Nailah groaned. "Nkuku, you said this the last time, too, and what happened? We went right back to working the stones after the Priests sorted things out."
Nkuku huffed and turned from his friend to the woman rummaging about impatiently by the small household's cook fire. "That was different. This time we've got real power on our side."
"Doing magic and keeping up with the Priests are two different things." Nailah snapped, walking over and pushing past Nkuku to fetch the large urn behind her husband Akil. He sighed and moved aside, ducking as the urn narrowly missed his head. "And what kind of revolutionary pollutes the water supply, I ask you? Twice, no less! That's not a political statement, that's suicide!"
Akil sighed again. He would have liked to describe this as an argument borne of the recent hard season they had all endured, but Nkuku and Akil fought like cats and jackals even at the best of times. They fought each other more than they fought the Priests and the overseers. He tuned vaguely into the conversation in time to hear Nkuku crowing again:
"...And each time, they've just copied the last trick on a smaller scale! This is showing that they can't keep up with these new miracle workers, and when their authority is shaken we'll be able to rise up!"
Nailah began to berate Nkuku once more for his optimism, and Akil decided to leave them to the soon-to-be-warzone.
The street outside, despite the various misfortunes that had beset the city, was active and bustling. Old habits were hard to break, and everyone, from slaves to landowners, was used to near constant activity. The city was growing ever more impressive by the day--or it had been, until the plagues had halted much of the construction.
Now, the business of the day was allocation of resources, as people scrambled to figure out ways to transform frogs and the occasional bag of harvested locusts into some sort of better food.
There was, for Akil, little to do. Nailah had managed to gather a truly astonishing quantity of locusts, and while they weren't exactly the most appetizing of creatures, it was certainly enough to tide them over. (Nkuku was also making grumbling allusions to seeking out and hunting down one of the great jeweled crocodiles that swam deep in the river, but even he was not quite foolish enough to insult the gods so openly.)
Akil arrived at the small grove where his son, Kontar, liked to sit in the shade and draw silently in the sand by himself. He grimaced at the usually joyful sight of his only child. The boy was thinner than Akil would have liked.
Even so, Kontar jumped up happily when he saw his father and ran toward Akil with a bright smile. Akil knelt and caught the boy up in his arms, lifting him onto his shoulders. Kontar took after his father in looks and in disposition--he was strong for his age, despite his current diet of frogs and locusts, and he tended to be silent and observant.
The two walked through the bustling city, the boy riding above the crowd, the two not speaking but simply enjoying the sights and smells of the day.
"I saw something strange today, father," Kontar said thoughtfully after a time.
"Mm?" Akil replied, lost in his own thoughts.
The boy leaned in over his father's head, throwing off Akil's balance slightly. "I saw the Israelites preparing young lambs for sacrifice."
And now Akil was paying attention. That word, Israelite... the name of the race enslaved for generations by the Pharaoh, now locked in a contest of wills with the priests of Egypt, the instigators in this war of plagues.
A shiver ran down his spine and he slowed in walking as Kontar went on.
"They seemed nervous, and glanced to Ra in heaven as they worked," the boy said quietly, but proudly. "I watched them through a hole in their wall.
Now Akil stopped completely. The chill was back again. At first the plague had seemed so unspecific, but then the Israelites had been spared the worst ravages of the last few storms. They had somehow found protection.
One of Nailah's tactics was to observe the Priests of the Pharaoh, and those closest in association with the Priesthood, and copy their actions, regardless of whether she knew the possible outcome. Usually it meant nothing. Occasionally it meant that they were spared when others suffered.
Once, during the Nubian uprising three years ago, it had meant that only their house remained standing when Ra cast down fire upon their entire block of homes.
Sometime told Akil that it was time to put his wife's strategies to work once more.
"Kontar," Akil said quietly, "I want you to tell me exactly what you heard and saw..."
There were occasional advantages to being the husband and friend of, respectively, a consistent defender of slaves rights and a well known and reasonably well liked resistance figure. Those perks resulted in a year old lamb making its way to their door, and while Nailah had at first balked at the staggering number of favors they had needed to call in, when Akil explained his apprehensions she abandoned all hesitation and began preparing the lamb according to Kontar's careful instructions.
