tighter and tighter until the water, the sand, none of it mattered.
My eyes flew open and was alone, laying across the covers of the bed, the boat drifting in the dawn, the waters of the Nile pushing it gently back downstream. There were birds in the distance sounding their displeasure. There was light coming into the room, pale, but true.
I was drenched in a cold sweat, not of the night’s exertions, but of the nightmare, that dark resounding fantasy from which I gleamed more deep-rooted feeling than anything Cadogan had done, could have done to arrest my heart. For years to come, I would awake from its power, without warning, my eyes blinded by unnatural light, my lungs gasping for air.
When I looked down at myself, I saw that I had been dressed, wrongly, but dressed all the same. The shirt he had worn the night before was now mine, the sleeves hanging low over my hands. It smelled of him, even more so than his jacket around my shoulders. There was so little difference between wearing it and being with him that I smiled.
It suited me better to wake alone. No naked embarrassment, no evident regrets, no need to have the face of an unshaven man with unpleasant breath lowering over mine for an encore.
My dressing gown was near at hand. I tied the belt in the corridor, ears perked for any sound.
There was only the water, the birds high above.
I looked into the sitting room, but found no one. Nor was he in his own room, the sheets untouched, though his clothes were moved about, yesterday’s trousers draped over the end of the bed. Still hearing nothing, I stepped closer to his suitcase, which bore his initials in addition to stamps from expensive hotels across the Mediterranean basin.
To look inside, however, would surely break some ethical, if not moral, law. It didn't seem right to make a search of the belongings of the man with whom I had just spent the night, to make use of that convenient euphemism. I could not stoop to the notorious when the expectation of another night brightened my eyes even as it stayed my hand.
That did not prevent me from seeing the book under his trousers. It had not been in the pocket last night. He must have left it there, on the bed, placed it there before he returned from my room, as I lay, trapped in the dream. The gold lettering on the cover caught the light. I pulled it out, turning to see the letters upright.
Demonology: a History of the Demon, or Djinn.
It sounded like a thrilling read, but it did reveal a little more about the elusive Cadogan, namely his chosen career. He would not be a demon hunter – that career required an unfortunate psychotic state – but he could very likely be a curse breaker. They apparently had to deal with angry demons locked up in tombs for thousands of years. I would be grumpy after all that time.
If he was a curse breaker, then it explained his presence in Egypt. It certainly explained his interest in the Valley, an interest he’d had to severely play down, but why?
Not that it explained anything else about him.
Thinking about him made me wonder where he had gotten to.
I stopped to listen for something, anything, but there was no sound of human life on the boat. Surely by now–
My feet took me to the deck, their soles scraping against the timeworn surface when I took the turn too fast, only to lean against the wall of the cabin, hiding my eyes from the sunlight. At first I was back again in the dream, my hand held hostage by the not-quite-Cadogan, the overpowering sun beating down on my black robes.
I blinked the light away. I swallowed down the bile. The boat seemed incapable of remaining motionless beneath me.
After a moment, I could step into the full light. We were not very far downriver; around the first couple of bends in the Nile, but not yet halfway to the dam. There were only farms in sight.
I walked toward the front of the ship, keeping an eye out for any sign of human life. I had a growing suspicion that this was still part of the dream, or another dream that I had somehow been thrust into, isolating me from all the world for... what? There were lots of witches in the ocean to play with, and I wasn't going to be anything’s playmate. I wanted to wake up, with or without Cadogan there, and get on with my life, as much of a failure as that had turned out to be.
The pieces of a puzzle were slowly, ever so slowly, coming together in my head.
There had been something very wrong at the tomb. The way that the sand had behaved... it led me to believe that something had come out, something ominous.
Those men had attacked me that night in Luxor.
Cadogan had appeared just when I was in need of employment.
That day in the Valley of the Kings, when everyone, including myself, had seemed mad. The sand had raised then, too, just before I’d been discovered, wand in hand, by Cadogan, of all people. And he had said nothing about it.
The body of the Native worker, whose place of death had been presided over by the great Moody himself.
Yes, Moody. He was the only point of connection between all of these events, even Cadogan’s appearance, warning me away from him, and I didn’t think that jealousy alone was the reason. I couldn’t get his voice out of my head, the way he had actually sounded worried even though he’d done nothing to stop me from leaving Luxor with Cadogan.
That rock had only come down the cliff when I had been with Moody.
I had too many suspicions of him. I still had some of Cadogan, though they were fading with the knowledge that he was, after all, a wizard. Not that it made him trustworthy, as he had failed to admit it to me, full knowing that I was a witch.
No one in this place was who they said they were. No one was honest or forthright.
The only place I knew that exceeded this level of intrigue was the House of Black.
Egypt was indeed just like home.
The book was still in my hands, and I stepped forward, seeking a place to sit and glance between its covers, anything to distract me from the aftershock of the nightmare. The study of demons was most often reserved for serious professionals or crackpots, but in my state, I was willing to take whatever lessons were handed me on a silver platter. There were too many strange things going on–
My foot hit something. The book flew out of my hands (though not, my ears told me, into the hungry Nile). I fell forward, not noticing until the very last second what I was about to fall upon.
When I landed with a sharp exhale of breath, I waited for a reaction from Cadogan, who had made the odd choice of sleeping on the deck. I had, after all, tripped over the man, an action that should have sent him into the air, cursing at me, literally and figuratively.
I rolled to get a better look at him.
He was in his dressing gown, which was a garish thing of purple and gold paisley, his bare legs folded at the knee, just like he had been sleeping on his side, a common enough position. As my eyes drifted up his body, I could see that his wand was in his hand, a very dangerous thing, seeing that we could be in view of Muggles. I snatched it from his hand, awaiting further reaction.
Nothing. Nothing at all.
Then I made the mistake of looking at his face.
Scuttling back on all-fours, I gasped. Had the circumstances been improved, I would have patted myself on the back for not going into hysterics because, well, I really should have. It was anything but normal for me to sit up, soundless, against the front of the boat, unable to feel any emotional reaction to this sight.
You see, he was dead, his eyes bloodshot and staring, his mouth gaping in a silent scream, his wand arm outstretched in useless self-defense.
This was certainly not a dream.
No dream could feel so lacking in reality.