From the author: A soldier in Napoleon's Army during the Egyptian campaign meets a supernatural force.
The night of the kidnapping started out well. Edouard Desrochers sat outside of his tent while drinking wine and gazing at the starry sky. The banks of Damanhur’s canals shone under the moonlight. Desrochers admired how the place had been constructed, its monuments built to honor Horace.
As a cavalryman in Napoleon’s army and part of Division Dumas, he came to Egypt believing that he was serving a purpose of remedying the people’s degeneracy through modernity. It felt as though less of that had happened, and more soldiers had killed themselves after realizing their canteens were never going to be refilled on the plains of Egypt’s scorching, unforgiving sands.
Desrochers finished his drink. He yearned to wander into the city again, peering over the inland waterways at the columns inscribed with Pharaonic letterings. Candles were lit outside the houses and shops. It had been a four day march from Alexandria to Damanhur, and all he could focus on now was retrieving more alcohol, bread, honey, and cheese to help fight the fatigue and boredom found in between the battles.
Desrochers stood up, walked into his tent, and put on his sand worn uniform. He could remember the days when he had donned his wartime apparel with pride, and now it was nothing more than a burdensome artifice. It was comprised of a blue coat with a piped red collar, cuffs with flaps, turn backs with crimson epaulettes, straps, pewter buttons, lapels and white gauntlet gloves. He had his dragoon musket with a bayonet and sword, should local mufti turn against him on his sojourn for more wine.
He stared across the way, finding a mound of huts that resembled dovecotes. There were mosques and minarets visible among tall palm trees and date groves.
In case a higher ranking leader in the cavalry was to see him leave his post, he crept behind the row of tents and remained slouched.
When he neared the edge of his Cavalry’s set up, he saw a blazing fire. Three men were sitting around it. Upon closer inspection, he recognized them as Generals Lannes, Desaix, and Murat.
“We will tell Napoleon that we refuse to March past Cairo,” one of them said.
“Yet we have been promised lots of bread once we get there,” Lannes said.
“I do not believe that we had to come all the way to Africa to have bread.”
For a second, Desrochers felt less alone in his sentiments, although he also knew that if Napoleon were to have overheard this conversation, the three of them would have been tried for insubordination before sunrise.
Desrochers went into Damanhur by maintaining walking in as straight of a line he could in spite of his slight intoxication, concealing himself among the shadows so as to not risk being spotted by the trio.
He crossed a sandstone pathway over the waters, passing a mosque that had one tower piercing the heavens, and a sloping roofed building dotted with a connected sharp stone fencing.
The town was quiet and filled with the scent of herbs, spices, and cooked lamb. He walked towards a hut that did not have a front barrier. There was a shelf in the back lined with wine jars. Desrochers walked up to them and grabbed four, hugging them to his chest as if they were abandoned infants, almost crying out of happiness while clutching them.
An arm wrapped around his throat and cut off his air. He dropped all of the wine to the ground and the bottles shattered at his feet.
Nomads surrounded him. They had shiny weaponry and silky apparel. Their uniforms were opulent with tops made of white cotton, high collars, triangular sleeves tied back with cords, and curved daggers in their hands.
Desrochers was struck in the back of the head with the hilt of a sword. Darkness enveloped him.
His eyelids felt heavy as he opened them and squinted at the sun. He was slung over a horse and his hands were tied behind his back. He was surrounded by his captors, all of whom were also on horseback. Desrochers recognized them immediately. His Division had thought of these caste warriors as Arabs, but most villagers referred to them as Bedouins. Desrochers was aware that this sect had been kidnapping French soldiers and holding them for ransom. Desrochers knew the painful truth of how he was considered expendable in the grand vision of the campaign. Most of the soldiers with any common sense knew themselves to be easily replaced, so the likelihood of him escaping this group by formal payment was not an option he was willing to hold out hope for. He took in a visual sweep of the perimeter by shifting his eyes, careful not to give away the fact that he had regained wakefulness.
Desrochers moved his body long ways and kicked one of the Bedouins in the back with enough force to cause him to fall off. The Bedouin landed face first and his body went limp. Desrochers slid off, jumped upwards, turned around, and unsheathed one of the daggers off of the unconscious man’s hip after crouching down to fetch the weapon, reversing it and cutting the material. He proceeded to stab the next one to approach him.
Desrochers sprinted towards a Bedouin and wrapped his arms around the man’s torso, pummeling him into the sand before sinking his knife into the captor’s chest.
Two more rushed towards him. Looking down, he saw that his pistols were hooked on the dying Bedouin’s belt. He retrieved them and fired a couple of shots at the approaching men. They collapsed. He grabbed his saber, which was resting in its sheath on the back of the horse that he had just been slung over. He decapitated all of them, screaming with each downward heave.
