There was heightened security around certain areas in the palace complex but not as much restriction as he had anticipated. While he was asked why he was there, his simple reply that it was to pick up something he needed had not been questioned. Thankfully, Messheps had decided not to keep the ritual in an area directly associated with him, otherwise, Merenra would not have been able to reach it.
It still puzzled him that he was not being questioned, given everyone knew they worked together as and when the High Priest required it. Removing the ritual scrolls from where they had been hidden, Merenra placed them in his bag and headed to his office. As much as he knew Messheps was waiting for him, and that remaining any longer than necessary was probably not a good idea, he still didn't want to walk away without a word.
While he was going through his office, sorting things out, Amensekhem, Karmeki and Toren joined him. While it didn't look like an impending arrest, their presence certainly blocked his way out. Maintaining an air of calm, he motioned for them to make themselves at home, while waiting for them to state their business with him.
"You were meant to be taking a few days' rest."
"Yes, my Lord, I know. I merely came to collect a few things."
"Are you aware of the situation?"
"I am aware from the presence of the guards and their placement that there is some issue concerning the High Priest but not what that is."
"Has he ever spoken to you regarding any plans, or made comments you found unusual?"
"I am not sure I follow, Nesut. I cannot think of any conversation I feel obliged to recount, however."
"Do you believe he would act against me?"
"No. Messheps is not his father, I have never seen any hint that he desires power."
"I see. We do not currently know his whereabouts, please report it if you hear from him."
"If I may be excused for speaking…Mer, you're distracted, what's wrong?"
"I'm fine, Toren."
"That doesn't answer me. What distracts you?"
"I'm contemplating leaving and don't know how to proceed, especially now."
"For what reason?"
"I have never sought such responsibility, General. Though given all that has occurred recently, I am also concerned my holding this position is a danger to the people."
"There was a lot of interest shown in you?"
"Yes. I'm not convinced the situation would have been so severe without my involvement. After everything, I just need to get away and do something for myself for a change."
Amensekhem frowned at the conversation, though it was clear that no one was pleased to hear his thoughts. Whether they liked it or not, didn't change the fact that he had completely lost interest in remaining, since his conversation with Ra. He had given unquestioningly for nearly his entire life, it was not wrong to care for himself for a change instead.
"It saddens me to hear your words, however, I know no good will come of trying to keep you. If allowing you to spread your wings and explore your wants, will keep you loyal to us and perhaps encourage you back again, I shall not stop you."
Merenra bowed, showing his gratitude to the young ruler for his understanding. After more words passed between them, regarding all manner of topics and concerns, Merenra was finally able to depart. While the conversation had been cordial and showed no suspicion towards him, that didn't mean he wouldn't be tailed, so Merenra headed home. Once he knew it was safe, he would join Messheps. Risking leading the guards to the ritual site was the last thing they needed, so caution was the best option, even if the others were waiting on him.
An hour after he had returned home, Laith slipped into the house and collected the scrolls from him. They agreed that if Merenra was not at the site by nightfall, either he or Nub would assist him with evading his surveillance. Really, he didn't mind the opportunity to sort through and pack up his things, it was surprisingly therapeutic.
Given he had told Nesut he was leaving, it would be strange for someone to come into his house to find nothing missing. If it was all packed away however, they might not notice. Having everything cleared away would also it easier for whoever emptied the house out for the next occupant, once they finally realised he wouldn't be coming back.
Answering a knock at the door, Merenra found Toren and Demuteth looking at him expectantly. Sighing softly, he moved aside and let them in, as much as he didn't want to. Toren knew him well enough to know there was more going on than what he had said, which was evident by the fact Demuteth was with him. This visit wasn't to say goodbye or ask when he would be back, it was an attempt to interrogate him. More to the pity he was such a good friend and couldn't bring himself to ignore them.
"To what do I owe this visit?"
"You know why we're here, Mer."
"Why is it you're really leaving? What are your plans?"
"And how does the High Priest fit into it?"
"How many questions are you going to ask me without giving me a chance to respond? What makes you think what I said wasn't true?"
