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Uncle Ammon led us through the stone hallway, fending off the darkness with his torch. He seemed to know every corridor by heart—even walking backward at times so the light from his torch illuminate his round, bronze face as he marched unguided into the unknown. The dusty brown walls around us were mostly jagged and rough, but occasionally, we’d find a spot like this one. The wall here was worn smooth and inscribed with hieroglyphs chiseled deep in the earth. Then the commanding light of Uncle Ammon’s torch was drowned by a dozen iPhones. I, of course had seen the writing before—on paper. But, there was something... different about being here…
I realized myself, suddenly, staring at and running my fingers along the wall we had been warned not to touch. In the dim light, a myriad of eyes penetrated me. I stepped backward, colliding with one of the tourists behind me. Quietly, I excused myself and looked away, but, I saw a gleam in Uncle Ammon’s chestnut eyes and a quiet grin hiding between his thick lips. I dropped to the back of the group, just beyond reach of the torchlight. We turned into corridor after corridor winding along the path of the map that I had memorized long ago. He told me when I was younger that I would have to know the way, that he would take me finally when I turned sixteen. I was excited, then. But, I had told him yesterday that it didn't seem safe: five girls just murdered on their sixteenth birthdays, other Kemetic witches being systematically targeted. We could have celebrated at home.
I extended my hand again, brushed my fingers along the wall and was captivated by the grooves and ridges that seemed so rich, so magical, so full of meaning, even in the dark—
I spun around, eyes wide, looking for the guiding beacon of Uncle Ammon’s torch. My stomach tightened. Okay, Kanika, deep breaths. Options. I can sit, and wait for them to come back to me. No. I will absolutely lose my mind just waiting here. Wait! I remember the map. Yes, I have the map. I inhaled, taking the dirt, the musty smell of the ancient walls, the aroma of earthen magic, all into my lungs. I reached out for the wall again, found it, and followed it, walking forward, led by my own internal compass. Surely, Uncle Ammon knew the pyramid better than anyone except the ancients who built it….Still, no matter how far I followed his map...A right up here… I couldn’t seem...Straight ahead...no, left, yeah, left… to catch up to—
AYYYH!! I hit the stone floor with a harsh THWACK! Groaning, I rolled to the side, and waited for the pain in my tailbone to subside. How could I have gotten trapped? I had followed the map! I tried to remember where to go from there. But as far as I could remember, this was the end of the line.
Finally, I saw a light. It was just a pinprick in the dark at first, like a lone yellow star in a black night. But it grew and kept growing. I stood and thanked the gods that I was found. In a few moments, the star had become a radiant sphere of light—light, but no uncle, no tourists.
The chamber was filled with gold coins and jewels, punctuated by the gigantic statues of cats and eagles with kohl-liner eyes in every corner. The ceiling was painted with an orange sun disk that glittered with flecks of gold. Lapis lazuli was spread across the floor like seeds waiting to take root and sprout. The air seemed alive. And I thought I heard a small voice whisper my name, somewhere far behind me. I turned around, but the trapdoor that I had fallen through was sealed. But, just below it, hanging from the wall above a gilded altar was a necklace--a golden scorpion pendant on a thin black rope. It was so...pretty. I grabbed it and I put it on. And then, the dizziness returned, and the nausea and the lightheadedness and the darkness. It crept in from the corners, swallowing up the aura of light that glinted off each coin and ricocheted through the air; it covered the world in shadow.
Hot, dry, sandy air ripped raw through my throat, and my eyelids flew open to reveal my uncle looming over me with an open bottle of water. I pushed myself into a sitting position and stared as he kneeled across from me on the canvas blanket. My chest suddenly felt hot, and I gripped instinctively at my collar to find the scorpion pendant still around my neck.
That night felt hot and restless. The normal hustle and bustle in the streets outside my window was a deafening chorus. I felt like the Earth was shaking beneath me. The ache in my tailbone got instead of ebbing. I couldn't get comfortable. Finally, I settled in a perfectly natural position: laying on my stomach with my legs and hands under my body. Still, I couldn't sleep. And, I was hungry. I went to the cupboard and grabbed all the ingredients for molokhiya. By the time I finished cooking, the sun was starting to rise. I took my plate to the table, pulled out the chair nearest me and sat dow--OW! Nope. I leaned against the edge of the table, carefully setting all my weight on my hips. Even though I was ravenous moments before, I was perfectly satisfied by the time I was halfway through my plate. I set it on the table with a sigh, determined to grab it again before I left for school. Shower time.
I treasured the sound of running water as I opened the faucet and set it to a chill just below room temperature. I quickly disposed of my sweaty pajama top in the hamper next to the sink. But, my bottoms didn’t come off so easily. They were caught on something, on...me?! I tugged and pulled kicked, struggling to get them off. Uncle Ammon rushed to the door and gave a few worried knocks. I regarded myself in the mirror, let out a little gasp and then stopped breathing altogether.