There was no water on any of the enemies when he searched the scene after the battle. He wiped the blood off the blade. He placed all of his weaponry and equipment back on, including a different sword of Damascene steel that he had taken a week prior. He left the dead on the plains and walked away into a nearby wide valley on the healthiest horse in the group.
Desrochers had no idea how to get back to Damanhur. As the hour passed, his throat became parched. He knew as the horse galloped across an endless array of dunes that he was stranded.
His lips were cracked. Sweat was staining his uniform. It had been an hour since his escape, but it felt like days. He thought of Sidonie, his wife left behind in Marseille. She was pregnant with their first child when he had left her behind to fight. He knew this war was all based in trade, made to benefit Napoleon and Napoleon alone and not his homeland of France, and suspected that because of it was he was never going to meet the son or daughter destined to carry on his name.
He saw a tent’s outline in the distance. He trotted his horse into a faster run with a push from the stirrups, and within minutes he was in front of it. Hopping off of the saddle, he made sure to touch the fabric of the tent so as to prove it was not a mirage.
Desrochers walked around the front, opened the flap, and peered in. He did not see anything in that darkness at first, so he tied his horse to one of the wooden stakes which kept the tent secured, and then peered inside of it once more.
A young-looking woman with black shining hair and dark skin stared up at him. She was wearing a dress made of linen and flax plant, a rectangular piece of cloth that had been folded once and sewn down the edge into a tube-like form. The narrow straps were wide enough to cover her breasts and hold the cloth in place. She was stunning. He had seen a few emir and Mamlukwomen who were beautiful, but none like her.
“Do you have any water?” Desrochers asked.
The woman stood up and gave him a puzzled look. He knew that he should have presumed she did not speak any French.
Desrochers motioned with a finger to his lips and began miming holding an invisible jug, pouring the imaginary contents into his mouth with his head held back.
She beckoned him to follow. She opened the rear of the tent flap and walked outside.
Desrochers followed for a few acres across the desert and was soon walking between two pillars which were as tall as the Notre-Dame de la Garde Cathedral in his homeland.
The landscape shifted into a series of downward sloping steps leading underneath the sand. She led him into the darkness, and he was grateful to have a shade of some kind, even if the temperature was still unbearable.
He had entered something more than just a makeshift residency. The place was a temple.
Desrochers was in a catacomb filled with lined up terracotta boxes stretching all the way to the nether of the chamber. He brushed aside cobwebs that his guide seemed to walk through without the least bit of worry as if her form was liquid.
Along the walls were paneled frames showing illustrations of perched falcons that resembled rectangular figures, different from the sort of art he had seen in France. The strange glyphs were ornately detailed. The birds were stationed perpendicular to the kings, their wings wrapped around the throne keeper’s heads.
As they continued walking, Desrochers watched as the mud-brick barriers soon turned into fine alabaster with drawings on the surfaces. As they descended deeper, the area became much more architecturally sophisticated. There was a dark inked illustration depicting a figure holding up a giant while standing on the body of another. There were drawings of sepulchral items, forms of crowned headwear, spirals and eyes. The sight of murals and ancient writing systems documented before him left him feeling disoriented. As he peered at all of the panoramic abstract designs, he began to notice a theme amongst them. Each one had a vivid depiction of numerous seascapes.
The woman slowed her pace, and darkness descended upon the catacomb. She walked up to the right hand wall, and a torch flickered on, its radiance filling the room.
They were standing on Tura limestone. After another few minutes, they walked into a court divided by rows of columns. Pictorial frescoes and carvings of scarabs, solar disks, and vultures adorned both edges. In the center of this array was a pool inside of a framework of red granite. He theorized that this was an underground channel, probably built for the transportation of goods.
It had to have been the freshest looking water Desrochers had ever seen. He ran towards the water and dropped to his knees, lapping it into his mouth. The immediate disappointment sunk in that it did not taste as good as it looked because of its copper tinge, as if it were tainted with stagnation.
Looking through the crystalline sheet of its surface, he observed a pile of gold coins in the shape of sheep. He reached his hand in and plucked some, before looking over his shoulder to see if the woman would consider this act disrespectful.
Desrochers did not pick up on the faintest sound of her moving near. She was right beside him. The woman slashed at him with her hands and took him to the ground. Desrochers pushed her off and ran deeper into the chamber past the water. What he found behind the column made him take in a deep breath, the strong smell of ocean salt filling his lungs.