By nightfall the family (and Nkuku) had eaten their fill, and the last preparation was nearly complete.
Akil daubed the blood of the lamb on the sides and on the lintel of their door, three dark red spots in the dusk. The blood dripped onto the sand. Akil's heart sank further. The sun went down...
The three workers and the boy huddled in the hovel together. Kontar drowsed, sprawled across Akil and Nailah's laps. In the corner, Nkuku paced nervously. Akil simply stared, unable to draw his eyes away from the portal to the road.
A gust of wind stirred the cloth over the door.
And then they heard the sound. A soft sound, a gasp, a faint moan, a moan like the wind in the cloth of the door, but omnipresent, chilling. Kontar stirred and opened his eyes, and Akil saw them glittering in the faint moonlight. Then they dulled and vanished in the gloom, as the moon darkened and disappeared.
"Sandstorm?" Nkuku choked. Nailah hissed an incoherent demand for quiet.
In their minds, rather than their ears, they sensed a choir of voices, a beautiful and terrible sound. Akil felt Kontar shift in his arms and he drew the boy in close unconsciously.
The cloth at the door shifted again and light spilled into the room.
Each of the plagues had been, disregarding their sheer magnitude, fairly standard miraculous fare for Egypt. Most of them had been mirrored by the Priests in a battle of wounded pride and one-upmanship, and many of the others (mystical cattle deaths, summoned locusts even) had been worked within living memory, often targeting dissidents within the slave class. Miracles were an effective means of waging war and establishing order, and the priests did not shy away from using their power. It was no surprise that when the god of the Israelites began using their own tactics against them, they should enter into a sort of miraculous war of attrition.
No, those miracles were commonplace miracles; some were nearly household miracles at this point.
Even the priests of Ra himself had never called into being, from beyond the thin burial shroud of the world, a miracle like this.
It assaulted their senses, overwhelming their eyes and minds with radiance. A thousand voices called in their minds, rising together in praise of their God--'I AM WHO I AM'. Such complexity of tone was unknown in Egypt in that day, but it was obvious even to Akil's untrained ear that there was something horrible and dissonant about the tones. They rose in harmonies only to collapse in warping, twisting melodies that never quite repeated, never quite resolved. It was fractal music, music powered by irrationality and a justice unfettered by human concerns.
The thing stared into the door. Akil could not say how he knew that it stared, for its body was a single luminous humanoid hole in the world, with jagged wings like lightening frozen in space. Yet, it stared, it stared, its invisible roving consciousness stripping the room of its secrets.
And then--Akil felt it like a pressure, like a heat--it saw the firstborn son, the only son...
It stepped forward--
--and was halted in place by a shimmering, red barrier, translucent, faintly red.
The celestial thing's hands--thin chisels of light--skittered across the shimmering space in the doorway, leaving a streak of deeper bloody red in their wake. And yet, the barrier held. Nkuku shuddered in the background. Akil could hear his muttering, masked partly by the vibrating tones of the choir: "Ra, deliver me; Bast, deliver me; Osiris, deliver me; anyone, any of you, please..."
Somewhere in the glowing mass there was a sense of opening, of the gaping of the void, invisible to the eye but undeniable. There was a great wailing and gnashing of teeth. Akil clutched Kontar's shaking form to him blindly, unable to shift his gaze from the radiant form. The room seemed to draw toward the void of light, the chorus heightened its tempo, and all was noise and light and unbearable pressure---
And then, silence and darkness once more. The holy ghost was gone from the doorframe. The cloth fluttered down once more as the moon emerged from shadow.
For a moment, Akil simply sat, stunned into silence. Then, Kontar shifted in his lap, ever so slightly, and in a rush he was weeping and clutching his son once more, and he could feel Nailah sobbing beside him though he still could not hear, his ears still rung from the horrible chorus.
And like that, the family fell into sleep, into exhaustion, into the blessed darkness of that other Nile that runs through the twilight land between the living and the dead.
