The wind howled, lashing sand in their faces as they struggled to reach safety. Each of them had known it was foolish to venture out in this weather, yet each of them had a reason for doing so, even if said reasons could not be explained to others. Now it was too late to turn back. There was only one option.

They had to reach the tomb.

A sudden lull in the storm caught them all by surprise, and as one they looked up to see that they had wandered far off course, and were now beside one of the fallen obelisks that marked the edge of... well, the edge of something, though none of them could remember what.

Beneath this particular obelisk was a small hollow, by all appearances man-made. Now certainly too far from the tomb to make it there alive, they decided they had no choice.

"Let's move," someone said. "Help each other out and mind your footing. That wind is going to get worse. We don't want to get caught up in it again!"

As one, they descended into the hollow beneath the obelisk, finding it cold and dark, but mercifully free of wind and sand. It almost seemed as if the obelisk itself had been hollowed out inside, creating a long, narrow haven from the storm. The sort of work that would take a man a lifetime, if he were forced to do it by himself.

And it was then that they realized, as they removed the headscarves and wrappings covering their faces, that the one who had spoken just before could not have been any of them. The voice was that of a man, and they were all of them women. Servants of the Pharoah, destined to die this night so as to clear the way for his ascension into the heavens, as the shiny ones had decreed.

All of them knew this instinctively, though none of them could remember the Pharoah's name. Or their own.

One of them is forcing down heavy paroxysms of doubt suddenly seizing her throat and sending her stomach convulsing. She furtively looks to her companions for any similar troubles, feeling so alone and troubled all of a sudden. Her life for the Pharoah? It felt so selfish to question, but why her? She had potential. She was relatively pretty, pretty enough to find a good mate. Even beyond that, she was smart. She knew this. She'd outsmarted most of the men in her hometown and been smart and sly enough to make it to the city and then make it in the city, at first surviving day to day and then even flourishing.

And she'd never lost her virginity, despite all the attempts, both at rape and premarital sex, made by the men she'd met and seen in her travels.

Could this be punishment? After all, she was quite headstrong for a woman. Often she'd shocked the men she met by her frankness and her refusal to demure to their stupid opinions. But then that didn't fit either. The sacrifices made to the gods were always the best - the best livestock, the best crop. If she was flawed, if she was worthy of punishment, how could she be a sacrifice? But maybe she wasn't a sacrifice.

In the end, though, it all came down to the same questions - why her? And what in every gods' name was she doing here?

It is very dim inside, but from what you can tell, the inside of this strange space is decorated with hieroglyphics and paintings. Near you, on the ceiling, a naked black goddess swallows the sun. The remainder of the woman stretches out into the distance, beyond your capacity to see clearly.

I gulp slowly at the fearsome hieroglyph, wondering if it's prophesy or story, hoping fervently for the latter.

Then I set my jaw, looking forward, and, seeing no one moving, decide to set out resolutely and get the group moving. I light a torch set in a bracket on the wall and start down the obelisk, seeing if it perhaps extends into something or if I can find a passageway in its ebony walls. I fight the urge to look back and see if anyone's following, determined not to let others see the fear in my eyes, and the doubt that plagues my mind.

My eyes harder. Act now. Think later.

You walk forward into the darkness, torch held high, the other women behind you. There are six of them, you now realize. There had been more, but the others must now be lost under the sand, buried before their time -- if not very long before.

Just about every other torch you pass is lit, and you cannot help but count them on the way past. There are 10 lit torches on the walls, interspersed with a dozen unlit, but unused ones. You light them as you pass, filling the corridor with fire, and each of the women takes one, drawing some comfort from it.

At the final blackened torch, you pause, for there are the end of the obelisk is a staircase, descending into darkness so black you can feel it from here. Opposite the extinguished torch is an empty sconce, the torch within having been removed.

You have no doubt you will find it below, along with he who took it.

