Oliver and Diana killed nearly an hour sipping drinks and discussing the day’s events at the rooftop bar. Oliver wanted to give Rais Karim time to cool off and leave the hotel, just in case the disgraced spy had harbored any thought of waiting for them at another floor or tracking down their room number to continue their discussion.
Eventually, Diana took a long sip from her drink, then turned to Oliver and said, “I’m telling you Oliver, if Rais and your Senator buddy hadn’t vouched for it, I would have truly believed that the scroll I saw today was a forgery. A truly spectacular example of ancient Egyptian style manufacture, to be sure, but a complete fake less than a century old. I’ve handled paperback books from the twentieth century that were more brittle than that scroll.”
Oliver chuckled and pushed his empty glass away. He leaned one elbow on the bar and looked to Diana, saying, “There is the obvious explanation that the scroll is a fake, but I’m not inclined to go with that. There’s little motivation to fake an artifact in every detail of authentic construction, ink chemistry, and content unless you also artificially age it. So, if we throw that line of thought right out the window, it leaves us with the simple result that this scroll is the genuine article, just remarkably well preserved.”
“But what could protect it so well? I’ve handled artifacts that were sealed in clay jars, hidden in temples, buried in mud, you name it. None of them were even close to that well-preserved. Most scrolls in museums have never been opened or were examined over the course of months, even years, of painstaking unwrapping. These days we don’t even unroll most of them, just use x-rays and MRIs to look into them virtually. But here I am, sipping a Coke and recalling just…” Diana swept her arms apart, “…rolling open a thousand year old scroll.”
Oliver grinned and nodded, but didn’t say anything.
Diana laughed aloud and shook her head. “This isn’t your first time encountering something like this, is it?”
Oliver shook his head. “Far from it.”
“Is it always this exciting?”
“Yep. I still remember my first genuine relic.”
“That’s the one your uncle brought back from South America, right? The one that got you started on all of this tomb raiding business.”
“Precisely. Although I still think I’d have been a legitimate historian if the doctoral board hadn’t taken such a dim view of me pursuing the truth on the university’s dime and reputation.”
Diana nodded gravely and lapsed into silence for a while.
That made Oliver feel bad. He hadn’t meant to shut down their conversation by bringing up the past. His disgraceful fall from the halls of academia was far enough in the past that it hardly bothered him any more. When it had happened, Oliver had spent about six months sulking and posting venomous rants on the internet, but then he had found the next shard and it had rekindled his desire to search for the truth, damn the consequences or obstacles. That was when he had taken up adventure photography as a cover and a means of earning a living, and he had never looked back.
“It’s ok, Diana,” he said when it became apparent that she wasn’t going to speak again without prompting.
She looked up at him. Her eyes searched his for a moment, as if questioning whether he was honestly alright with her bringing up his past.
He nodded and said, “I’ve seen many genuine relics in the last decade. There’s no way of knowing for sure without following the clues, in the case of documents, or attempting to use them, if they are objects of power, but you develop a feeling. These things are special. They aren’t completely part of the natural world anymore and something about them just… feels right.”
“I was afraid to say it. It’s not like my fingers tingled when I touched it or anything silly like that, but I just knew that that scroll was different from any I had touched before. I got this feeling in my head…” She trailed off and stared into the distance over Oliver’s shoulder, lost in her memory of the moment.
“Sounds about right. I wish I’d been able to touch it myself. My guess is that long ago the scroll was blessed in such a way that it doesn’t age or, at the very least, ages at a far slower timescale than the rest of our world.”
“Is that really possible?”
“I’ve seen it a few times before. Armor that never rusted. Bits of food left in temples that are still fresh after hundreds of years.”
“But that’s…” she broke off.
“Afraid to say it?”
“Go ahead. You already believe me about the conspiracy, why not take it one more step?”
Diana drained her soda and set the glass on the bar. She turned away from Oliver and looked out across the rooftop, watching the hotel guests lifting weights, playing tennis, or simply sunning themselves. From this height she could just make out the sands of the surrounding desert across the rooftops and low hanging smog of modern Cairo. It seemed a ridiculous thing to contemplate, but if there was one place to accept the existence of magical relics it was here, in this place where the ancient and modern coexisted everyday.
She turned back to Oliver, who handed her a freshly filled glass of Coke.
“So?” he asked her.
She didn’t need to ask what he meant. “Is it… Is it some sort of magic?”
“You might call it that. I honestly don’t have a real explanation for it yet, but that word is as good as any.”
“But magic is… well, it’s just magic. It’s made up.”
“What about miracles?”
“Well, sure. You don’t grow up the daughter of a Pentecostal minister and not encounter more than your fair share of them.”
“So you believe in miracles, but not magic?”
Diana sighed, shook her head, and took a sip from her drink. She worked her lips, mulling over the implications of what she was about to say. Finally, she set her drink down on the bar and said, “I’ve spent the last fifteen years dissecting myths to see where they intersect with modern culture, Oliver. My rational mind loves to analyze all of the myths told down the ages and explain them away as stories mankind told because we didn’t have the science to understand the universe, but I have to admit that my heart still has a soft spot for dad’s faith healing services, even if I don’t understand them or really believe what he does anymore.”
“That’s my point! Part of your mind insists that everything you grew up believing is completely true, even as another tries to examine it under the cold hard light of rationality. No matter how much you fight it, there is some part of your soul that clings to the faith that those miracles you learned about in Sunday school and saw in church were real. What I need you to do, Diana, is realize that those parts of your psyche don’t have to be in conflict. I don’t have it all figured out yet, but the longer I spend in this line of work the more I’m convinced that this world is filled with secrets that we may never be able to explain as anything but ‘magic.’ I’m starting to think that’s where my quest is leading me: to unlock some sort of secret about how all of this works.”
Oliver sat back, realizing that he had leaned ever closer to Diana as he whispered intently to her. He knew that he would have been waving his arms and nearly shouting with excitement, had they not been sitting in such a public place.
“So you’re calling this a quest now?”
“A bit too melodramatic?”
“Just a little.”
Oliver laughed. “Sorry. I just don’t get much opportunity to explain it to people. The point is that yes, I do think that scroll is protected by something that you might as well call magic.”
“Do you think Kyle and Frank would even have been able to destroy it?”
“Probably. I’ve seen a lot of relics over the ages and none were invulnerable. In my experience, the protection tends to be specific. The scroll probably doesn’t age like you’d expect. Maybe it resists mold and insects, but I strongly doubt that it would survive a bullet or being tossed into a fire.”
“I felt bad telling them it was a fake. Everything in me wanted to take that thing back to a museum and see it preserved forever. And now… Oliver, I just as good as ordered the destruction of a piece of history.”
“Sometimes that’s necessary, Diana. We needed the information on the scroll and there was no way we could afford to purchase it. Besides, if Rais Karim and the Senator are right about the scroll leading to the staff of Moses, the greater good might be to destroy the scroll so that nobody else can find the staff. Speaking of which…”
Oliver reached out and tapped a finger against Diana’s glasses. She grinned again and reached up to take them off her face and examine them.
“I felt like a regular spy wearing these. I can’t wait to see what they captured.”
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The Staff of Moses © 2022, Andrew Linke