Oliver threw himself back and twisted to the side just in time to dodge a sweeping blow from a long, bronze sword. He landed hard and skidded back across the sandy floor. By the time his body came to rest, his gun was up and Oliver had the doorway in his sights.
The creature hurtled out from the dark, rasping out a terrible cry of rage from its parched throat. It was not a skeleton like the one Oliver had destroyed the night before. The thing that emerged from the dark doorway was a tall man with copper brown skin that had been darkened and worn by countless days spent fighting under the merciless sun. Long ago, the man had been dressed in a fine linen kilt supported by a belt of linked copper, but the linen had browned with age and begun to crumble. Now it was little more than a few threadbare scraps dangling from the scuffed copper links that twisted across the creature’s body. The thing’s head, where it was not bare skull, was covered in a patchwork of short hair, once thick and black, but now a matted sandy gray and ripped out in ragged patches. It gripped a long bronze sword in its right hand, the sun glittering from large chips in the blade.
Oliver gaped as he lay on the stone floor, examining the thing over the sights of his gun. He knew that he should begin shooting and running, but his finger froze on the trigger at the sight of the ghastly slash that crossed the creature’s chest, exposing layers of bone and viscera coated in a thick layer of dust and sand. Another wound had ripped away a chunk of the monster’s left side, revealing the sagging shape of a tattered heart behind the ragged skin and splintered remains of brittle white ribs.
The creature advanced on Oliver, raising its sword to strike at him again.
His shot ripped into the creature’s chest and exploded out the back of its body in a cloud of dark red dust. The undead monster jerked back, then got its footing and leapt towards Oliver with its mouth open in a cruel scream that sounded like air tearing through the pipes of a shattered organ. Oliver fired again and rolled sideways, stumbling to his feet and nearly tripping over something buried in the sand as the monster’s sword hit the stone beside him with a terrible rasping clang and a shower of sparks.
Three more shots echoed through the chapel as Oliver rolled to his feet. He heard the distinct whine of a bullet passing close by his head before it slammed into the stone behind him. Glancing away from the creature, Oliver saw Diana kneeling behind the altar, steadying her aim by resting her gun atop the flat stones. She fired again and this time the bullet hit its intended target, knocking the creature sideways and sending out another cloud of red dust.
Oliver aimed his gun, trying to line up his sights on the fiend’s head, but it charged towards him, body swaying with an awkward gait. He dodged to the side to avoid another swipe from the sword, firing into the monster’s chest as it hurtled past him.
He gave up on trying to destroy it in a single headshot and instead turned and ran towards the side wall of the chapel. As he ran, Oliver heard more shots booming and assumed that the thing was still chasing him, with Diana trying to slow it down. As much as Oliver appreciated Diana’s help, her presence made this situation more difficult. If he had been facing the undead warrior alone, Oliver would have been in grave danger, but able to focus all of his attention on staying out of reach of the monster’s sword. With Diana here, he also had to contend with the additional risks of being hit by one of her bullets and the chance that the monster’s attention would be drawn to her.
A moment before he reached the wall, Oliver turned to the left and used his right leg to kick off hard against the wall. This launched him into the air and caused him to twist rapidly around to face the pursuing creature. He brought his gun up as he turned, aiming in the direction of where he expected the monster to be.
Unfortunately, the monster was closer than Oliver had expected.
Before he could adjust his aim, Oliver slammed into the floor and skidded across the sand. The monster skidded across the sand, spun, then crashed into the wall, its arms splayed to either side. Oliver raised his gun and fired repeatedly at the monster’s chest, pushing it back against the wall with each shot. The creature dropped to the floor in a cloud of red dust. It continued to scrabble in the sand, trying to push itself up, but with each shot it was shoved back against the wall again.
His trigger clicked on an empty chamber.
Two more shots sounded, then Oliver heard a curse from Diana as her magazine emptied as well. He jumped to his feet, ejecting the spent magazine into his left palm. He swapped it for a full spare from the front pocket of his vest, slammed the fresh magazine into his gun, and released the slide to chamber a bullet.
The monster’s body was now riddled with gaps, some large enough that Oliver could see the wall through them. Dark red dust poured from the holes and was blown into a foul smelling cloud by the creature’s wild gyrations as it attempted to stand and attack Oliver. Freed from the repeated body slams of hot lead, it managed to get its legs under itself, leap up, and raise its sword.
The creature opened its foul mouth and screamed, then charged towards Oliver.
Oliver aimed at its skull and smoothly pulled the trigger. Just as with the skeleton last night, the monster’s skull shattered in a cloud of white and red dust and a puff of bluish smoke that seemed to wrinkle the air surrounding it as it drifted away. The headless body collapsed, still spewing the foul red dust as it fell.
Oliver stepped back, keeping his gun aimed at the monster. He kept moving until he felt the solid stone of the altar behind him.
“Do you think it’s… dead?” Diana asked.
