Note: This chapter contains violence that some might find disturbing.
The possession of unlimited power will make a
3,000 years ago...
It was a brief, shining moment in Egypt's history -- a time of epochal change presided over by a Pharaoh named Akhenaten and his beautiful wife Nefratiri. During his 17-year reign the old gods were cast aside, monotheism was introduced, and the arts liberated from their stifling rigidity. Even Egypt's capital was moved to a new city along the Nile called Aketaten. But like Camelot, it was short-lived, and its legacy was buried in the desert sands.
When Amenhotep II, as he was originally called, ascended the throne in 1353 B.C., Egypt was a flourishing empire, at peace with its neighbors. Yet there were troubling signs. His father Amenhotep I had already challenged the most powerful priesthood by proclaiming the sun god Aten as foremost among Egyptian deities and himself as his living incarnation.
His son, an even greater revolutionary who was propelled either by madness or by great vision, murdered thousands hoping to gain favor of the invisible dark deities he venerated. The young Pharaoh never succeeded in attaining the notice of any of the Egyptian Gods he feverishly worshipped. Instead, he managed to attract the attention of a man who was sometimes worshipped as a god -- and who took a very personal interest in the Pharaoh's destiny. Amenhotep would later implore any divine being to deliver him from this fate.
He stood at the crest of a large sand dune, unnaturally still. He gazed down at the ruined city, his eyes shining with intensity unsurpassed by even the desert sun. Virtually motionless, he more closely resembled the immense monoliths raised to honor the great Pharaohs than any living man. Although these edifices were built carry their images throughout eternity, his flesh and bones were more impervious to the eternal elements than any rock-hewn structure or statue. He would outlast them all.
Unrecognizable, Amenhotep's crushed and bloodied skull fell unnoticed from his hand. It silently rolled down the face of the dune, a trail of blood and gray pulp momentarily marring its unblemished face. The parched desert sand drank ravenously, its primordial appetite unquenchable, yet briefly pacified by the bloodletting. Perhaps the desert had some elemental awareness that this being shared its longevity -- and would nourish it more often, and in greater volumes than anyone before or after him. His rage temporarily mollified, the man who would be known as the immortal mutant Apocalypse closed his eyes, his thoughts mired centuries in the past.
2,000 years earlier
He emptied the remaining contents of his stomach onto the burning desert sands. The open wound on his head was almost already gone. The blood had quickly congealed and hardened and a scab would soon fall from his scalp. Within minutes of receiving the wound, there would be no trace of the injury his father had been kind enough to bestow upon him. If another member of the tribe had received a similar wound, it was doubtful that they would ever recover. His seemingly miraculous healing ability along with his freakish appearance was just another thing that set him apart from his fellow tribesman.
He wiped Nur's blood from the blunt edge of the huge cleaver he always carried and rested it on his shoulder. "You hesitated, why?" his father demanded.
"I did not hesitate. I saw no reason to kill the woman or her daughter," he snapped back defiantly. He learned very early on that his father did not tolerate hesitation arising from fear from anyone...especially him. He might be punished for his insolence, but the castigation would be short-lived and comparatively mild. "If I am to become the great leader you say I will be, why should I concern myself with the life of a woman and a child?"
The backhand slap from his father's huge hand only stung for a moment, and he managed to maintain his balance. Although he had anticipated the blow, he did not flinch and firmly stood his ground. He had received far, far, worse from his father.
"A woman can wield a sword or a knife just as easily as any man. The child is younger than your seven seasons and is probably far more adept with a weapon than you are," his father said disgustedly. "Leaving these dependant and pathetic creatures alive diminishes us all. What little the desert offers cannot sustain both the strong and weak alike. Does the lion spare the hyena or share the pride's kill with its competition? It is no different with men. The weak and the infirm have no place in this world. Pity and compassion have no place in mine -- and they will have no place in yours," his father said with a ruthless stare.
