They hiked down the canyon, keeping to the shadow of the western wall as much as possible while navigating the wash of boulders and heaped-up sand strewn along the floor of the canyon. According to the archeological reports that Oliver had read, the canyon was thought to have once been the site of a small oasis, with a winding stream running out from a small lake at the end of the canyon. An unknown nobleman, who Oliver hoped would turn out to be Sephor, had built his estate around the oasis. The estate had thrived for an unknown period of time, the size of the central house and its numerous outbuildings was testament to that, but eventually the oasis spring had dried up and the residents had fled. The site had only been excavated by a single crew of archeologists since being discovered on satellite scans thirty years before, and that team had spent less than a month at the site before rumors of a curse and lack of funding drove them away. Nobody had conducted a serious investigation of the site in the nearly twenty years since.
A ten minute hike along the dry stream brought them to the hole in the wall.
Shards of metal poked out of the crumbling brick wall, remnants of an iron grate that had once prevented anyone from sneaking into the estate through a tunnel under the wall where the stream flowed out. Through the gap, Oliver could see the paved surface of the courtyard, still visible in places where the archeologists had dug away the drifts of sand. Statues of men and animals were placed throughout the courtyard, some standing and others toppled into humps, their broken shapes covered by drifts of sand. Inside the walls the stream bed became a brick-lined depression in the sand, meandering back and forth across the courtyard, occasionally widening into areas that must once have been calm pools of water, before it disappeared around the corner of the house at the far end of the yard.
“So, I know where I’d begin if we were preparing a proper excavation, but what does my favorite grave robber suggest in moments like this?” Diana quipped as they stood on either side of the broken down wall.
Oliver kicked at a small stone with his toe, then bent down and hefted it in one hand. “Generally I’ve got a better idea of what I’m looking for before I go in. In this case, we don’t have much to go on. We don’t really even know for sure that this is the right place.”
“So, what then?”
Oliver tossed the stone through the gap in the wall and watched it skip across the sand and clatter to a stop against the shoulder of a shattered statue.
He waited, listening.
After a minute or more passed with no sign of movement beyond the wall, Oliver stepped carefully over the rusted iron and toppled bricks to stand within the walls. He held up a hand for Diana to wait where she stood outside the wall.
After another minute of quiet observation, Oliver turned to Diana and said, “Let’s head in while it’s still light out and get some photos of the place, especially any wall carvings or mosaics. It’s too late to do much exploration, but we can at least get a head start on translating anything we find.”
He turned back towards the house and began walking across the courtyard, pausing every few feet to listen. He heard nothing but the sound of their breathing and the crunch of sand beneath Diana’s boots as she followed him. Oliver didn’t expect to encounter any traps here in the courtyard, but it never hurt to be cautious. The archeological team that had discovered this site twenty years ago had spent two weeks mapping out the exterior of the estate in detail and carefully examining several unusual piles of bones and weaponry scattered throughout the courtyard, but they had only just begun exploring the interior of the buildings when their leader disappeared.
The official report stated that Dr. Herbert Yancy, leader of the team, abandoned the expedition and eloped with a young graduate assistant. Without his leadership, the team abandoned the site. Oliver couldn’t prove that the story was false, but it struck him as odd that the missing professor and his lady were never heard from again by any of their family or colleagues. Nobody from the expedition ever returned to the site and, in the years since, the site had been all but forgotten.
To Oliver, these circumstances raised the possibility that maybe, just maybe, the team had encountered some form of defense, be it mechanical or supernatural, when they entered the main house. He didn’t want to alarm Diana over what was little more than a hunch, but Oliver was resolved to proceed cautiously.
They approached the quarried stone walls of the central house and paused for a moment to inspect the pillars that stood on either side of the yawning front door. These supported a heavy lintel of cut stone that served to shade the main entrance of the building. Diana took Oliver’s camera and enthused over the intricacy of the carvings on the pillars as he edged closer to the doorway and inspected the structure for any sign of traps. Finding no obvious sign of dangerous mechanisms, Oliver turned to look back across the courtyard they had just crossed.