There were rows of bodies lined up like the coffins he had seen earlier, all of them with open mouths of terror. They were lying in a deep pool of murky water with bits of skin floating to the top. All of the dead were French soldiers. Some had their skin flayed from their bones. Many of the ones had their hearts ripped through their centers, resembling a balloon that had been turned inside out, exposing their rib cages and chest cavities. Others had their mouths open wide with fleshy stubs in place of tongues. One had five swords protruding from his front. Most looked as though they had had their veins stripped from the flesh, left to dangle at their feet like the melted wax of a candle collected in its holder.
Even in the midst of this sight, it occurred to Desrochers that there were many coins near the feet of the dead. He grabbed the sheep shaped ones and placed them in his pockets.
Desrochers turned around and saw her charging at him. He pulled out his musket and shot her. The bullet sunk into her chest, but no blood was visible. He pulled out his Damascene sword and swung it at her neck when she advanced closer. The steel passed through her without a single wince of pain showing on her face, and the metal cut through her as if he was parrying with a water fall.
A wave came up and slammed him to the floor. When he on his feet again, the woman raised her hands as if in prayer. The canal soon rose, carrying him away like he was a pigeon caught in a hurricane. He was fully immersed within seconds. He held his breath, looking around to see his drowned men, their faces bloated and blue. He would have sworn that he saw translucent, bluish smoky shapes identical to the dead trying to escape their tormented forms.
When Desrochers reached the surface again, he gasped for air. The woman was gliding towards him, her feet elevated above the surface, rivulets at her sides spurting upwards in a frothy foam and twisting around her shape in ribbons of distorted streams.
Still gripping his sword, Desrochers sheathed it instead of letting it drop into the abyss. He swam to the left corner where there was a cobbled wall with stones protruding outwards. He gripped one of them, lifted himself up, and began scaling the barrier, using each jutting rock as a step to reach the ceiling. He pulled out his sword and rammed the blade upwards and pulled it free.
It was as though he had pierced a giant hourglass. Sand crashed down and smothered the woman. The noise of her screaming echoed throughout the chamber. The waters rose again, carrying the corpses. The sand coalesced and absorbed into the feminine water form, causing her to disappear as she shrieked.
He leaped and slid down the dune. He walked backward while looking at the muddy wall and then skirted around the first pool he had encountered, which was half full of sand. He skirted around it with a superstitious sense of the unknown possibly resurrecting.
Desrochers escaped the subterranean temple and made his way back to the tent. He untied his horse and rode it away. The area behind him exploded in a maelstrom of rocks and mud. A large geyser flowed upwards as the pillars that had stood toppled into one another and crumbled. An infinite blanket of droplets resembling the destruction of cannon fire fell to the ground like a heavy storm’s rainfall, and the distant echoing of the woman’s shrieking was heard.
Nightfall descended, but he did not sleep, nor did he allow his horse to rest until he came across his Division’s campsite.
Desrochers was near the village of Biktil. Upon entering and seeing familiar Cavalrymen, his peers ripped him from his saddle and tied his hands with a rope before dragging him into a tent.
He looked up. General Dumas was standing before him.
“On your knees!” one of the soldiers shouted, kicking his legs out from behind, causing Desrochers to fall to the ground.
“Edouard Desrochers,” General Dumas said, “we are about to engage in significant conflict. If there has ever been a time when absconding should be punished with the utmost severity, it is now.”
“I did not run away, General. I was kidnapped by Arabs.”
“We did not hear of any ransom.”
“I escaped. They are headless in hell.”
The General looked at him for a long moment. “Desrochers, you have seen the effects of this campaign. Our men have been dying of thirst, fatigue, plague, and suicide. Two brothers in our forces that I grew fond of threw themselves into the Nile right in front of me the other day. Two thousand men have given their lives. Attempting to run away from it all out of fear will not be tolerated, especially if you try to hide it by making up a fanciful tale.”
“None of it is a lie.”
“General Francois Mireur of Montpellier condemned this campaign in a speech,” Dumas said, “saying he wished to leave for Italy. Bonaparte did not take well to that at all, and ended Mireur’s career. Do you know what Mireur did after that? He went out into the desert and blew his brains out. This quest for the sovereignty of the Egyptian people is such that even expressing the idea of being elsewhere comes with its own penalty. Given what has happened, just imagine what kind of retribution I am allowed to deliver you.”
“General Dumas, I can lead you to the site where the bodies of my kidnappers lay if the sand has not swallowed them.”
“Your tenacity is not admirable when it is fabricated. I trust rogues more than imbeciles because rogues at least take a rest.”
“General,” one of the soldiers said while stepping into the tent, “the horse that Desrochers came in on is a Bedouin horse. The breastplate, bridle, and the saddle is designed in their way.”