His father motioned to one of the tribesman. Hidden from his view behind several of the tribe's horses, the same woman and child he had spared were brought forward. They stood in front of his father, their heads bowed in submission. He was surprised that they were still alive and although his expression betrayed nothing, he was uneasy about what his father might have in mind.
"They will be your personal slaves. You will be responsible for all their actions and see to it that they serve the tribe well. Should they fail to fulfill any of their duties, or cause the slightest of difficulties, you will be punished," his father said in a severe tone.
His father mounted his horse and began to ride away but then stopped, turning abruptly to face him. "You will be disciplined for sparing their lives Nur, -- but not today," he said ominously. With that, Baal of the Crimson Sands, ferocious leader of the Sandstormers, held his sons eyes for a second more, and then savagely yanked on the reins and drove his horse out into the open sands.(1)
Nur swallowed dryly. He was very familiar with his father's assurances of punishment, and the undeviating fashion in which he mercilessly carried out all his promises.
The other members of the tribe, satisfied, began to go about their business or returned to their temporary shelters. His humiliation at the hands of his father had once again provided them with entertainment they seemed to crave. He had no idea why Baal had spared the woman and her child much less why he had given them to him as slaves. He was a warrior and had nothing in common with these women. Although the look of pure hatred the woman had given Baal, did not go unnoticed. He had seen her raise her head slightly, her eyes blazing murderously as his father rode off. Perhaps he did have something in common with them after all.
3 years later
He returned to his tent, his hands and chest speckled with blood. He had just returned from another raiding party. The tribal settlement they attacked was completely caught off guard and offered little resistance. They had killed everybody and had taken anything that would be of use to help sustain their own tribe.
Baal's relentless campaign across the desert of winnowing the weak from the strong had earned the Sandstormers a fearsome reputation. The only thing more fearsome than the tribe was Baal himself. Under his leadership and rigid unflagging doctrine, they had prospered and thrived. Survival of the fittest was the tribe's credo and Baal, fanatical and intolerant in its pursuit, mercilessly slaughtered anyone to adhere to that tenet.
Fatima dampened a cloth and began to wipe the blood from his body and clothes as she had done countless times before. She would always be waiting for him to tend to both his body and his soul. Although there was never any reproach in her eyes, he could not help but feel shame in her presence for his actions.
"The desert is a harsh and unforgiving home," Fatima said tenderly, recognizing Nur's expression. "The tribe that you raided today would have done the same to our tribe if they could. We have spoken about this many times before. You are just a boy Nur," she said gently -- "despite your father's expectations and demands. You do what you must to survive. There is no shame in that." Fatima sighed, shaking her head. "You are not like the rest of the bloodthirsty animals who call themselves warriors. You are not like them Nur," she repeated softly, her voice filled with compassion.
Time and again she had comforted him when he returned from another of his father's 'training' exercises. None of the other male children his age would participate in the raids. They were still much too young, -- too weak to be of any use. His unnatural strength and endurance granted him the honor of butchering the other weaker tribes. Strangely enough despite his reluctance to kill, the other children despised him even more and were jealous of his participation. He was quite certain that the contempt the others felt for him pleased Baal to no end.
Ironically, he doubted that he would have been able to suffer the guilt and revulsion he felt about killing others had it not been for Fatima and Tara. His father had unknowingly given him a reason to endure, a reason to go on living -- even a reason to continue killing. He had given Nur that which craved most of all -- a family.
He knew he was different. He knew by the way younger children would stare at him saucer-eyed with fear, and the way children his age would laugh and taunt him. He knew he was different by the way woman would look away from his face in revulsion, and make warding signs mumbling things about him in hushed tones. He knew he was different because no one would truly speak to him -- ever. Only his father would speak to him, and that was usually to berate or punish him -- that or his ceaseless pontification about survival of the fittest and his role in molding him into its greatest proponent.