He could imagine what it must have been like to stand here in the shade and gaze out down the length of the canyon three thousand years ago. The stream would have poured through the paved channel in the courtyard, filling at least five pools with fresh water and irrigating the raised beds that lined portions of the channel. Standing here it would be possible to see anyone approaching through the canyon mouth two kilometers away and send word for the servants, or house guard, to prepare an appropriate reception.
Turning his back on the view, Oliver saw that Diana had already entered the house and had pulled a powerful flashlight out of her backpack and clicked it on. She played her beam along the floor, checking for any desert creatures that might have entered the room to hide from the sun, but there didn’t appear to be any living thing in this place except for Oliver and Diana. That was a little unusual and he was about to remark on the absence of snakes and scorpions when Diana suddenly sucked in a deep breath and froze, staring at something that was blocked from his view by the stone doorframe.
“Oliver…” she whispered, but he had heard her inhalation and was already hurrying towards her, his gun drawn and held at his side.
“What is it?”
Diana slipped her flashlight beam sideways, revealing the thing that had made her gasp.
It was a human skull.
The desiccated flesh was drawn tightly across the bone, revealing grinning teeth between the dry lips and shriveled stalks dangling from the holes of its eyes.
She moved the flashlight slowly past the skull to a lumpy pile of rags covered in dust and sand a few feet away from the skull. After looking at them for a few seconds, Oliver realized that the pile consisted of a body, the dry skin and muscles shriveled tight around the bones, still wrapped in the tattered remains of modern work clothes. The body lay just outside a black doorway that opened into a long corridor leading deeper into the house.
Oliver pulled out his own flashlight and approached the body cautiously, playing the beam around the room to search for any sign of a trap that might have killed the person. The room in which they stood was about thirty feet wide and half as deep. At the midpoint of the outer wall was the open doorway through which they had entered. He noted the large brass hinges, still projecting from the stonework even though the doors they had once held must have crumbled millennia ago, as well as several stone and brass lamp fixtures protruding from the walls around the interior of the room. Several pieces of furniture, desks, stools, and daybeds intricately carved from wood and banded in bright lines of silver and brass, rested against the walls around the perimeter of the room. Directly across from the front doors, against the interior wall, was a carved stone altar. It was flanked by inlayed carvings of Egyptian gods, which Oliver recognized but could not immediately identify. Hieroglyphic symbols were engraved in the wall above the altar, a dozen or more lines of stylized creatures and household objects running down the wall between the carved images of two household deities. Two doorways were set into the inner wall of the room, leading deeper into the house.
It was outside one of these doorways that the skeleton lay.
Oliver put an arm around Diana’s shoulders. “You okay?”
She shivered briefly under his touch, then nodded firmly and replied, “Yes. It just surprised me. It’s not like I haven’t seen plenty of skeletons in the museum, I’ve just never stumbled across one like this before.”
Oliver grinned and squeezed Diana’s shoulder before dropping his arm and stepping over to the corpse. “It doesn’t look as if it’s been disturbed by anything. The fabric of the clothing is worn, but it’s not chewed through by mice or bugs. Even the skin and flesh don’t seem to have decomposed. It’s just had all the moisture sucked out of it, almost like a mummy.”
“There’s no telling how long it’s been here I guess.”
“Probably not. I hear that a few weeks in the desert could turn just about any body into a mummy that would take expert analysis to distinguish from the old ones.”
“That’s true. One of my advisors at the Louvre was involved in an experiment to test that. They used a body that had been donated to science. After a month it looked like any other mummy in the collection.”
Oliver nudged the sleeve of the robe with the toe of his hiking boot. He chuckled. “Well, whoever this guy was, he’s not ancient. He’s wearing a Casio.”
