Back in Oliver’s hotel room, they downloaded the video captured by the small camera embedded in the frame of Diana’s glasses. As soon as the file transferred she began stepping through the video frame by frame, translating what she could of the hieratic script written on the scroll. The process of translation turned out to be quite tedious, as Diana typed partial translations of each line of the scroll into a word processor, then went back and applied what she had learned from the later portions of the text to revise her translation of earlier portions.
After an hour of tedious work, occasionally interrupted by turning to yell at Oliver for breathing down her neck as he read each translated line over her shoulder, Diana shoved her chair back and jumped to her feet.
“Enough, Oliver,” she shouted. “Leave me alone or do your own damn translation.”
Oliver shrugged and flashed her a playful grin. “You know I can’t read a word of hieratic.”
“Then that settles it,” Diana muttered. She grabbed the laptop from the table and stormed through the doorway into her room, slamming the door shut behind her.
Left alone, Oliver quickly began to fidget. Normally he would have been the one doing the translation, experiencing the wonder of uncovering an ancient secret line by line, but his ignorance of ancient Egyptian languages meant that he could do nothing but wait. Rather than letting his mind run wild with the possibilities of what secrets might be hidden in the inscrutable lines of text on the scroll, he clicked the television on and tuned it to a channel showing a soccer match between South Africa and Ethiopia. Needing something to keep his hands busy, Oliver unlocked the large case of supplies that Senator Wheeler had shipped over through diplomatic mail.
The majority of the supplies consisted of survival gear, along with a few weapons and a generous supply of ammunition. Oliver had correctly assumed that Diana would not have any camping equipment of her own, so he had ordered extra supplies as well as a second backpack for her to use.
Oliver pulled the spare backpack out and began filling it with the necessities for a trek of several days in the desert. This occupied him for a good while as he attempted to pack the bag in such a way that Diana would be able to find whatever she needed without delay. Once the bag was filled he lifted it and judged that it might be too heavy for her. Diana was not a weak woman, but she was still smaller than Oliver and not accustomed to trekking through the desert. So he went back through the bag and dithered over every piece of equipment until he was certain that he had cut the bag down to the bare minimum that he felt safe giving her for several days beneath the blazing Egyptian sun.
Glancing at the clock on the bedside table, Oliver was frustrated to see that he had not even expended an hour packing and repacking Diana’s bag. He pulled out his own backpack and double-checked the contents. He checked the charge on the spare camera batteries, freshly formatted each of the memory cards for the camera, and ensured that the spare magazines for his gun were fully loaded. Unfortunately, Oliver was so well practiced preparing for adventures into remote places that within another hour he had completed all possible preparations and was once again left with nothing to do but wait for Diana to finish her translation.
He sighed deeply and settled down on the bed to watch the remainder of the soccer match, doing his best to not think about the lines of ancient writing scrawled across Diana’s computer screen, giving up their secrets one at a time as Diana worked her way through the scroll.
Oliver started to wakefulness at the sound of a lock clicking in the darkness. He reached out and grasped the grip of the gun that he had set on the bedside table, then rolled off the bed. He glanced at the clock and balcony doors as he rolled. 9:35. He knelt beside the bed and sighted down the gun barrel at the door to the hallway. Nobody opened it, so he turned his attention to the door into Diana’s room. It pulled open and he saw Diana’s body silhouetted in the light spilling through the open door. Her face was lit by the glow of her laptop.
Oliver relaxed and stood, setting the gun back on the bedside table and rubbing his eyes with one hand.
“Must have fallen asleep,” Oliver yawned. “Did you finish?”
Diana nodded and strolled across the dark room to deposit her laptop on the table. Oliver took that to mean that she had, so he flicked the bedside lamp on and joined Diana at the table.
Diana looked at him with bloodshot eyes and yawned as she settled into a chair. “Is this what you always do on an adventure? Take naps and let other people do the hard work for you?”