Desrochers gulped. His life, since coming to Egypt, had not been something he looked forward to every day upon waking up, but he wanted to see France again.
“I have an unborn child in Marseille,” Desrochers said. “I have not committed treason, and I promise that if you let me live, I will help bring liberation to this land and many others.”
Dumas stared at him for a second. Desrochers had heard rumors that Dumas was also looking forward to potential fatherhood.
Dumas stared at him and the other soldier for a while longer before waving his hands upwards.
“Untie him,” Dumas said. “Desrochers, this has been an inconvenience. I am proud you escaped. It is up to us to be there for our children before they are adults. We will give you food, but do not get comfortable, because we are about to embark on our biggest fight yet.”
The tricolor flag flew high during the battle of the Pyramids. Many of the Mamluk’s and infantry drowned while they tried to swim to safety. The French killed over three thousand enemies and threw many headless bodies into the water. Crocodiles rose to the surface and carried away the dead, including some of the soldiers who tried to retreat or cool off in the sweltering sunlight.
In Cairo, Desrochers enjoyed wine, watermelon, and, for the first time in a long while, sleep.
After the siege of Jaffa, over three thousand and nine hundred Turkish prisoners were captured after the French took the fortress.
Through festivities at night before the siege, Desrochers had befriended a mutual friend of Bonaparte’s, Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne, a Diplomat who had arrived in Egypt as Napoleon’s personal secretary. Bourrienne would later comment on a quote to Desrochers that Napoleon had made regarding the decision after Jaffa was conquered.
“What am I to do with these men?” Napoleon surmised with a tone of profound sorrow. “Have I food for them? Ships to convey them to Egypt or France? Why, in the devil’s name, have they served me thus?”
The order was commenced. Desrochers engaged in the act which would give him nightmares for the rest of his life. He fired on the prisoners on that beach and watched as many tried to escape and were drowned. The massacring persisted for a day, where some of Napoleon’s men followed the Jaffa prisoners into the water and bayoneted them.
When pillaging for more wine later that night, he came across an Egyptian text at that fortress hidden beneath a slab of basalt and a shelf full of dusty tomes. While the writing was incoherent due to how primeval it was, he saw an illustration of a woman dressed like the one he fought in the cavernous temple.
His curiosity got the better of him. Accompanied by a friend of his who was also a translator, he showed the text to a local Egyptian cleric who lived above a Bazaar. The mystic was recommended to him by some of the locals he had befriended.
The room was carpeted with red and filled with old antique objects. There was smoked crystal ware on the shelves.
“He cannot read the text,” the translator said while swatting away flies, “but he is familiar with the story.”
“Ask him who the woman is,” Desrochers said.
“He says that this is the goddess of Egypt called the Nu,” the translator said while the cleric spoke. “She is an aquatic water deity, a Goddess of Creation.”
“Does she kill men in any of the lore?”
“Not in any of the written stories. In the spoken tales, however, yes.”
Desrochers thought about how the water deity’s power had lessened once sand had absorbed the moisture. He surmised that she had been feeding off the watery elements of the human body as its life source.
“How does a Goddess such as her treat non-Egyptians?”
The mystic guffawed and began speaking in a faster manner.
“What is he saying?” Desrochers asked.
“More or less, he is saying that we are foreign maritime invaders, using the element she is responsible for to enslave the people who have worshipped her, using water as a mode of travel to get to the land we try to conquer. She would sacrifice us without any hesitation and hold our spirits in order to torture us forever. She would even take great pleasure from it.”
Walking out of the mystic’s abode, Desrochers clutched the text against him as the translator stared at him.
“Your questions were a bit odd,” the translator said. “Edouard, what did you see out there?”
“You and I believe God created the universe the way an inventor would a contraption, and then walked away after engineering it, leaving it alone. What I encountered in that place underground was something I never heard of before, something powerful and water-based that goes beyond everything my church and country have taught me. If our God had allowed an entity like that to exist, then it does further our original concept but casts new light on everything I have ever thought about historic theology. The water has been the greatest tool of death in the Egyptian and Syrian campaign, the one element we all craved the most and also died by just as much as we lusted for it. It has also served as a rebuke upon us.”
“You cannot think you met the Nu,” the translator said.
Desrochers stared at him for a long moment before handing him one of the sheep shaped coins.
“Thank you for your service,” Desrochers said as he walked towards his horse.
Desrochers was part of a flotilla of ships headed for the seaport of Ajaccio, where he dreamed of seeing the Mediterranean again and leaving behind the suicidal expedition for good. On the first night of departure, he stared out at the plains of Egypt from the deck, the sails flapping furiously above him.
He threw the text stolen from Jaffa into the sea.
This story originally appeared in Schlock! webzine.