He had never seen a creature so malignant. Her – he presumed her? – snout was long, and lined with teeth. The curved white of the fangs jutted out against dull armoured hide, flashing in the firelight. Atem swallowed, and her lower jaw lazed idly at him, coyly revealing the shine of her teeth and dark of her gullet. With a crocodile for a head, it seemed redundant that the front half of her body was that of a leopard's, and a careful glance to her back showed the hindquarters of a hippopotamus.
The demoness Ammit was overkill, in physical form, and as Atem shifted, she followed his movements, slitted eyes fixing upon his empty hands. He felt something cool, even slick settle in his spine, and straightened his back against the feeling. Ammit's gaze settled, and a moment later, shifted; her interest lost. Turning with an oddly graceful waddle, Ammit settled her head against the thigh of Osiris, a low purr rippling through her throat.
This time it was Osiris who looked at Atem, and the cold feeling in Atem’s spine turned white hot.
He flung himself hard upon the floor, arms outstretched, murmuring an unintelligible tangle of noises.
“Rise.” The voice was smaller than Atem expected, but he stayed in place, forehead pressing into the rock. “I commanded you to rise - now stand, Iry-Horus Ity Menkhepera-a Atem sa Re,” The voice grew loud in quiet room, and Atem stood uneasily, eyes lowered. “Atem,” his head jerked up, but he continued to watch the floor in fear, “Look to me,” And this time the God’s voice was gentle to the point of painful, like the universe caving in on itself.
Slowly, Atem looked up with watchful eyes.
“Where is your heart, son of Ra?” Osiris asked softly, a single finger gesturing towards Atem’s bare hands. There was a hum of agreement from Anubis, who watched Atem with lamp-like eyes.
Startling, Atem stared at Anubis – this was not the man he had once met. This was instead a jackal-headed thing straight out of his mythology, “I thought you were destroyed,” Atem insisted.
“I’m a God of the Afterlife, not some mortal spawn,” Anubis snapped, baring his fangs, and Atem shrank back. He could see the the glisten of saliva in Anubis' mouth; reality pressing in at the corners of his vision, “Do not mistake me again, or my teeth will find your throat between them.” The God’s pointed ears flicked back, and he wrinkled his nose, “Where is that heart of yours, boy?”
“I-“ Atem had faced Leviathans, and Evils and he steeled himself now to face Gods, “I- I don’t understand.”
“For the weighing, boy,” Anubis’ voice was a growl, strangled by clipped teeth, as the God gestured towards a set of scales, a feather resting on one end. At the movement, Ammit glanced up like an eager dog, before once more resettling against Osiris.
His ieb? His metaphysical heart?
Atem looked at his hollow hands, and realized with disbelief that he did not – in fact – have his heart. It seemed obvious he would not have it: hadn't it been with his body in death? Thousands of years had passed between his death and his trial; his heart would be dust by now.
“I’m afraid I don't have-“ Atem spoke haltingly. After struggling to reach the afterlife, it seemed strange to be barred so close to it, and his attention darted about his mind like a trapped bird, ”I don't have it.” He swallowed, like he was emptying a mouthful of sand into his lungs. "Sorry?"
Osiris and Anubis shared some look that could bring a world to its knees.
“Son of Ra.” Osiris stood and Atem’s spirit quailed at the God’s motion. It was like having his nerves sucked out of him, and his pride was spitting, even with his will floundering. He could hear the universe humming at its binds, in open rebellion with each movement of these Gods, and Atem shook from it, trembling visibly. “We can dispense with the ritual phrases,"
"Pomp and ceremony," Anubis interjected distastefully, his tongue leaking out to lap at his nostrils, and Atem felt his stomach flip.
"Dispensable," Osiris murmured agreeably, "but, Atem," now he looked at Atem almost pitiably, "you cannot be granted passage without your heart." A long sigh that left the world rattling. "Where did you leave it? No- Where do you think you left it?"
Atem pressed a hand to his chest, but let his arm drop, shaking his head at the lack of pulse. Of course this body would not have a heart, “In the past,” He said forcibly, a clot of emotion forming in the pit of his stomach. Atem looked between the Gods questioningly, and Anubis took a step forward, alarming Ammit.