Oliver shrugged and grinned back at her. “Nope. Generally I’m all alone and don’t get nearly enough sleep until I get back home.”
Diana nodded and yawned again. She stretched and pulled her feet up under her in the chair, then waved at her laptop. “I’ve got a rough translation finished. Still needs a lot of polish, but I’m pretty sure it’s accurate.”
Oliver settled down in front of the computer. His eyes were still bleary from sleep, so it took a moment for them to adjust to reading the screen. The open document consisted of several pages of neatly organized rows of text. Each line of the text was labeled with a number which, at a glance, Oliver saw corresponded to bright red numbers that had been added before each line of the original scroll in a series of screen captures. As she had said, Diana’s translation was far from perfect, with many words and phrases still bracketed and colored to indicate that there was only an approximate translation of the original intended meaning of the text. Occasionally a word, or even an entire line, had been replaced with bracketed question marks to indicate a place where Diana had been unable to make any sense of the text.
The first three columns were merely a refinement of the translation that Diana had produced yesterday, working from the photographs supplied by the Senator’s contacts at the American Embassy. A few minor details had been filled in, especially at the bottom of each column where the text had been cut off in the photos, but the overall story remained the same.
From the fourth column onward the translated narrative was entirely fresh to Oliver, and the story revealed in Diana’s translation certainly captured Oliver’s attention.
According to the scroll, Pharaoh’s army had advanced across the desert in bronze chariots pulled by the strongest horses in the entire land. Led by the Pharaoh’s most trusted general, Sephor, the army stormed through the lands that had been conquered by the Hittite raiders, utterly destroying the forces left behind by the heathen invaders. Every Hittite man they encountered was killed and thousands of women and children were taken as slaves to be set to work rebuilding the ravaged lands.
All of this was described in such a victorious tone that Oliver couldn’t help wondering if the campaign had actually been a terrifying slog of bloody battles for the army of Egypt. The account was entirely too triumphant to be true. He looked up to ask Diana if Egyptian historians were as prone to rhetorical spin as their European counterparts, but her chin had fallen to her chest and she was snoring softly.
Oliver went back to reading the translation.
The Egyptian army’s advance went unchecked for nearly a month until one day they came to rest at the western ridge of a deep valley. Encamped across from them, arrayed in a line that stretched as far as the eye could see, was a vast army of Hittites, come to recapture the lands they had stolen and sweep the Egyptians back to the Nile. Throughout the night, messengers ran back and forth between the armies, the generals of each demanding that the other surrender and offer up a number of their troops as a sacrifice to the gods of the opposing forces before delivering the remainder of their men to be slaves.
The battle began as the sun rose, sending its first beams of light coursing down the floor of the valley. The Egyptian chariots led the charge. So brightly was the bronze of their chariots polished that the sun reflected back off it with renewed brilliance, blinding the first wave of Hittites as they charged. The blinded soldiers were trampled under the feet of the horses and the Egyptian soldiers, emboldened by this obvious sign of Ra’s blessing on their cause, fought with a bravery unequaled in the world since that day.
Throughout the day the armies of Egypt and the Hittites continued to clash in that valley of glorious death. Not only were the Egyptians outnumbered more than ten to one, but the Hittite sorcerers continually rained down death upon them in the form of bloody rain, hail, and swarms of hungry flies.
General Sephor knew this to be the work of the unholy relic that the great priest Amneth had uncovered and he feared for the fate of his army. He therefore kept one eye out for the source of these plagues, even as he commanded his army from the very heart of the battlefield. Late in the day he discovered the source of the unholy power in a group of three Hittite sorcerers, all standing around a staff of carved olive wood, which hovered in the air between them. These men dared not touch the staff itself, but continually made gestures towards it, as if the staff could hear them and be bent to their will.