In the past, he had borne all the pain and torment his father and fellow members of the tribe visited on him on almost a daily basis stoically, never admitting to the internal anguish it caused him. He had secretly watched other children of the tribe at play -- had seen friendships form. He observed families sharing affections, children loved and cherished by their birth parents. Even in this harshest of environments, he witnessed that these things were possible. He longed for a friend, someone to share his pain, even the few joys. He wanted an end to the aloneness -- someone, anyone to just speak with him. He yearned for something more than his father's promises of greatness and immortality -- and astonishingly enough, it had been his father of all people who had given it to him.
Fatima was amazed at the boy's strength of will. She knew all to well at what desert life did to little boys and the men they would have to become. But Nur bore things -- tortures that no man let alone a child should bare. No indignity was too great or too harsh. Baal was unremitting in his punishment and isolation of Nur. The boy had suffered an alienation, a lack of companionship that was unbearable to watch let alone endure. Fatima could not imagine a more desolate or empty existence, yet somehow -- somehow knowing nothing but pain and torment, the boy had still retained a gentle soul. Yes, he was capable of extraordinary violence, but always after being provoked or to defend himself. The boy didn't possess any of the petty cruelty that was a common trait in members of the tribe. He was ugly beyond description, and strange in ways beyond his appearance, yet she had grown to love him as her own son.
As far as their status as his personal slaves -- in truth, he expected so little from them and her duties were not very much different from their original tribe. After Baal had killed her husband -- Tara's father, in front of both their eyes, she thought Tara would never recover -- she had become so completely withdrawn. But Nur -- Nur had become her protector, an older sibling to look up to, a playmate even. He was so gentle with her, so caring and loving. He catered to her every need, tireless and seemed hungry for her affections and adorations.
Ever so slowly, Tara had come out for her shell. She had feared him at first, they both did and his appearance certainly didn't help. But Nur was patient. He began by bringing her a different flower each time he returned from the open desert, secretly searching the desiccated landscape until he found one. He insisted on serving Tara all her meals and would sit and speak to her while she ate. He would do this day after day even though for a very long time, she would not respond. But Nur never seemed to get discouraged. He would draw pictures in the sand with his fingers or a simple stick -- none of which were any good. Eventually, these poor likenesses brought a smile to her face -- and finally laughter. Nur, a child himself, who had been the object of scorn, fear and hatred since his birth, had been the one to heal Tara. Nur had made her whole once again and for that alone; she would always love him.
She believed that Tara was just as beneficial to Nur as she was to him. Fatima had never seen another boy as happy as Nur was when he was with Tara. She beamed brighter than the sun when she was in his presence and he beamed brighter still if that was possible when they were together. The boy needed a family, someone to love and someone to love him so desperately, urgently.
She was a survivor as well. His well-being insured both her and Tara's survival. Slaves, especially female slaves, were extremely vulnerable and had no way or even the right to defend themselves. Two drunken warriors had one night stumbled into their dwelling and had attempted to have their way with her. She had fought viciously, tearing and screaming at the men in an attempt to free herself. She had awoken Nur and the rest of the tribe. No one had moved to help her -- no one except Nur. With a single swipe of his sword he had beheaded both of them. She still remembered how the sword had whistled through the air and not slowed at all when it had impacted both bone and sinew. Such was the force of the blow.
She had feared that this action would betray the feelings he had for both herself and Tara. But Nur had threateningly warned everyone that they would befall the same fate if they attempted to touch his property again. Property -- no different than his sword or his horse. The boy was clever. His voice and face had been devoid of emotion but contained enough menace to get his message across. His father seemed to accept this, as did the rest of the tribe. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that a boy had just easily killed two fully-grown and seasoned warriors. Nur had scared her that day. He had also scared the rest of the tribe -- battle hardened survivors. She had seen the fear in their eyes. Not fear of dying, but fear of Nur.
Of course Baal could not let it end there -- he would somehow always find a way to punish Nur. As they all returned to their dwelling she heard Baal snap out some instructions but was unable to make out what was said. She asked Nur if had understood what his father had commanded. She could still remember Nur's vacant expression and numb response. Baal had ordered that the wives and children of the two warriors that Nur had just killed be brought forth and put to death. Uncharacteristically Baal provided his reasons for his decision. He told the assembled warriors that in the morning, the tribe would be moving to a distant location and could not be burdened with woman and children who no longer had any provider. Nur did not emerge from his tent until the next morning.