Akil felt an uncomfortable jabbing in his side. He groaned, stiff from his position, unable to move. Nailah, he realized, was draped partly over his legs, and his arms were still wrapped around his son.
The jabbing, however, came from Nkuku's foot.
Akil blearily stared up at his friend. His eyes seemed strangely sunken and dulled, and his grin had been replaced by a hollow smile that failed to reach the rest of his features. At Akil's questioning, squinting expression, he simply intoned, "The Israelites are leaving. I just thought you would want to know."
The world outside seemed strangely unreal, untouched in physical form by the events of the previous night. There were signs, however, of the incursion into the world: the doorframe still bore the dark stains of blood, now surrounded by scorch marks, and from many houses came soft sounds. Not sounds of morning as it normally came among the slave houses, but sounds of mourning, faint whispers of grief.
Akil had been lucky, simply put. Dumbly lucky.
Chance had not been so kind to others.
Akil and Nkuku stumbled through the streets like drunkards or prophets, still unsteady from the night before. Although Akil had feared to leave his son, something compelled him onward, and Nailah had sworn to keep his child (he thought so possessively of the boy now!) safe. So, the slaves stumbled through the streets of dawn, in search of the distant inexorable flow of humanity out of Thebes, into the desert.
They found the beginnings of the slow moving train, its participants silent and solemn; the many, many Egyptians gathering along the streets watching them go with fear and grief and anger.
Something about the scene spurred Akil on. He forgot Nkuku at his side and began to walk faster, striding toward the head of the column, where he would be. Unburdened by possessions like the members of the exodus, he passed through the dense streets of the city, through alleys and between buildings, until he emerged from the sun in a wide expanse, where the people were gathering, moving, escaping beyond Pharaoh's reach.
And there he was. A young man, in shepherd's clothes, with a staff curved almost to suggest the winding of a snake. He strode slowly at the head of the column, another (the orator, perhaps? The one they called Aaron?) leading his people out of Egypt.
Akil trembled. His fists clenched. He could not feel Nkuku's hand on his shoulder, or hear his friend's weak urging. He broke from his friend's grasp and walked, his footsteps pounding on the stone, his pulse roaring in his ears. He walked to the head of the mass of people, toward the prophet.
Moses saw him coming and paused in his movement. Aaron made to move forward, to intercept Akil's path, but Moses gestured with his staff and his brother stepped back warily.
For a moment the two slaves stood before one another in silence. Then:
"Why?" Akil rasped, dry mouthed. "Why were we not chosen, too? Why, no matter what God looks down upon this land, are we always among the forgotten and the wretched? Is even the God of the downtrodden uninterested in the low people of Egypt?" He realized, distantly, that he was now weeping openly. His voice broke.
"Why was my son nearly taken from me?"
And now, for the first time, through a veil of tears, he truly looked upon Moses for the first time. Now that his rage had been vented somewhat he could see the man before him. His eyes were hollowed and darkened, and they glanced, before his reply, skyward. The prophet's face nearly for a moment seemed to twist into a pained grimace--near, so near, was his loss of control--and then he was the stoic leader of his people once more.
"I am just a servant of he who is called I AM WHO I AM." Moses stated quietly, his deep voice shot through with weariness. "If you seek answers, look to the LORD. Perhaps He will give you the clarity that--" He paused in his sentence and again, slowly, cast his eyes skyward. His gaze passed down once more, to Akil, as though searching the man for a hidden sign.
And then, the prophet passed on, passed Akil, out of Egypt, into the desert. And Akil, exhausted, leaned upon Nkuku as the two men returned back to their home.
"There will be loud crying in all the land of Egypt, more than has ever been heard before or will ever be heard again. Not even a dog will make a sound against those of Israel, man or animal, so you may know that the Lord divides Egypt from Israel."
Goodness, I really want to write about my thought process with this, but I feel like I should just leave the interpretation up to you lot. I'm curious to hear about what you thought of the themes and the underlying sort of message. There are, I think, a few ways you could read this... If I haven't completely pissed you off for fucking with Scripture and all that, please share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, MySpace, or whathaveyou, and leave me some kind words in the comments below.