The sorcerers were protected by a force of thirty men ringed about them, but Sephor, the Pharaoh’s most worthy general, took it upon himself to charge the group and capture this powerful relic for the glory of his Pharaoh and the salvation of his army. Single handedly he slew each of the thirty guards, though swarms of flies surrounded him and bloody hail pounded down upon his head. Boils broke out upon his flesh, but that did not prevent him from slaying the first of the three sorcerers. Fleas sprang from the ground and covered his body, but he slew the second of the sorcerers without hesitation. And though he fought blindly through a sudden and complete darkness, while still beset by all of the previous afflictions, Sephor slew the third and final sorcerer with a mighty thrust from his sword. He then turned and took the staff in his own hands and commanded it to turn back every plague it had unleashed upon his men.
Liberated from the afflictions of the staff, the Egyptian army quickly annihilated what remained of the Hittite forces and turned back to Egypt to deliver the newly captured staff to the Pharaoh.
Upon receiving the staff from his most trusted general, the Pharaoh recognized it as the same relic which had afflicted his benighted predecessor in the hands of the Hebrew Moses. He rejoiced at its capture and praised his most worthy general above all others in the land. The Pharaoh then ordered that a temple be constructed to the west of his capital, in which the staff would be kept under the guard of Amneth, the priest who had scried the source of the Hittites’ unholy power. In that place the gods of Egypt would be perpetually worshipped in thanksgiving for granting Sephor victory over the foreign gods. He further ordered that Sephor be granted a vast tract of land upriver from the capital, on which to build his estate.
The final lines of the scroll described how the Pharaoh, in his wisdom and mercy, sent messengers to the Hittites and their heathen king and offered a treaty of peace between the two nations. He would retain possession of the staff and all liberated lands, and, as an offering of life to the gods, the Pharaoh would refrain from slaughtering the remainder of the Hittite nation. This offer was accepted and still stood as one of the many accomplishments of this, the greatest of all the Pharaohs.
Diana’s translation might have been rough, but Oliver was impressed at how quickly she had completed it. The story of Sephor’s victory over the Hittites was replete with hyperbolic descriptions, honorifics, and metaphors, but Diana had managed to not only translate the essential meaning of it in a mere few hours, but make it intelligible to someone like Oliver, who had purposefully neglected his Egyptian studies. He was familiar with the broad outlines of the land’s history, but couldn’t have told the difference between Seth and Horus or where exactly one dynasty ended and another began. Despite his professed ignorance, Oliver had no difficulty following the narrative of the scroll.
Now that he knew the legend, Oliver would need to begin piecing it together with the known history of Egypt to determine what truth might exist behind the fantastical story. Many historians he knew would begin by discounting the magical elements of the scroll’s narrative and instead focus on clues that they considered more “reliable”, such as the names of the trusted priest and worthy general, the description of the battlefield, and the numbers of troops. Oliver, however, was more interested in the elements of the story that related seemingly magical events. In this case he was especially pleased because they were not merely random events that occurred to the hero of the story, but specific plagues ascribed to the manipulation of a magical object. Moreover, these events matched with the Biblical account of the plagues that the Hebrew god had rained down on the Egyptians.
The remarkable similarities between the magic of the staff described in the scroll and the events in the book of Exodus were exactly the sort of convergence of myths that Oliver looked for when tracking down a relic. The obvious explanation was that the scroll was a forgery, written to take advantage of the Exodus story, but Rais Karim had sworn that the scroll had been reliably dated by his agency while it was in their possession. This assertion, when combined with the clearly unnatural lack of aging of the material, served to make Oliver confident that the scroll was as old as the legend seemed to indicate.
Oliver stood and stretched, then stepped over to Diana and shook her awake. She came around slowly, but responded enthusiastically to Oliver’s suggestion of a late dinner. They pulled on shoes and rode the elevator in silence, Diana still rubbing her eyes to wake up and Oliver contemplating what he had read. After they had settled into their seats in the hotel restaurant and ordered dinner, Oliver summarized his thoughts on why the story in the scroll seemed reliable. Diana listened to him, occasionally interjecting comments on how the linguistic makeup of the narrative supported Oliver’s theory.