Was that?... That was not… “A TAIL?!”
“Kanika? Are you all right?” A tail! I had a giant, golden, scorpion’s tail! Everything else was normal, my dark skin, my brown-black afro, my...CLAWS?
“You're already late!”
“I’ll be out in a minute!” He was right. I had only twenty minutes before the bus came. The fluffy towel I wrapped myself in was warm and comfy to me, but sandpaper to my newly-molted tail. My fingers curled carefully around the doorknob, and cracked the door open with a deafening creak. Uncle Ammon was not in the hallway, so, I sprinted to my room and shut the door, collapsing finally on my bed. Moments later, I came back out dressed in the only comfortable clothes I could find: a sheer, golden maxi skirt and a pair of old yellow leggings with a hole ripped in the butt. Perfect. My tail just looked like the light reflecting weirdly off my skirt. I grabbed a yellow top and a wide, black belt to match. And, just to be safe, I cloaked myself in a very modest beige wrap. There--ready for school.
The day passed pretty normally—head down, nose in books, everything safe. Although, there was one thing: in the hallway this one kid bumped into me and looked at me questioningly as I passed. But, he probably didn’t notice anything… And, there was that girl who commented on my new “manicure.” Ugh, it was stupid of me to come to school today. Then again, when did I ever miss school?
When the final bell rang, I was grateful. I bolted so fast that Hasani had a difficult time catching up to me. He looked surprised. I was usually the last out of class. I wasn’t sorry for leaving him behind. He gave me butterflies, and I could not afford any involuntary, emotional tail-twitches. When he did, he asked me why I had rushed out so quickly, I explained that I had a...migraine.
“Oh, yeah?” He replied with a raise of a single dark eyebrow. I just rolled my eyes and kept walking. It was a playful eye-roll—not too serious, not too flirtatious, just right. About halfway to my house, we stood in his driveway, parting ways with a hug, just like always, except maybe a little looser. For the rest of the walk home, I couldn’t stop myself thinking about his smoldering eyes and perfect olive skin and thick pink lips. My chest felt hot whenever he was around. We'd been friends for years, but what if he found out what was happening to me, that I had a segmented tail, a stinger, and fangs and claws? He probably wouldn’t want to be my friend, nevermind anything more.
A muffled scream cut through my daydreams. It was far away but clear. Hasani was gone. Then I heard the gruff hiss of her attacker, “Die, witch!” No. Not another one. I felt the burning of the scorpion pendant around my neck, and everything came suddenly into clear focus. I dropped my wrap and my bags and sprinted off in the direction of the sound. It was about two-and-a-half blocks to my right. I no longer needed my eyes. As I leapt into the air and dug my claws into the wall of the building across the street, the people below me became vague areas of light and shadow. I crawled quickly from building to building, soaring above the streets of Cairo. My skirt caught on something—a merchant’s awning, maybe? I let it rip and kept going. I stopped, finally, on a rooftop above an alley that was dark, even at 3:20pm. I looked down, and my eyes refocused until I could clearly see a tall, thick, bearded man holding a slim girl about my height by her throat, pushing her against the wall. He was covered head to toe in sludge-colored scales. In what seemed like slow motion, he reached behind him and pulled an object from his back pocket. I heard the quiet thwick! before I saw the gleam of the pocketknife. I sprang, fangs bared, claws outstretched, tail high above my head. Despite his obvious disorientation, he fended me off, throwing me to the side. I landed on my feet and leapt at him again. My stinger lashed out, lightning-quick, and I heard his cry before I saw him fall, clutching at his arm. I looked up, but the girl had already taken off. I saw a flash of dark hair as she rounded the corner and escaped. What a rush! Up the other wall I flew and leapt across rooftops, finally on my way home.
The next morning’s news broadcast told of a monster-woman, whom the public called “Scorpia”, flying through the streets causing chaos. "The story was first reported by someone who claimed to see her up close: a 16-year-old Kemetic Witch named Abi." Her picture came onscreen, and, except for her long, dark hair, it was like looking in a mirror. It was followed by a picture of me. "Nobody believed the young girl’s story until this photo and many more like it were sent to CBC. Unfortunately, nobody was able to get a clear picture of the woman’s face." Thank Serket. At the sound of Uncle Ammon’s closing door, I grabbed the remote and switched the channel, then turned the TV off and went to go finish getting dressed and call Hasani to beg for the schoolwork that I had stupidly dropped in the street.