Baal had ordered Nur and two other Sandstormers to scout a few miles behind the tribe as they moved across the western region of the Valley of the Kings. They were instructed to look for any signs of pursuit from the Pharaoh's soldiers and report back to Baal. They had found nothing. It was mid-morning when they had caught up to the rest of the tribe, and Nur was surprised to see that that they had stopped and set up an encampment. He quickly scanned the temporary settlement and became alarmed when he was unable to locate the tent that he shared with Fatima and Tara. He then noticed that none of the other male warriors were anywhere in sight. He looked around wildly and felt an icy chill run down his spine as he pulled his sword out beginning to panic.
His eyes caught the silhouette of a group of people at the top of a large sand dune that overlooked their encampment. He brought his forearm up to his head to shield his eyes from the glaring mid-morning sun and his heart began to race at what he saw. Two warriors held Fatima and Tara, large knives pressed against both their necks.
Nur bolted up the side of the dune his pulse racing madly, his sword waving up and down pacing his stride. Nauseating spurts of adrenalin coursed through his veins propelling him up the face of the dune at inhuman speed.
He stopped abruptly at the top of the dune ten feet from Fatima and Tara. He felt a knot form in the pit of his stomach when he was able to recognize the two warriors that held them -- Hassim and Mamut, two of his father's most ruthless and sadistic henchmen. Baal had entrusted them with instructing him in the use of different weapons and hand to hand combat at a very young age. They had taken great pleasure in punishing him repeatedly for the slightest mistake. He had received savage beatings from the both of them for no other reason than to determine how quickly he could recover from a variety of wounds and broken bones.
Baal stood a few feet away from Fatima and Tara, his face a mask of cold-hearted brutality that made Nur's throat gulp spasmodically. The remaining warriors were well behind him, their nostrils dilated, and hands twitching at their sword hilts. Nur had seen that look many times before. It was the look of hungry bloodlust -- whenever the Sandstormers anticipated killing.
"Father, why?" Nur asked, his voice shriveling in his own throat.
Baal did not answer but posed his own question. "What are they to you Nur?" his father asked, his tone and facial expression angry.
"They...they are my slaves," Nur stammered. "I may do with them as I see fit," he said with little confidence.
Baal snorted. "Is that all they are to you Nur?" his father said distastefully. He gestured to Hassim who pressed the knife painfully against Fatima's neck.
"No wait!" Nur yelled as he moved forward.
Baal drew his sword blocking Nur and motioned to Hassim to stop. Hassim reduced the pressure against her neck. Nur could see beads of blood well up where the wicked blade had cut her skin. But she did not cry out. She looked back at Nur, unafraid, her only concern was for her daughter. Nur could tell that if he were to do anything, Fatima wanted him to help Tara first. They had come to know each other so well, he could tell this all from her eyes. But he wanted her to speak and tell him what to do. Things were moving much too quickly.
Baal stared at Nur threateningly. Understanding, Nur stopped and took a step back. Baal returned the sword to his sash.
"Have you grown fond of the woman and the girl? Do not hesitate Nur," his father added quickly, snarling.
"Yes," he barely murmured.
"Hand me your weapon," his father commanded.
Nur quickly acquiesced. "Please father, do not hurt them," Nur pleaded, not knowing what else to do.
His father had an odd look on his face, one he had never seen before -- genuine disappointment.
"You are helpless and unarmed," Baal stated very matter-of-factly. "You would do anything I asked -- betray the entire tribe -- anything, just for the lives of a simple woman and child."
His father shook his head. "Do you think I spared their lives many years ago on a whim? And do you think I am blind Nur? Or am I a fool who is easily deceived? Do you not understand the lesson I've tried to impart?" Baal screamed in exasperation, his eyes bulging from their sockets.