Their main courses arrived and Diana and Oliver both fell silent again for a few minutes as they focused on their food. Neither of them had eaten a proper meal since breakfast, so Oliver was content to wait until after dinner to continue their conversation.
After several minutes Diana got a quizzical expression on her face and began tapping her fork gently against her plate. She took a sip of wine, then asked, “How would the Hittites have gained control of the staff?”
Oliver looked up from his plate and chewed his food thoughtfully, nodding a little.
“Think of it,” Diana continued. “The staff was an important relic for the Hebrews as they came out of Egypt and began conquering Canaan. Wouldn’t they have preserved it?”
“You know Egyptian and Biblical archeology better than I,” Oliver replied.
“Yes. I’m just thinking out loud here.” Diana paused to chew a mouthful of her dinner, her face contemplative. After a moment she said, “Now that I think about it, there is no actual mention of Moses’s staff in the Bible after his death. Some commentaries claim that it was passed down through kings of Israel, but there is no clear description of its fate until the staff supposedly surfaced in the possession of Sultan Selim I early in the sixteenth century.”
“I know. I mentioned that to Senator Wheeler when he hired me, but we both agreed that it was unlikely that the Sultan’s staff was the genuine article. Egypt and the Holy Land had already been raked over by Christian and Muslim armies several times over by then, so something as significant as a genuine relic of Moses would probably have been carted off to the Vatican or another sultan’s palace long before then.”
“Exactly. So what would cause the genuine staff to disappear from the Biblical account and never again surface?”
“I’ve got a theory on that,” Oliver responded. He chewed a couple mouthfuls and sipped his wine before continuing. “The narrative you translated indicated that the staff was in the possession of a massive Hittite army, which used the staff to rain down plagues on the Egyptians.”
“Yes, but remember that the narrative is almost certainly embellished. There is no archeological evidence for such an event occurring and the descriptions in the text are so overwhelmingly heroic that I’d wager that the scribe charged with writing down the official account made some rather drastic changes.”
“Of course. He had to make the Pharaoh’s army look good. It happened all the time in official histories, but there is usually some kernel of truth behind it all.” Oliver paused dramatically and waited for Diana to sigh and wave for him to go on. He grinned and continued, “Here’s my theory: There are mentions of the Hittites throughout the Old Testament. They are described as being one of the few civilizations that the nation of Israel was unable to conquer. There are also mentions of Hittite generals serving alongside the army of Israel under various kings. So what if the army described in the scroll consisted of a joint Hittite and Israelite force, and the ‘Hittite sorcerers’ were actually Hebrew priests?”
Diana pondered this for a moment before replying, “It would explain the presence of the staff at the battle.”
“And its disappearance from history.”
“But this is all conjecture, Oliver. How does it help us actually track down the location of the staff?”
“That’s where my speciality comes into play. I’ve got a hunch that if we cross reference the narrative in the scroll with what you were telling me in Paris about that painter’s brother…”
“Gabriel de Pujol.”
“Gabriel, right. What if his army unit somehow stumbled onto the trail of the staff? The scroll makes reference to the staff being placed in a temple that will be ‘eternally guarded’ against all invaders. Some of the horrors that Gabriel described to his brother might have been those guardians.”
“Or merely the ravings of a lunatic, driven mad by the desert, or war, or syphilis.”
Oliver smiled crookedly at Diana and leaned back in his chair, waiting for her to get his point.
“Okay. I get it. You’re pointedly not saying that I accepted a scroll being magically preserved for thousands of years just this afternoon, so why not take another step and believe that the monsters Gabriel encountered might be real.”
“So what’s our next step?”
Oliver leaned forward and picked up his fork. “Let’s finish our dinner and get a good night’s sleep. In the morning we’ll go over the translation some more and compare it to your notes on Pujol’s letters and journal.”
“I’ll drink to that.”
The Staff of Moses © 2022, Andrew Linke