The sun was just rising over the eastern rim of the canyon as Oliver stretched his sore muscles and examined the layout of Sephor’s estate through a pair of binoculars. After several minutes he lowered the binoculars and pulled a printed map of the exterior of the estate, drawn by the archeological team that had briefly excavated the site, from an exterior flap of his backpack, which rested on the hood of the Range Rover.
The team had consisted of both British and American students participating in a work study program with an Egyptologist named Herbert Yancy. Dr. Yancy was an experienced excavator, known for his meticulous field work, who had grown weary of vying for a place to dig in the more famous areas of Egypt, which he considered to be picked over and trampled anyway. Instead, he had elected to investigate this previously unexplored site, which had been recently spotted on commercial satellite imagery. The team spent a mere three weeks at the estate before the disappearance of Dr. Yancy and a female student brought the expedition to a sudden end.
Egyptian authorities had conducted a cursory investigation, during which one team member made vague mention of a curse, but said no more when pressed for details. All of them unanimously swore that their professor and the missing girl had fallen in love and run off together in the middle of the night. The authorities ruled that there was no evidence of foul play and sent the students home.
Before he disappeared, Dr. Yancy and his students had focused on mapping the exterior of the site, cataloging the piles of bones and weaponry that littered the courtyard, and examining the guards’ quarters in the gatehouse. They produced the map that Oliver now held, as well as a moderate collection of notes which were remarkable only for their description of how untouched the site appeared to be.
The contents of the notes and map got Oliver thinking. He and Diana had been within the walls of the estate for under an hour before they were attacked by a skeletal guardian. How had the previous team managed to spend nearly three weeks here without being attacked? The only logical explanation Oliver could come up with was based on Dr. Yancy’s slow and cautious methods. His team had not even entered the walls of the estate until they had spent two days making measurements of the perimeter wall and photographing the courtyard from a distance. Even after entering the estate, Dr. Yancy had forbidden his students to cross the courtyard until it had been thoroughly swept for artifacts laying under the sands. Once they discovered the piles of bones and weapons, which Oliver now believed to be remnants of skeleton guards which had been destroyed in the past, progress had slowed tremendously as each pile was photographed and described in meticulous detail.
Diana stepped up beside Oliver and handed him a metal mess kit cup filled with hot tea. He accepted it with thanks and filled her in on what he had been pondering.
Diana considered what he told her, then replied, “Well, we know that they started lying at some point.”
“You’re referring to Yancy suddenly abandoning his students in the desert to run off with a woman half his age.”
“I never met the man, Oliver, but I did read some of his field notes in the course of my research. He was careful. Quiet. Not the passionate type. He didn’t even rage at local laborers when they screwed up. Instead, he calmly fixed the problem and didn’t rehire people the next year if they didn’t learn from their mistakes.”
“Maybe Yancy and his supposed lover were killed while mapping out the estate. The other students went in to find them and were chased away by a skeleton.”
“Exactly. They don’t want to destroy their careers, so they make the best of the situation and say that the old man ran off with his student.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time. I wouldn’t be surprised if the body we found yesterday was Yancy.” Oliver sipped his tea and examined the map again. He looked back and forth from the map to the estate a few times. “This map describes the courtyard in detail, but it doesn’t show any of the building interiors and only covers about half of the private garden in the rear of the house.”
Diana pulled the map closer to herself and examined it, then nodded in agreement.
“I bet the skeletons primarily guard the inside of the house and only come out if they are chasing someone,” Oliver said, setting his tea down and picking up the binoculars again. “Let’s get some breakfast, then see if we can get to the interior yard without provoking another attack.”
Oliver only asked Diana if she was sure about coming back into the estate once.
The look she gave him in reply was so withering that he immediately wrote off any future chivalrous comments or discussion of her strengths as a fighter of undead horrors. For her part, Diana appeared to have fully recovered from the shock of last night and determined to dive headfirst into the messy business of, as she repeatedly called it, “tomb raiding.”
“Listen, Diana,” Oliver said, as she strapped the holster to her right leg and checked that she could draw her gun with ease. “You’re no more Lara than I am Indy. For starters, that gun only has twelve rounds and you’ve only got two spare magazines.”
“I’m flattered that the first difference you pointed out was the gun.”
Oliver rolled his eyes, pointedly avoiding any comment on her appearance, and shouldered his backpack. “Just be careful. We were lucky last night.”