I draw in a deep breathe, trying my best to steady it, to stay strong beneath waves of nauseating fear and doubt. My grip tightens on the torch. I have to find answers. Then I'll find a path. I glance toward the empty torch sconce as I ready myself to proceed down the steps when my vision is caught and held. I am looking at myself, carved into the walls. I'm looking at a group of seven woman standing before a staircase, and at their head, the only blond woman in the group, standing at the top of the stairs. Of course this is hieroglyphs, hardly a definite art, but I know this is me. I know this is us.

I move toward the walls, going backward, forward anywhere looking for more of us, for a clue as to who we are, what we're doing, and, most importantly, why.

"Greetings from naureen nora. I loved the fallen star. Warm wishes!"

The strange words drift through your head without explaining themselves.

(Edited by Aeon)

I pause. Am I going crazy? I turn from the wall to the other woman, seeing if they heard what I heard.

*Guys? You can join in anytime...*

Mirroring your puzzled expression, the torch in my hand tremoring, I whisper in a shaky voice from right behind you, "did you hear that too?"

The echo of my whisper disappears up the stairs behind us. I look left and right about to panic and instinct tells me to reach under my sash. My hand grips the cold handle of something. A knife perhaps? Why would I have a knife? I don't even know if I *know how to use a knife*.

Wait wait...that wasn't instinct just now. The voice was something else. It was murmuring something else to me from under my sash...

Looking into the other womans eyes, narrowing my own and gritting my teeth in fear for what I might find...I draw the object from beneath my sash.

It is indeed a knife, one of obsidian. You realize that this means the knife was not made here, because there is no obsidian in this land. It must have been traded for, or stolen from someone to the north or east. Another land, one you've never seen.

The knife is roughly hewn, but the edge is razor sharp. It is ice cold, nearly as cold as the darkness below you.

"I did hear that. What was it? What are you..."

My voice trails off when I see her pull a knife from her sash and hold it up to the light, gripped firmly. I feel about my waist for a similar object, a weapon of any kind, while asking, "Where did you get that?"

There is a rush of air from the stairs below, followed by sucking sound and the reversal of the air. After a few moments, it happens again. It's like the entire place is breathing.

"I don't know, " I look fearfully at the knife again, biting my lower lip, "and I don't know."

"I think I stole it from somewhere. I don't even know why I think that, but somehow I know it isn't mine."

I look in to the other woman's eyes.

"We are meant to die in this place," I whisper as I glance at the image on the wall of the seven women, "and I don't even know why."

My mind racing and struggling to find purchase in it's empty halls of memory I look pointedly at the empty torch sconce, then down the stairs, then at the cold knife in my grip. I tighten my fist around it's handle, glance back at the other women following quietly and docilely along, then look back to the first woman.

"All I know for sure is that I've decided not to die for the Pharoah this day," I whisper grimly.

The courage of my friend bolsters me. "Your decision is mine."

I turn to the other women. "And what of the rest of you? Will you defy your calling? Or will you proceed as sheep to the slaughter?"

I look to the other women as well.

"Yes...shall we author our fate, or be at it's mercy?"

I hold the torch higher in one hand, and the knife lower in the other and prepare to go down the steps.

The stairs spiral thrice, darkness like the bowels of some great beast, pulling you down like gravity towards something inevitable and dark. Yet you press onward, aware somehow that there is no turning back now. The other women trail behind you, several others now clutching torches pulled from the walls. The flickering light makes the descent tolerable. Though only barely.

After three turns the final landing opens into a short hallway, at the end of which is a stone slab covered in hieroglyphics, mirroring those you saw above.

As you stand there pondering your few options, a sudden thumping comes from the other side of the stone slab, five rapid thumps in quick succession, and then silence.


I pause, quite surprised. Then, cautiously, I approach the slab and knock back, three times.

Not sure how I know to do this I hold the knife out in a perfect defensive stance, digging in with the balls of my feet, bracing myself for whatever may happen next.

I grit my teeth and inhale through them, semi-shielding the docile women behind me.

The slab shifts open, and a cold breeze wafts up into the stairwell, raising goosebumps on your arms. Beyond, there is nothing but blackness.

"If we're going to die here, let's get it over with...if not, then let's get on with living..."