A few days passed, but I couldn’t let go of that rush. I covered up at school, but when I got that feeling, that burning in my chest or that pit in my stomach, I knew that someone needed my help. In one week, I had taken nine criminals off the street—hand-delivered them to the police, paralyzed by the venom from my sting. And as time went on, I got better. I learned to effectively stalk my prey, to control the amount of venom in my sting, to retract my claws when in public. I learned to heal myself. I modified the outfit from that first day, bought some black boots so that I wouldn’t ruin my school shoes, and created a symbol—a scorpion in the shape of an “S” that I plastered onto the front of my costume.
Three months later, Hasani and I were spending our Saturday afternoon in an old playground. We took turns pushing each other on the swings, and I let him be better at it than I was. Suddenly, he grabbed the chains and pulled me back down to Earth.
“So, what do you see?” he said. I looked up, trying to find a shape in the clouds.
“A hammer.” I stood. He looked at me.
“A…” he paused.
“Ha! Hesitation, I win!”
“Whatever, my turn.”
Then, I felt it, my chest burning, hotter than ever before. The earth started quaking, and I looked around, wide-eyed.
“What’s wrong?”, he said.
There was something about his voice...I looked down, my scorpion pendant had turned red. He turned to me, his eyes playful, yet intense.
“What do you see, now?”
I looked up, and saw something flash in the trees above the park I took a step back to steady myself, and he landed, right in front of me: the lizard-man from that first day in the alley. I looked over at Hasani, but he just stood with his arms cross and his face twisted into a wry smile. No. He reached, slowly, behind him...No… and pulled out a knife. And they went for me, together,
Twenty minutes later, I fell through through the door of our apartment, scratched, bruised, and terrified. I dropped my bag in front of the door and went to the kitchen to wash myself up. But, when I walked in, I saw Uncle Ammon, watching the CBC’s latest installment of the “Scorpia” series, an as-it-happens documentary on Cairo’s new vigilante.
Uncle Ammon beckoned me to the table. I discreetly shifted my tail out of the way before taking the seat across from him. In the middle of the table, he had set Maintaing Maat, a small children’s book that he had published in hieroglyphics with translations in English and Arabic.
“It’s not what it looks like.”
“Did you think I would just never watch the news?”
“Kanika, this book tells the story of the goddess Nehebka who guards the Underworld and betrayed the other gods by trying to release Apep, the snake-god of evil and chaos upon the world. He is the enemy of Maat, the goddess of all that is good and just.”
“I know. You read this story to me every night at bedtime for years. You’re not mad?”
“It’s not just a story, darling.” I suddenly felt sick. “ I did not make it up. Nehebka is your sister. Your mother, my sister, is Serket, goddess of—”
I laughed, loudly.
“Scorpions and healing magic,” he finished. “Kani, I was weakened by your sister when she became a servant of Apep, and released seven of his other servants to prime the world for destruction. I am not Ammon but Amun-Ra. I took this form to—”
I pushed myself away from the table, hard. “Stop. What...what are you doing?! They’ve been killing people! Do you have any idea what people would do to you for saying something like that?!” I walked away from him. I had never done that before. I turned my back on him and looked out the window. “Look, if you don’t want me going out anymore, then fine. I never asked for this. I don’t want it.” I took off the scorpion pendant, and threw it at the wall across the room. It clattered deafeningly.
“Kanika, listen to me. This is important, I know you’ve felt it: the tremors, the dizziness, the weakness.”
“This is real. This is the prophecy, that at sixteen, a witch will rise. The murders—don’t you understand? You were the target. I don’t want you to stop, in fact, I need you to win. You are the only one who can stop them.”
“Was one of them.”
“You knew? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Would you have listened?”
My chest felt hot again, the earth quaked, and there was a deafening roar. Outside, the hum of the street became a concert of screams. I fell to my knees.
“Your powers are yours. They do not come from the amulet. That was a gift from your mother, a catalyst, a symbol. The choice to fight is yours. Take it, or we will all perish.”
A magnificent crash came from the roof, shaking the whole house. Two more just like it shook the walls. I did not need Serket’s amulet to tell me that we were surrounded. Even my uncle was shaken by the cacophony. I struggled to my feet, and dashed across the room the grab the amulet. I found my disguise in the bag by the door and stood for a moment in front of the threshold, steeling myself with the knowledge I had just gained. Deep breaths, Kanika. With a large inhale, I created a golden bubble of calm around myself. And on the exhale, I healed myself of all wounds. I was Kanika, Daughter of Serket, Protecter of Peace, Maintainer of Maat. When I came back, Amun-Ra had a gift or me, an ornate mask, created by him, and enchanted with what little power the gods still had. I put it on, and looked out the window at the lightning-storm brewing over the cradle of civilization. In one swift motion, I opened windowpane, and leapt out into the night.
I was Scorpia.