In the cool, incense-filled heart of the temple, the sun had not yet sent its lance across the marble of the floor. Anhotep, priest of Isis and of Amun, stood before the altar stone in the silence, his hands folded into the pleated linen of his sleeves. He had lit the noon offering of myrrh in its dish and watched as the wisps of scented smoke rose and coiled in the dimly lit chamber. Before him, in the golden cup, the sacred mixture of herbs and powdered gems and holy Nile water sat in the shadows waiting for the potentising ray to hit the jewelled goblet and fall across the potion. He smiled with quiet satisfaction and raised his gaze to the narrow entrance of the holy of holies. A fine beam of sunlight struck the rim of the doorframe and seemed to hover like a breath in the hot shimmer of the air. It was almost time.
"So, my friend. It is ready at last." The sacred light was blocked as a figure stood in the doorway behind him; the sun's ray bounced crooked across the floor, deflected by the polished blade of a drawn sword.
Anhotep drew breath sharply. Here in the sacred temple, in the presence of Isis herself, he had no weapon. There was nothing with which he could protect himself, no one he could call. The sacrilege you plan will follow you through all eternity, Hatsek." His voice was strong and deep, echoing round the stone walls of the chamber. "Desist now, while there is time."
"Desist? When the moment of triumph is finally here?" Hatsek smiled coldly. "You and I have worked towards this moment,
brother, through a thousand lifetimes, and you thought to deprive me of it now? You thought to waste the sacred source of all life on that sick boy pharaoh! Why, when the goddess herself has called for it to be given to her?"
"No!" Anhotep's face had darkened. "The goddess has no need of it!"
"The sacrilege is yours!" The hiss of Hatsek's voice reverberated round the chamber. The sacred potion distilled from the very tears of the goddess must be hers, by right. She alone mended the broken body of Osiris, and she alone can renew the broken body of the pharaoh!"
"It is the pharaoh's!" Anhotep moved away from the altar. As his adversary stepped after him, the purifying ray of sunlight sliced the darkness like a knife and struck the crystal surface of the potion, turning it to brazen gold. For a moment both men stared, distracted by the surge of power released from the goblet.
"So," Anhotep breathed. "It has succeeded. The secret of life eternal is ours."
"The secret of life eternal belongs to Isis." Hatsek raised his sword. "And it will remain with her, my friend!" With a lunge he plunged the blade into Anhotep's breast, withdrawing it with a grunt as the man fell to his knees. For a moment he paused as though regretting his hasty action, then he raised the bloody blade over the altar, and in one great sweeping arc, he brought it down on the goblet, hurling it and the sacred potion it contained to the floor.
"For you, Isis, I do this deed." Setting the sword down on the altar he raised his hands, his voice once again echoing round the chamber. "None but you, oh great goddess, holds the secrets of life and those secrets shall be yours forever!"
Behind him, Anhotep, his bloodied hands clutching his chest, somehow straightened, still on his knees. His eyes already glazing over, he groped, half blind, for the sword above him on the stone. Finding it, he dragged himself painfully to his feet and raised it with both hands. Hatsek, his back to him, his eyes on the sun disc as it slid out of sight of the temple entrance, never saw him. The point of the blade sliced between his shoulder blades and penetrated down through his lung into his heart. He was dead before his crumpled form folded at the other man's feet.
Anhotep looked down. At the base of the altar the sacred potion lay as a cool, blue-green pool on the marble, stained by the curdling blood of two men. Staring at it for a moment, Anhotep looked round in despair. Then, his breath coming in small painful gasps, he staggered across to a shelf in the shadow of a pillar. There stood the chrismatory, the small, ornate glass phial in which he had carried the concentrated potion to the holy of holies. He reached for it, his hands slippery with blood, and turned back to the altar. Falling painfully to his knees, sweat blinding his eyes, he managed to scoop a little of the liquid back into the tiny bottle. Fumbling with shaking fingers, he pressed in the stopper as far as it would go, smearing blood over the glass. In one last stupendous effort he pulled himself up and set it down on the back of the shelf in the darkness between the pillar and the wall, then he turned and staggered out towards the light.
By the time they found him lying across the entrance to the holy place, he had been dead for several hours.
As the bodies of the two priests were washed and embalmed, the prayers said for their souls stipulated that they serve the Lady of Life in the next world as they had failed to serve her in this.
It was the high priest's order that the two mummies be laid inside the holy of holies, one on each side of the altar, and that it should then be sealed forever.