Diana threw Oliver a mock salute and picked up her own bag, then followed him towards the gatehouse.
They paused briefly at the pile of bones that lay in the gateway. Oliver kicked at them a few times, but there didn’t appear to be anything remarkable about them now. With no muscle or magic to hold them together, the bones had fallen to the ground in a jumbled heap that gave no indication of having been a fiendish guardian only a few hours before. He unholstered his gun, just in case they had been wrong in assuming that the skeletal guards only cared about the inside of the house.
According to the survey map that Oliver and Diana had examined, the southern wall of the house consisted of an expanse of quarried stone broken only by small windows set high in the wall and the chiseled grooves of lavatory drains. That wall of the house merged smoothly into a low stone wall that ran around the south and east of the central complex. A dry stream bed curved along outside this wall and up into a cleft in the rock, which Dr. Yancy and his team had not explored. On the northern side, the wall of the house ran only half the distance of the western wall before it broke inwards in two zig zags to provide exterior access to a large formal garden. This garden was bordered on the north by low stone dwellings that had not been explored, but had been preliminarily identified as a kitchen or quarters for servants. At the center of the garden stood a building labeled as a chapel. The rear half of the map was roughly sketched, rather than drawn with precisely surveyed lines, and the notes Oliver had read indicated that the private garden had not been thoroughly surveyed before the team abandoned the site.
Moving as silently as they could, Oliver and Diana walked across the wide courtyard, angling their path towards the north side of the house. They paused for a moment at the corner of the house to sip from their hydration packs and listen, but there was no sound other than their own breathing and the distant whisper of the wind blowing grains of sand across one another. They continued onward until they reached the corner of the main house.
Peeking around the corner, Oliver saw why the unexplored building at the center of the garden had been labeled as a chapel. It stood on a square platform of stone, seven steps higher than the rest of the garden. The entrance facing the wall of the house was flanked by weathered statues of Osiris and Setesh, which had clearly been carved with great care and detail before millennia of wind, sand, and occasional rain had pitted the smooth stone and blurred the finer details of their clothes and faces. The garden itself must have been a sight to behold when this house had been occupied by the living. Drifts of sand, some of them four to five feet deep, had accumulated against the walls, steps, and terraces, but it was clear that the garden had been carefully landscaped with terraced planting beds, columned porches, and long pools of water.
Oliver felt Diana move up alongside him and heard her gasp in astonishment at the sight of the garden and the chapel. “This is amazing,” she whispered. “I’ve never seen a site so well preserved.”
She pointed at the porch that ran along the rear of the house and said, “I think those smooth patches under the windows are table tops, buried just under the sand.”
“Word of the skeleton guards probably kept looters away until knowledge of this place died out after a few generations. After that… the wild places of this world are good at keeping secrets. Not to mention whatever magic kept the wood from dry rotting.”
Diana nodded, but then a puzzled look crossed her face.
“What are you thinking about?” Oliver asked.
“It’s the orientation of the house and chapel. It’s all wrong.”
Oliver pulled his phone out and looked at the digital compass. As he had expected from the map, he was facing south-east. The garden was on the eastern side of the house, between the house and the rocky wall of the canyon.
Diana saw him looking at the compass and said, “Something caught my eye on the survey map, but I didn’t realize what it was until now. The whole complex is laid out wrong.”
“You mean it’s not secure, or the servants’ quarters are too close?”
“No. It’s the orientation to the sun. The ancient Egyptians believed the positions of the sun represented life and death. That’s why those who could afford to lived in cities and palaces on the east side of the Nile, closer to the life-affirming sunrise. They built their tombs and necropolises on the western shore, in the domain of death. Likewise, the homes of the wealthy were rarely built with the doors facing west. Chapels and temples never were.”
Oliver pondered that for a moment as he looked out across the once beautiful garden. His eyes wandered to the chapel with its statues of long dead gods.
“What if Sephor was some sort of death cultist?”
“That’s not out of the question. Many ancient Egyptians did gravitate more towards one god or another, even as they paid respect to the entire pantheon.”
“Let’s check the chapel first. I’ve got a hunch that we might find some clue there. If that turns up dry, we’ll take a look in the main house.”