He pointed with his toe to the black plastic band of the watch, still encircling the withered skin and dry bone of the left wrist. Diana smiled at the incongruity of the retro watch on an apparently old body, then crossed her arms and shivered again.
“Sure you’re alright?”
“Really, Oliver. You don’t have to play all chivalrous with me. I… I was just wondering why the head is so far from the body.”
Oliver flicked his flashlight back and forth between the body and its head. “No idea, but it’s worth being careful. I doubt that there are any traps here in the common rooms of a house, but you never know what smugglers or soldiers might have added over the years.”
“I wonder who he was.”
Oliver nodded, but didn’t say anything. He had been wondering that himself and was beginning to wonder if this might be the missing Dr. Yancy. But if the professor had died here, so close to the entrance of the house, why had the rest of the team left his body here and reported that he had run off with his assistant?
He stepped to the side of the doorway and shone his light around the frame, inspecting for any sign of hidden blades, trip lines, or garrote wires. Oliver had evaded his share of such traps over the last decade, but the relic hunting community was small and everyone in it knew of someone who had been killed by a trap while exploring some ancient temple or tomb. Oliver didn’t see any signs of traps in the doorway or as far down the corridor as his flashlight could show him.
Rather than settling his mind, this only increased his unease. It meant that whatever had decapitated the man was mobile. The best case would be that the man had simply been decapitated by a human enemy and left here. There were, however, many other possible explanations, none of them good for Oliver and Diana.
A bright flash popped at the edge of his vision and Oliver spun to see Diana standing in front of the altar, snapping photos of the hieroglyphs and household gods.
Calm down, he told himself. You’re the one who’s been investigating tombs for years. Shake it off like she did.
“Odd combination, this,” Diana said, gesturing with the camera at the two relief carvings of Egyptian deities.
“How so?” Oliver asked. “I’m familiar enough with Egyptian mythology to recognize names, but I couldn’t point out any of the gods in a lineup.”
Diana rolled her eyes and gestured to the statue on the left of the altar depicting a man with a long beard holding a crooked staff and a stylized whip. “This is an image of Osiris, the Egyptian god of the afterlife. It’s a common enough feature in homes from the seventh dynasty onward that even the poor Egyptians would commonly have a small statuette of him on their family altar at home. The odd thing is the pairing of deities.”
She pointed at the statue on the right of the altar, which depicted a dog-faced creature with long pointed ears sprouting from the top of its head. “This is Setesh, the Egyptian god of chaos and darkness. According to Egyptian mythology, Setesh was the mortal enemy of his brother Osiris. In some myths he even kills his own brother, leading to epic adventures in which his nephew Horus hunts Setesh down to exact revenge.”
Oliver moved to where he could see the two statues and examine the hieroglyphs between them. He couldn’t read the symbols, but the placement and pictographic tone of the engravings didn’t give him any sense of enmity between the two statues. They were of equal height, except for Setesh’s ears, which reached almost to the stone ceiling of the room.
“Do these hieroglyphs give any indication of why these two are set side by side?”
Diana let the camera dangle from the strap around her neck and stepped forward to scrutinize the engravings. Her lips moved quietly as her eyes darted down the rows of symbols.
Oliver waited patiently, glancing around occasionally to verify that they were still alone.
The sun, fiery red with the dust of the desert, was visible now through the doorway. It rested just above the edge of the canyon. Oliver estimated that they had about twenty more minutes before the sun dipped below the ridge and the entire canyon fell into shadow. That should be enough time for them to explore one of the hallways and still make it back to the car before nightfall. They both carried flashlights, but the desert night could grow cold and as a rule Oliver preferred to explore unknown places during the day. Most folktales and myths were just stories made up by superstitious people who didn’t understand the world around them, but Oliver’s career as a relic hunter had taught him to maintain a healthy respect for legends about nighttime terrors.