"You were too careful with your words. I know you, Mer, I know you phrased it so Nesut would assume what you wanted him to, without you actually lying to him."
"And with everything that's happened lately, and the rumours circulating, it's difficult to believe this is all an innocent coincidence."
"It is part of my job to mind my words, Toren, especially with Nesut, and what are these rumours you speak of Demuteth? I don't believe I've heard them."
"The High Priest is working with the assassin who attacked Nesut when he was still a boy and they are gathering magical items for some unknown purpose, hence the concern. Yet Toren said you answered with certainty that he planned no harm against Nesut. You must know something Merenra, especially given you intend to leave so suddenly."
Merenra smiled despite himself. Clearly they did know far more than had be made clear in the earlier conversation. It seemed perhaps he had not given them enough credit, though while Demuteth had put things together, it didn't guarantee that they had.
"Your logic is sound, though I'd be wary of jumping to conclusions if you wish that logic to serve you. I will give you the answers seek, though, you may well regret asking for them. I have been assisting Messheps in his endeavours since the battle with the thieves, where I was drawn away from you all. However, there is no need for concern. You should both know I wouldn't take such action if I thought there was any risk of harm to the people. Messheps was of much assistance in the apprehension of his father and provided me with useful information to resolve the situation. All we are doing, is leaving, with no intention of ever returning."
"Merenra… Still careful with your words. You have no qualms with your actions?"
"I have felt a lot of guilt and doubt but I have none now. It is what is meant to be."
"Meant to be?! Mer, do you understand what you're saying? How could you possibly…"
"Because Ra himself told me so, Toren. This is the will of the Neteru. I understand how it must seem to you but I haven't strayed, nor have I betrayed you, or anyone else. The path I am walking is the one I am meant to. I'm trying to cater to everyone's needs, and have put myself at risk for it, but Ra's will comes first and I want nothing more than to be at his side."
The statement quietened the two men, neither knowing what could be said in response. While in reality, little time passed, the tense silence felt like it lasted forever. For them, it was the collapse of the one stability they believed would always be there. They also knew all too well that Merenra did not make comments with such certainty, if he didn't know them to be fact. Eventually, Demuteth nodded and pulled Toren to his feet.
"You know we have to report this, Merenra."
With that parting comment, a warning to leave if he did not wish to be arrested, his former squad mates left the premises. Knowing it wouldn't be long before he had other 'visitors', he gathered what few things he needed and left the house. The chances were reasonable that he could lose anyone who was following him, especially if he entered the unsavoury part of the city, which would also give him easy access to the gate he needed to leave by.
The situation was entirely of his own making, a fact that would not have escaped his cohorts but living a life without regret had always been his aim. That was not something he was going to forgo now, just because it was the easier option. How word had gotten out and had reached the upper echelon of the palace was still a curiosity he had no answer to, but that didn't seem to be something he was at fault for. Either way, it was far too late in the game for him to get arrested now, so there was no more room for mistakes.
Once leaving the house, he headed towards the market. There only seemed to be one person shadowing him and he was clearly not trained in tracking and subterfuge. Losing him in the crowded streets and alleyways would not prove difficult, even without trying. If he timed it right, he could blend into the crowd and would be able to leave the city with the merchant caravan. All he needed to do was put on a cloak when there was no one to see it, allowing him to conceal his identity and slip away unnoticed.
He had lost his charge well before he reached the lower district and passed through without incident, which allowed him to join the merchant caravan as planned. Word hadn't reached the gate yet and he was able to pass through and leave the city without issue. Once the caravan had gone far enough away that he would not be seen, he slipped away and headed toward the ritual site.
He hoped that most of the preparations were complete and that it wouldn't be much longer before the ritual was performed. For all the precautions he had taken, he still didn't want to take any longer than necessary, just in case. As he drew nearer the site, he was not surprised to see Laith waiting for him, a slight smirk playing on his features.
"You do make things difficult on yourself, you know?"
"Yes, Laith, I know. How are things proceeding?"
"Messheps apparently needs assistance in carrying out the ritual and has chosen you for the task. He's waiting for you, so he can explain what needs to be done. In terms of physical preparation, we're almost done. Now, go on ahead and I'll make sure you can't be followed."
