Gods and Plagues
Oliver felt a familiar grin creasing its way across his face.
He recognized the tone in Diana’s voice. It was the same emotion that overtook him every time he discovered a true relic in some ancient tomb or long abandoned temple. No matter how hard he had to work to find the place, how far he had to crawl through mud, how many armed rivals he faced, or how many supernatural wards stood between him and escape, that moment of first beholding a genuine fragment of refined cosmic power always brought a grin to Oliver’s face and a chill to his spine.
“It looks like the tunnel opens just above some sort of viewing platform, behind a statue of some sort. I can see the chamber through the statue’s legs. Below the platform there’s an altar. The staff is laying on the ground beside the altar, amid a pile of bones.”
“Break through. We’ll see if we can get to the staff before Kyle and his men get here.”
Diana did as he said, smashing away the remainder of the slate with the butt of her flashlight and slipping out to crouch behind the left leg of the statue. Oliver followed her and knelt behind the statue’s right leg to survey the room.
They knelt upon a raised stone plinth, upon which stood the larger than life statue of a man. Oliver could not see the face from where he crouched, but looking up past the man’s back he saw that the man was depicted wearing the headdress of a pharaoh. Over each shoulder he could just see the tops of the crossed scepter and flail that were the symbols of his position.
This must be the Ramesses II, Oliver thought. Standing guard in the room where the symbol of his ancestors’ shame was made subject to the power of all the gods of Egypt.
Another statue, smaller, but still larger than life, stood a dozen feet to the right of the one they crouched behind, clutching a large bronze sword. Oliver immediately recognized the proud profile of that effigy as Sephor.
Looking out beyond the Pharaoh’s leg, Oliver saw that the room was built in a perfect square, with a high observation platform surrounding a depression in the center. Eight stone pillars stood around the central area, two on each side of a set of wide steps leading down to an altar of cast bronze. Spaced out around the edges of the platform, only faintly visible in the dim light that gleamed out from narrow slits in the ceiling, were a number of shadowy niches cut into the stone of the walls. At least a dozen scorched and shattered skeletons, some bare and others swathed in layers of tattered cloth, lay in various poses of disarray around the platform and down the steps. Many of the clothed skeletons lay beside the rusted and splintered remains of French army swords and muskets.
At the center of all this stood the altar, bathed in the soft glow of daylight that had traveled far through numerous passages and reflected from many ancient bronze mirrors. The altar was built of a pure white stone and inscribed with densely packed hieroglyphs running in rows across its surface and sides. Atop the altar rested two simple curved stones, each notched at the top as if to hold a rod in place so it would rest without rolling away. But that rod, the very shepherd’s staff that Moses had carried with him into Egypt and used to call down the wrath of the Hebrew god upon the Egyptians, had then carried with him through their sojourn in the desert, had used to draw forth water from desert rocks and channel divine power to strengthen his troops in battle, did not rest peacefully upon the altar.