“Most of this is fairly typical stuff for a household altar,” Diana said. “From here to here,” she gestured from the top right of the engravings to a point about half way down the center, “the glyphs call upon each of the gods and ask them to guard the house and its occupants.” Diana stabbed her finger at a place in the middle of the engraving and continued, “But here things get interesting. The glyphs describe the boundaries of the household and give specific instructions for all who might invade the home to have their heads removed from their bodies and their souls fed to Setesh’s minions. Then these last two lines seem to have been intended as a description of those who may command the guardians of the house, as well as listing of the estate’s most treasured property, but as you can see, the stone is cracked mid-way down the last line.”
Oliver stepped closer and examined the engraved symbols. Not only was the stone cracked, but it looked as if whole chunks of the stone had been chipped away.
“It almost looks like someone took a chisel to those glyphs.”
“It’s hard to tell after more than three thousand years, but the damage certainly is highly localized. It reminds me of the erasures carried out by Horemheb and his successors when they decided to reform the Egyptian religion and remove all mention of the sun god Aten from monuments.”
Oliver turned away from the carving and stepped towards the dark passage outside which the skeleton lay. “It’s going to get dark soon. Let’s take a look down this hall then get back to the car for the night. Stay close to me.”
Diana glanced out the door to the quickly falling sun, then followed Oliver. She didn’t show any consternation as they edged around the body and paused, standing over the withered legs, long enough for Oliver to double-check the doorway. After a moment he turned and flashed Diana a grin, then took a quick step into the hall and ducked.
Diana giggled nervously.
Oliver took another step down the dark hall. Then another.
They continued down the hall to the first doorway, which opened on the right side of the hallway. They looked in through this door and saw a large room decorated with faded paintings of battle scenes splashed across the walls. It was dimly illuminated by a red light streaming in through small windows set high in the southern wall. The walls were lined with wooden furniture, the largest of which was a large bed, complete with linen coverings, located on the eastern wall between two relief carvings of women holding baskets of bread and flowers.
“This site is amazingly well preserved.” Diana commented, her voice filled with awe. She pointed at the furniture. “From the construction, I’d say that is probably the original furniture, but that should be impossible. Even if no insects got to it, it should have dry rotted and collapsed over the millennia, but nothing in here looks older than a few centuries.”
Oliver didn’t say anything, but he nodded and thought carefully about what Diana had said. He’d seen sites this well-preserved over the years, especially when a magic artifact was preserved within the site, but rarely had those sites been so accessible to visitors. It was as if this place had been completely forgotten for thousands of years, visited briefly by the ill-fated archeological expedition twenty years before, and remained untouched since.
That made him nervous. Even remote temples and graves were often trapped to keep out invaders, but he had yet to see anything like that here. Only the decapitated body in the entrance hall gave warning that this estate might be guarded.
They turned from the ornately decorated chamber and stepped across to a doorway in the opposite wall, ten feet further down the hallway. This opened into an expansive room with four statues of proud-faced Egyptians placed around a central area with an inlayed mosaic floor. A large chair of finely carved alabaster, its armrests carved in the shape of snarling dogs, stood on a raised dais between the statues near the eastern wall. Shining his light around the edges of the room, Oliver could see a doorway directly opposite the one in which they stood and another behind the stone chair.
“This was probably the main hall,” Diana said. She shone her light onto the faces of the statues, pausing to examine each. “I don’t recognize any of these as Pharaohs, so my guess is that these represent the owner of this estate and his family. They would have been placed here to watch over guests as they waited for the master of the house to make his grand entrance, probably from the door behind the throne.”
Oliver nodded, recognizing the layout from innumerable castles and mead halls he had explored or studied. The basic configuration of any such room didn’t vary much from culture to culture. No matter who owned an estate like this, they always had the urge to build a room in which they could sit higher than those who came to them with business offers, petitions for aid, or grievances against their neighbors.