They moved quickly across the uneven stands of the garden, being careful to not twist an ankle on the hillocks of drifted sand surrounding, and sometimes covering, long abandoned plant beds. Oliver moved ahead with his gun drawn, while Diana got out the camera and began to take pictures of the garden features, house walls, and the large statues flanking the entrance to the chapel. Oliver knew that he ought to snap some photos as well, if only to try and make some money from this venture, but ever since he had nearly been killed by a golem in Ukraine seven years before, he had developed a firm belief in securing a site before going into photographer mode. If that made him more of a relic hunter than a photographer, so be it.
Oliver mounted the stepped base of the chapel at the northern side and approached the chapel door cautiously, keeping one shoulder to the wall. He edged around the weathered base of the statue of Osiris and peered into the dark interior of the chapel. A bright shaft of light slanted down from an opening at the top of the eastern wall and illuminated a stone altar at the center of the chapel. The sand covering the floor around the altar lay in uneven ripples that Oliver recognized as scuff marks from someone walking back and forth across it. Following the marks with his eyes, Oliver saw that the footsteps lead back into the darkened rear corners of the chapel.
Diana arrived at Oliver’s back and whispered, “Do you see anything?”
He described the scene within the chapel and pointed to the stone statue of Setesh on the opposite side of the doorway. “It’s probably safe to cross over and look from there. Yancy and his students surveyed this half of the garden without being attacked, so if there are any more skeletons here, they probably don’t come out into the garden.”
Diana nodded and darted across the opening to crouch at the base of the Setesh statue. Oliver watched the shadowy interior of the chapel carefully, but saw no sign of movement within as Diana moved across the doorway.
He slowly got to his feet and said, “I’m going to go take a look around.”
Diana held up one finger for him to wait. She slipped her camera into her backpack, pulled out her own gun and nodded at him.
Oliver straightened and rounded the base of the Osiris statue, then stepped up to the threshold of the chapel entrance. Standing, he could see more clearly that the shallow drifts of sand around the base of the altar had indeed been disturbed, and recently. Short scuff marks circled the altar in concentric rings and led off into the shadows at the back of the chapel, as if someone had circled the altar a few times, walked away, and returned to circle the altar again. And again. And again.
He walked forward slowly, listening carefully for the sound of creaking bones that had preceded the skeleton’s appearance in the main house the night before. He heard nothing but the subtle crackle and swoosh of his own footsteps on the sand covered stone floor.
He reached the altar without incident. It was a simple platform of polished stone about four feet high and three feet square at the top, with no decoration except for one line of engraved hieroglyphs running down the center of each face. Oliver couldn’t read the hieroglyphs, but some of them reminded him of those above the smaller altar in the front hall. Shallow grooves were cut into the surface of the stone and ran out to the edges and down to a channel in the floor surrounding the altar.
“Can you take a look at these?” he called back to Diana, motioning towards the altar. “I’m going to take a look at the back of the temple.”
Diana hurried up to the altar, nodded and slipped her gun back into the holster on her thigh. She pulled out her camera and began photographing the altar from every angle, already muttering to herself about possible translations of the hieroglyphs.
Oliver took a flashlight out of his pack and clicked it on. He played the beam around the perimeter of the chapel, revealing numerous faded murals painted onto the walls. These depicted various scenes of ancient Egyptians engaged in armed conflict, always led by a tall man carrying a sword. Oliver swept the light towards the back of the chapel and spotted a narrow doorway set in the stone wall. This was flanked by painted relief carvings of Osiris and Setesh and topped by an intricate mural of soldiers armed with spears and short swords following the tall man, but this time the man was holding some sort of rod instead of a sword. Running the beam of his light down to the floor, Oliver saw that the marks in the sand led up to the doorway and disappeared into the dark passage beyond.
Oliver stepped towards the doorway, flashlight and gun raised in front of him. He had a hunch that if this estate held any clue to the location of the guarded temple, it would be here, in a place that seemed to be dedicated to commemorating the accomplishments of Sephor as much as to the worship of any deity. He approached the door cautiously, shifting back and forth as he attempted to get a view of the room beyond, but the passageway was narrow and the wall through which it passed so thick that he could only see a narrow sliver of the back wall. This seemed to be painted with yet another battle scene, the colors remarkably vivid in the beam of Oliver’s flashlight.
He reached the doorway and smiled, because he was finally beginning to get a better view of the mural at the far end.
Then his view was blocked by the grinning visage of a skull.
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The Staff of Moses © 2022, Andrew Linke