“In the past? What do you know.” Anubis demanded, voice a testy snap of teeth.
“Well, I didn’t think I’d need it,” Atem answered, wringing his hands, “I wasn’t expecting to ever be offered passage,” He looked haplessly between the deities.
“I still wouldn’t,” Anubis informed him, a single ear twitching, and Osiris pressed a hand onto Anubis’ shoulder, squeezing.
“Peace psychopomp,” Osiris hummed, approaching Atem who drew in a tight breath at the sudden closeness of divinity, “He has brought his ren, and his akh, at least,” Osiris pointed out to Anubis, “His ren had wandered far as well; he had to fetch it from his past.”
“That paperwork was annoying…” Anubis muttered touchily, but the God softened, sniffing at the air, “but I still cannot do much for the ra-child without the ieb, whether he has his name or not-”
“My name is Atem,” Atem pointed out without thinking. There was a strange satisfaction in saying it aloud, and clearly. Some clarity of self to hear it and feel it in his throat, no matter that he should interrupt a God to do so.
“We know you have your ren.” Anubis’ soft approach was gone, like the raised hackles of an animal, and he glared at Atem, “What we need is your heart; your wretched ieb to weigh against Ma’at’s blasted feather.”
Atem blinked, surprised at Anubis’ blasphemy, and opened his mouth to speak, but Anubis gestured in annoyance, cutting him off with a glower.
“Well, Ra-boy,” Anubis pointed back towards the doorway, “go get it, will you.”
“What?” Atem stared at the deity.
“Take your akh,” Anubis leant forward to prod Atem firmly in the chest, “and go fetch your ieb then.”
“From the past?” Atem questioned slowly, and Anubis rolled his eyes like a maddened dog. “Then where?” Atem snapped, voice rising, “I told you I left it in the past and if it isn't there, then where is it?”
“How should I know?” Anubis snorted loudly.
“Then how can I possibly fetch it for you?” Atem’s voice was steel-shrill at this point, and Ammit gave a warning growl before Osiris hushed her with a quiet touch. Atem drew in a sharp breath, and let it out again; calmer, he narrowed his eyes at Anubis. “My Lords.”
He licked his lips, and could practically taste his back-talk, but then he had clawed his way through Hell for his Next Life. Apparently it had been a wasted effort.
“Search, perhaps,” Anubis replied idly.
“Search,” Atem repeated, dumb-founded.
“Yes, and when you’ve got it, bring it back to us, so we can get this overdue case done with.” Anubis gave a nod. “It has taken too much time, and too much red tape to bring you to this point – I’ll be drawn and quartered before-” Osiris coughed meaningfully, “Pardon. I’ll be damned,” Osiris coughed louder but Anubis pressed on, “before you let me down.”
“Let you down.” Atem’s voice was disbelieving, and Anubis graced him with a half snarl in answer, when Osiris once more interceded between them.
“You are owed a great debt,” The God clarified. “It would be shameful for Anubis – or any of your Gods – to abandon you to a Limbo between the shores, son of Ra.”
“Looks terrible,” Anubis agreed, settling back. “Not good for PR.” He waved both hands at Atem, like he was shooing an animal. "Well, go on, fetch fetchling."
“This is not what I was expecting,” Atem murmured, and shook his head once more, clearing away his skittering thoughts. At the least he could focus on the issue at hand, “So I must leave and go-“ He tipped his head, “to the past once more to retrieve my heart before it’s gone?”
“Still with the past?” Anubis looked a touch put out, “Distorting the past for the sake of an ieb that isn't only there? It would be like building a pyramid to crush an insect.” Anubis tipped his head, frowning, “You’d just disturb things, maybe hurt them – better to find it now.” He tipped his head, weighting the word deliberately, before carrying on more casually, "or at least give a very good appearance that we all tried to find it.”
“Anubis,” Osiris reprimanded, before looking back at Atem. “You will need to leave your ren and sheut behind – the soul you have now must be kept safe.”