I stride boldly forward, torch held high, knife ready.

The group of women proceeds down the stairs, their few torches illuminating the darkness, yet incapable of holding back the ever-growing feeling of dread that embraces and caresses you. The air grows chillier with each step, and before long you see your breath in front of your face, something you have never seen before. It's like the life being breathed out of you and absorbed into the space you walk through.

There are 32 steps in total, and after the final one the narrow confines of the stairwell open up into an immense cavern, impossibly large. Your torches only illuminate the area around you, but the walls and ceiling of this space are too far off to reflect any light.

As you step off the final stair and into the cavern, you hear yourself speaking: "Can you hold onto this?" You pass your torch to the woman behind you, step forward a few feet into the darkness, and turn around to face them. Your head swims for a moment, and the words seem to echo in your skull.

"I'm wondering the same thing that you are all wondering," you say, trembling. "Are we people, or are we souls -- crossing some kind of purgatory, waiting to be born. With memories and without them."

Then, as if to inspire confidence in the others, you turn back to face the darkness and prepare to step forward. Yet you pause, uncertain. Perhaps you should turn back? Who chooses your destiny: you, or the gods?

"Live in the moment; follow your dreams," says a voice that is not your own. Accompanying the Voice is an image, no, a wrapper of images. You know that the speaker of the Voice is named Ahdi, and that Ahdi is a powerfully built man with the head of a jackal, wearing nothing whatsoever but three rings, one on each of his index fingers, and one...

You blush and try to turn away from the image, from the voice, but you realize that this is impossible, that in fact none of the other women has seen what you have seen, heard what you have heard. Ahdi is not present here among you all.

He is a Voice in your head.

Thinking this must be some kind of dream, or maybe a state induced by drugs that the priests of the Pharoah may have given us, I cut myself rather deep across the palm of my left hand, winceing and hissing an intake of breath .

"Not again, " I say defiantly, remembering at that second that this isn't the first time something like has happened. I thought the Voices had been silenced. I thought I had left them back in Delhi... if I could only remember what a "Delhi" was, and why that made me hungry to say to the word. What a strange time to be thinking about mustard...

"There is a room here that we have to find," says Ahdi. You can sense him tugging at the edge of your mind, drawing you out into the black. Whether or not the others follow, you know he wants you to go.

"It seems there is no waking from this dream, is their Ahdi? There never really was..."

I clench my hand shut around the flow of my blood and follow him into the darkness, wondering to myself; is this the dream? Or am I waking from a dream I have been having until now? Or is someone dreaming me?

About five steps into the blackness, you hear motion in front of you, beside you, and -- vaguely, dimly -- behind your group, which is strung out and spread out and apparently vulnerable.

A man dressed in black steps forward and glares at you. He begins to gesture, sending some of the other men forward; you can't tell much about them, in the dim light, but one of them lunges forward towards the woman on your right.

Time seems to slow, and for a moment an eternity is stretched out before you. Your teeth ache. Your head seems to want to split open. You know you can stop the blow from landing... but there are consequences. There are always consequences.

"But then, it's already happened, hasn't it?" says Ahdi.

And it has -- you know it has. But you also know it doesn't have to. You have a choice.

I lunge to intercept him with the knife, hoping he impales himself on it like a tiger on a spear.

The knife catches him in the chest, but his own knife cuts deeper, slashing at your stomach, hard. Pieces of you spill out, and you scream.

"No! Not her! Not yet!" The apparent leader of the group lunges forward, pushing past his men. Then, almost as suddenly, he realizes he's opened himself up. As you crumple to the ground, two of the other women around you lunge forward and stab him, keep stabbing even as the men around them hack away at their arms, their backs.

You are the last to die, and you get to watch all but one of the others die, slashed and eviscerated. The cool black floor runs red with blood.

For a moment there is silence, and then you hear soft, sticky footfalls as the apparent sole survivor walks towards you, kneels, and tilts your head up so you can see him. His face is obscured by a jackal mask.

"Don't worry," he says. "You don't end here."

He closes your eyes.