While the area was tucked away from the open, protected from view by rock faces, it was highly visible as you approached and it was impossible to miss that there was magic being used. Everyone was busy with the preparations, Artureus included, but he passed by without word. He had kept Messheps waiting long enough.
From the look on the High Priest's face as he approached, Merenra knew he was torn between concern and frustration. While Messheps was not known for raising his voice, it wouldn't be the first time he had managed to make his friend shout at him. Given the circumstances, it was probably unlikely he would make a scene but the temptation was clearly there nonetheless.
Ignoring his emotions, Messheps got straight to business, explaining what Merenra needed to do. While it was simple enough, it did finally answer the question as to why Messheps had been so intent on getting him involved. He'd known the requirements and the type of person called for and knew Merenra was a good match. Of course, now he wondered if the Neteru, or at least Ra, were the ones really pulling the strings.
As much as the Netjer had been honest with the pros and cons and said that he would wait if Merenra chose not to participate, he wasn't convinced that the whole thing wasn't orchestrated to ensure he did. Ra had made it clear that his presence was desired and had been for some time. The saying, for everything a reason' suddenly felt far more accurate… Still, whatever the truth was, it didn't change the incessant need to return to Ra's side and remain there.
"You are called, aren't you? Ra wishes to have you?"
"What makes you say that?"
"You have the same look you did when you desired to touch his statue."
Guilty as charged. At this point, it's all that matters…"
"You hold no concern with that?"
"The need is overriding everything else. Of course there are questions but I have always lived with the aim not to displease the Neteru. If this is their will, who am I to question or disobey?"
"Do you wonder if you are naught but a pawn, as I do?"
"I always have, Messheps, the question now is only who pulls the strings, you, or they. Does it matter? Given the situation, is there really any turning back?"
"No, I suppose not, though that does nothing to ease my concerns. Let us get this over with, come what may."
Merenra nodded and followed Messheps. His friend had every reason to be concerned, though whether he knew the ritual did not guarantee entrance was unknown. It felt like goodbye but he couldn't say that to them. This wasn't something he could do without them and Ra would be displeased if he stopped it now because he'd said the wrong thing. It was easier to tell himself he was mistaken, that the feeling was towards his life here, not them.
The ritual progressed, though his actions were autonomous. He could tell Messheps wasn't happy, though that had switched from his risky actions and comments, to what was going to happen. The idea that this could be no more than a game the Neteru had pulled them into for their own ends, clearly did not appeal to him. If they were left behind, if it was only him that was wanted, what would happen to them? They would be left to deal with the aftermath. While he had tried not to drop Messheps any deeper into trouble, Amensekhem was hardly likely to forgive him, let alone allow him to resume his position and the others were considered criminals.
A light was building inside the circle they stood within and he knew there was nothing more he could do, aside from hope for the best for them. He heard his name called and turned to find Nesut with an entourage of soldiers. That did not bode well for his friends if they were denied access… The ritual had been completed, however, and the energy was building rapidly.
Knowing there was no time left, he merely bowed to Amensekhem, hoping the young ruler would understand this act was not a betrayal. While it didn't matter for him, the uncertain fate of the others concerned him. He heard Setepennub say his name but moments later, everything was engulfed in light and he couldn't respond. It was all over…
Merenra stood near one of the many lakes outside the palace, utterly confused. He couldn't remember why he was out here or what he'd been doing. There was a vague sense of heat and light, and of people, but nothing more. He couldn't have been with anyone else though, or they'd still be here… So, what had he been doing? It felt important, like he should remember it but he couldn't get any more than that strange feeling, which felt almost like a dream.
He heard Ra approach and smiled, turning to greet him. Whatever he had been doing couldn't be that vital, certainly not if his Lord required him. Ra placed a hand on his head, a pleased smile on his face. What it was for, he couldn't tell, nor was he going to ask.
"It is almost time for the journey through Duat, would you like to come with me?"
"I am always happy to be at your side. If you wish me there, it shall be so."
"Then come, little one, let us create a new dawn."