Diana stepped back from the door and continued down the hall with Oliver at her side. They could now see the end of the hall, where it turned to the right and presumably continued for some unknown distance. A dozen or so feet beyond the entrance to the main hall, another doorway was set into the right wall of the corridor. Diana stepped towards it, but froze as Oliver grabbed her left arm and yanked her back against him.
She spun to face him, confusion and anger playing across her face in the light of their flashlights, but Oliver held a finger to his mouth and shushed her question before it even came out. He listened intently for the sound that had set his hair on end.
The hall was completely silent for a dozen heartbeats. Diana opened her mouth to ask Oliver what he was about when the sound came again. It was a low scuffling and creaking, like a bundle of dry sticks rubbing against each other as they were dragged across the stone floor.
Oliver pushed Diana back down the hallway in the direction of the front hall and raised his gun. He pointed the flashlight and gun down the hall in a two handed grip, ready to shoot any enemy that appeared. The light revealed nothing but the finely cut stone of the walls and a thin layer of sand strewn smoothly across the floor. He began backing down the hall.
The sound came again, louder this time and clearly emanating from around the corner at the end of the hall. Oliver pushed an elbow into Diana’s chest, urging her to move more quickly.
Oliver and Diana were just passing the entrance to the first room when the scuffling, scraping sound came again. This time it was accompanied by the appearance of something at the end of the hall. The beam of Oliver’s flashlight played over and past it for an instant, then he snapped the light back onto the thing.
It was a skeleton, standing upright with a bronze short sword gripped in one bony hand, reflecting the beam of Oliver’s flashlight back at them from its wickedly sharp edge. The empty sockets of the skeleton’s skull glowed with a pale blue light that traced wisps of glowing smoke through the darkness as it turned to face them. The scraping and clattering sound came again as the skeleton turned slowly and placed its bony foot upon the stone floor of the hall.
“Get to the car. Now!” Oliver growled.
He steadied his aim and pulled the trigger. The gunshot was deafeningly loud in the narrow stone corridor. The skeleton jerked back as the mass of the 9mm hollow point round slammed into its ribcage with shattering force, sending out a burst of fragmented bone to dance in the flashlight beam. Blue smoke surged out from the shards of bone and the skeleton shuddered as if ready to collapse into a pile of bones, then steadied and held firm.
Then the skeleton raised its sword, opened its jaws, and charged.
Diana immediately turned and ran for the exit.
Oliver fired one more shot at the advancing skeleton and took off after her, the bullet whizzing past the creature’s empty jaw and embedding itself in the far wall. As Oliver turned he saw Diana lurch into an awkward tumble as she tripped over the body of the beheaded man. She righted herself, spouting profanities and slapping dust and flakes of mummified skin from her clothes, then ran for the door to the outside.
Oliver spun back towards the skeleton, tripped, and fell, landing on his backpack and sliding through the scattered remnants of the headless man as he fired three more shots towards the advancing skeleton. Two missed it, whizzing through the empty spaces where its flesh should have been, but the third struck the monster in the collar bone and knocked it off balance. White bone fragments and glowing blue smoke sprayed across the hall. The skeleton spun wildly, lost its footing, and slammed into the wall of the corridor with a mighty clatter of bone and metal.
Oliver rolled to his feet and ran, following Diana down the wide steps of the house and across the courtyard. They ignored the winding path through the pools and raised gardens, electing to make a straight dash across the stones and drifts of sand to the opening they had entered through. Oliver didn’t dare look back until they had hurtled through the gap in the wall.
Once they had passed the wall Oliver spun to face the courtyard, praying that the skeleton was not right behind him, preparing to slice his head off. The skeleton was still behind them, clattering and scraping across the stone and sand of the courtyard in the fading light of day. Its left arm dangled at an strange angle from the shattered collarbone, but it still clenched the bronze sword in the bones of its right fist. The creature moved quickly, but did not leap across the brick lined waterways and through the dry pools as Oliver and Diana had. Instead it followed a slower path, crossing the dry stream only on the ancient stone bridges.