"The sheut is safe," Anubis clicked his teeth, eying Osiris. "But the name too."
“My name?” Atem bristled minutely; it had just been returned to him, but neither God looked his way. “Fine. And my...akh?” Atem’s brow wrinkled in thought, “I don't know what I did with my soul.”
“Of course not,” Anubis snickered, “it'd make our lives easier - yours too. No, you are your ka and your ba.” He looked sidelong. “Not whole, but-“ Anubis pricked an ear questioningly at Osiris. “He cannot fight with his ba, or the whole thing is for naught.”
“I suppose,” Osiris considered reluctantly.
“You suppose,” Anubis repeated, licking his teeth. “Fine, Ra-kid, don’t break that akh of yours.”
“Good advice,” Atem snorted, “some instruction-?”
“You must not reinitiate the ceremony,” Osiris warned suddenly, interrupting Atem, and speaking quickly over Anubis. “You have reached a capitulation to the living ba to access that akh - if you disturb the join of ka and ba, you will exist between lives as a spectre, forever searching out your long-dead body. It would be better to avoid your ba."
"And better to avoid the whole matter?" Anubis asked archly. "Just don't duel your reincarnation."
“Charming,” Atem commented. “Will that be all?”
The Gods, however, had once more turned to each other. “Ba is good for an akh – strong – but this one is too strong, eh?” Anubis grinned toothily at Osiris.
“Spent too long with no ka,” Osiris put in almost reluctantly, “feisty.” The God-King frowned, tone darkening, “and not ours.”
“Don’t complain; it doesn’t suit you,” Anubis rumbled, and his large eyes focused once more on Atem. “Don’t duel him – you’ll lose your akh if you won, even by accident and then how would you get that heart? How would you pass to the field of reeds? You wouldn’t, that’s what.”
“Do not duel Mutou Yuugi – leave most of my soul here,” Atem gave a frustrated hum. “Find my heart.” He paused. "Which is not in the past..." Anubis waved a hand through the air, and Atem continued slowly, "but in the present?"
“Or at least try.” Anubis gave a lop-sided grin, and Atem frowned.
“At least try to find my heart.”
Anubis looked pleased, as though watching a horse perform mathematics and Atem bristled again. “How do I abandon my name?” Atem looked to Osiris. “Is there a ritual?"
"Well, it's round your neck, ra-brat," Anubis chipped in, pointing towards Atem's cartouche. Immediately, Atem clutched at it, as if scrabbling for his own heart, and- that was it, wasn't it? Reluctantly, Atem pulled the chain of the cartouche over his head, and passed it to Anubis. Almost greedily, Anubis gathered it in his hands, and it flashed out of sight between nail and claw.
“Not to worry, little King,” Anubis drawled, words far too kind for his saccharine tone, and Atem narrowed his eyes. “Your ren will wait for you.” Anubis gestured down the corridor with a lazy hand, “We will see you in three days.”
Atem looked towards the hallway, following the line of Anubis’ hand to the back of the corridor. There was none; it was nothing but firelight bleeding into a dark maw, and Atem stared daringly into the abyss, trying to learn the edges of the hall by sight alone. It was although he stared into nothing, and it gazed boredly back at him. After a moment, Atem laughed. “There’s nothing there.” He turned to face Anubis triumphantly. The afterlife did not exist, and Atem met the God’s gaze in challenge.
Abruptly, Anubis turned towards the hallway and barked – actually barked – and Atem jolted in alarm at the suddenness of the sound. As the last of the bark echoed down the hallway, a brilliant light flashed into existence at the unreachable end of it. It was as empty, as the darkness it drove off, but painful to the eye and Atem shielded his face.
“What did you do?” Atem tried to peer into the light.
“I asked, and the afterlife gave.” Anubis picked at his teeth with a claw-like fingernail. “I am a God.”
With that Osiris gave Atem a gentle push towards the hallway, like the glancing strike of a comet, before both Gods vanished from the room. Left alone with Ammit the Consumer of Hearts, Atem trotted back the way he came, and crashing back into the waking world felt uncannily as though the Afterlife had slammed its door in his face.