Nur could not answer, his voice was paralyzed by fear.
"As a leader, the leader of all people that you are destined -- the leader you will become in the distant future -- the leader I was entrusted to mold and shape by the Gods themselves," Baal's voice ascended to a murderous falsetto as the veins in his neck stood out in livid ridges. "You must always walk alone, always!" he thundered. "You are special Nur, chosen," Baal said, his eyes transfixed manically on his son. "Look at you Nur -- weak, vulnerable, defenseless, all over them!" his father said incredulously, questioning how Nur could possibly behave this way.
"You must never be fettered with the things that can make even the greatest warrior weak, cowardly, ineffectual -- a family, loved ones," he spat out the words contemptuously. "They are for lesser beings. Not for you Nur, never for you! I will drive this lesson into your skull, imprint my words onto your brain with my bare bloodied hands if I must," Baal ground out the words through clenched teeth.
Suddenly with brutal detachment, he heard his father's voice as if he were speaking from far away -- "kill them."
With a look of malicious glee on their faces, Hassim and Mamut slashed the necks of both Fatima and Tara.
Nur felt disembodied as if in a dream; events appearing to move in slow motion as he saw two gaping maws open and grow wider and wider in both their necks, as their heads lolled to the side at an impossible angle. For a moment, he could see the interior of their throats with utter clarity, wet purple-ridged tissue. Then suddenly, his vision was quickly obscured by a wash of red spray -- thick warm blood. He could hear their blood gargled screams pierce his consciousness as he saw them drop lifeless to the sand.
He crossed the ten feet and leapt toward Hassim. Hassim, who was extremely adept with a dagger, slashed lightening fast at his chest. Nur was faster. He ducked underneath Hassim's attempt to cut him and grasped his wrist, twisting his arm and the blade toward his raised chin. He plunged the blade into the soft tissue between his jawbone, then upwards through his tongue, penetrating the roof of his mouth and finally through the bridge of his nose. For a second, the point of the blade was clearly visible, protruding between Hassim's wide-open and fear filled-eyes. A piece of Hassim's forebrain clung wetly to the tip of the blade -- until Nur savagely yanked it out in one twisting motion.
Nur was still in a crouched position, and facing away from the other knife-wielding warrior. Mamut used the opportunity to drive his blade right into Nur's exposed back.
Nur turned and locked eyes with Mamut. Mamut released his grip on the handle of the dagger and froze because of what he saw in Nur's eyes -- blind murderous rage, and death. Seemingly unaffected by his mortal wound, Nur drove his knife between Mamut's legs forcing it upwards with such strength, that Nur's hands and arms entered Mamut's abdominal cavity. Mamut let out a bloodcurdling scream as Nur once again twisted and savagely tore out the blade. Mamut's viscera and entrails spilled out of the cavity Nur had opened. Mamut remained standing for a second, his lips pulled back in a grotesque rictus, and then fell face first dead into his own bloody innards.
The others looked on, eyes watching with fascinated horror. Nobody moved as Nur dropped the dagger and stumbled over to Fatima and Tara. He dropped to his knees beside their lifeless bodies and reached out with trembling hands, and gently caressed both of their faces. Even in the desert sun, their skin was already cold. The only thing his mind allowed him to see were Tara's terrified eyes -- while she was still alive, questioning why Nur did nothing to stop these men from hurting her.
He threw his head back and began to scream uncontrollably -- a high and hysterical cry, shrill with horror. It then became guttural as Nur felt something well up inside of him and break. The screaming changed even further, becoming impossibly deep, monstrous. The Stormriders could feel the scream rumbling inside their own stomachs, so low and bottomless, that their bellies actually began to feel raw.
They started to back away in fear and became terrified as Nur began to glow slightly, a golden aura surrounding him. He suddenly stopped screaming and mercifully passed out, the glow fading.
The Stormriders did not move or speak, their faces ashen and eyes numbed with fear. Only Baal moved forward, his expression awed as he reached out to help his son.
10 years before