Oliver glanced back to see that Diana had slowed in her retreat and was also watching the skeleton’s progress across the courtyard, her mouth hanging open in shock. Oliver darted up to Diana and gave her a push in the direction of the Range Rover. “Go! Get the car running! We might need to clear out of here fast,” he shouted.
She closed her jaw with a snap and turned, running again.
Oliver continued to move towards the car also, but at a slower pace, stepping slowly backwards across the rocky terrain and always keeping one eye on the skeleton.
The skeleton advanced past the gap in the wall and disappeared from view. Oliver continued to move back, not trusting that the creature wouldn’t realize its mistake and come hurtling out towards him through the breach in the wall.
Glancing back and forth along the wall as he retreated, Oliver saw the skeleton appear in the opening where the gates had once stood. It saw him and let loose an otherworldly roar, dashing forward for a dozen feet before coming to a sudden stop in the midst of the gateway, as if the gate still stood there and the skeleton had run up against it. The fiend continued to glare menacingly at Oliver and make flourishes and jabs with its sword, but it came no closer. Oliver watched it for a moment or two until he was certain that the skeleton was not going to pass the invisible barrier where the estate gates had once stood, then he turned and jogged up to the already running car.
“Please tell me we weren’t just chased out of an ancient Egyptian mansion by a skeleton with a sword,” Diana said as Oliver climbed into the passenger seat.
“Can’t do that.”
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” she muttered.
She reached for the gearshift, but Oliver got his hand on it first and said, “Wait. Just look at the thing, it’s not going past the wall.”
Diana slapped Oliver’s hand away from the gearshift and glared at him, but he met her gaze levelly and nodded out the windshield at the gateway of the estate. Diana sighed and looked out her window to see that Oliver was correct. The skeleton’s bleached bones seemed to glow a soft red in the fading sunset, with occasional sparks of something like blue fire darting out from its skull and between the joints as it prowled back and forth in the gap, never crossing the place where the gates had once stood.
“The hieroglyphs above the altar,” she whispered. “They described the border of the estate as all that stood within the walls. Do you think that those words were… what, some sort of instruction for magical guardians?”
Oliver nodded. “Probably. I told you, Diana, there are places and things in this world that can only be described as magic. We’ve just escaped from one of them.”
“So what are we going to do now?”
Oliver looked to his gun, which he was still gripping tightly in his right hand. “Let me try something.”
Before Diana could stop him, Oliver threw open the car door. He strode across the sand towards the gatehouse, ignoring Diana’s shouted threats of what she would do to his body if he didn’t come back to her immediately. As he approached the empty gateway the skeleton stopped pacing back and forth across the opening and turned to face him. It raised its heavy bronze sword and snapped its jaws together with a terrible clacking sound. Air whistled through its teeth, propelled by invisible lungs and shaped by a tongue that no longer existed, and roared out of its mouth as unintelligible words in a dead language. Oliver stopped less than ten feet away, separated from the fiend by nothing but the rusted shards of metal that had once banded the gate.
“Let’s see if this stops you,” Oliver said.
He raised the gun and aimed it directly between the glowing blue holes of the skeleton’s skull.
He pulled the trigger twice.
The first shot shattered the skull, sending fragments of bone skittering across the sand and stone of the courtyard. The second the bullet ripped through an expanding cloud of blue smoke, scattering it backwards in a glowing spiral that quickly faded to nothingness. A high-pitched screech broke the cooling night air for just a second, then the whole body of the skeleton collapsed into a pile of dusty bones.
Oliver turned and walked back to the car where Diana was glaring furiously at him through the windshield.
“Why did you go out there?” Diana shouted as Oliver slipped back into the passenger seat.
Oliver opened his mouth to reply but found himself unable to speak as Diana launched herself across the center console, wrapped her arms around his neck, and pressed her lips against his.
The Staff of Moses © 2022, Andrew Linke