Oliver looked around and saw Diana, still crouching behind the altar. An empty magazine lay on the carved stone and she was in the process of inserting another into her gun. He turned back to face the prone body of the monster. The cloud of dust had mostly dispersed, but a faint haze of the foul substance still hung around the shattered remains of the creature’s head. It reminded Oliver of the spores of a large powder mushroom, drifting lazily through the air after the mushroom was kicked.
He shrugged out of his backpack and dug in a side flap to find a handkerchief. He tied it around his face and put on a pair of rubber gloves from his first aid kit, then advanced on the body. He knelt on the floor beside the now restful corpse and examined it.
What clothes the creature had once worn had deteriorated over the ages, leaving little but a brass belt around its waist and a gold signet ring on the middle finger of its right hand. The deep gash cutting across the monster’s chest had been nearly obliterated by the many gunshot wounds dealt to it. Oliver slipped a gloved hand inside one of the wounds and pulled back the leathery skin to reveal the remains of the creature’s stomach and kidneys, all perfectly preserved and completely dry. It was as if they had been transformed into resin molds of their original forms without withering in the process. He had never seen anything like this before, but assumed that it was the result of whatever magical forces had transformed the once proud soldier into an undead fiend.
“What’s all that dust?” Diana asked, coming up behind him.
“I’m not sure, but it probably was his blood. See, all of the organs are in place and undamaged, except where we shot it and here…” he pointed at a deep gash in the lower part of what might have once been the monster’s liver. “That’s not a gunshot wound. My guess is he was slashed and stabbed several times before being transformed.”
“What could cause him to dry out like that?”
“I don’t know. Probably some form of magic, combined with the dry air of the desert. My guess is that he was preserved exactly as he was in the moment the magic took hold, except that all of the moisture drained from his body over the next few thousand years.”
Diana shivered and looked around suspiciously. “Do you think there are any more?”
Oliver shook his head. “This guy is different from the skeleton that attacked us last night. I bet that this was once Sephor and he was somehow transformed after being cut with a sword.” He pulled the signet ring from the creature’s hand and passed it to Diana. “Can you read this?”
She held the ring up so the sunlight shone on the hieroglyphics embossed in the flat surface of the ring. “These symbols look similar to the markings over the household altar we examined yesterday. We can’t be sure based on just this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you just killed… well… the corpse of Sephor himself.”
Oliver nodded and surveyed the wrecked body of the once great warrior. It seemed a shame for someone who had fought so hard for his pharaoh to end up like this, a shriveled wreck of a creature, destroyed so swiftly after spending millennia trapped in this small chapel.
Moments like this gave Oliver pause, causing him to wonder if he should stop in his pursuit of relics, especially the fragments of the mechanism. Some powers he encountered were simply too dangerous and the humans who dared to meddle with them ended up like this. He shook his head, coughed, and turned his mind back to the task at hand.
Oliver got to his feet and looked Diana in the eye. “Are you alright?”
She nodded. “Fine. I was scared for you when I saw that thing try to slice you with its sword, but now that it’s gone… it was kind of exciting.”
He smiled and playfully punched her shoulder. “That’s normal. At least, it’s normal for me.”
Diana grinned and slipped her gun back into its holster. “Want to get a look in that room?”
Oliver nodded. He stripped off the rubber gloves and stuffed them into a pocket then pulled down the handkerchief covering his nose. He strode back to where his flashlight had fallen and picked it up, wincing as he bent. The first bruises from his wild tumbles across the floor were already making themselves known. He had to keep moving or he would stiffen and be miserable for the remainder of the day.
As he lifted the flashlight, Oliver saw a scrap of tattered blue cloth sticking out from underneath the sand. He paused, remembering how he had tripped over something while getting back to his feet after Sephor’s reanimated corpse had burst out of the doorway.
“Hey, Diana, take a look at this.”
He began brushing away the sand, uncovering more of the cloth and the desiccated body that it covered. Diana joined in and they soon had all of the sand cleared away to reveal the body of a man dressed in a red and gray tunic and a blue jacket with tattered gold fringes dangling from pads on each shoulder. The dark blue fabric of the soldier’s jacket was ripped and stained a deep reddish brown where he had been stabbed beneath his ribcage.
“That’s a French military uniform!” Diana exclaimed.
“Looks like you were right about the expedition.”
“I wonder who he is. Gabriel de Pujol listed the expedition members in one of his letters.”
Oliver began rifling the dead man’s pockets. He found several coins, a handful of tattered wax paper powder cartridges, and a bundle of letters. He passed the letters to Diana and stood, looking towards the dark doorway that Sephor’s reanimated corpse had come through.
“The French expedition must have tried to enter the inner sanctum of the chapel, like I was about to.” He flicked the flashlight on and waved it towards the dark doorway. “I’m going to head in there.”
Diana looked up at Oliver from where she was squatting beside the body of the French soldier, flicking through the folded letters. She shoved the letters into a pocket of her pack and stood.
“I’m coming with you. I don’t know his name yet, but I can look through these later.
“Don’t you want to stay here and finish translating the altar inscriptions?” Oliver asked.
“I’m not finished, but from what I’ve seen so far they appear to be fairly typical temple altar prayers. The only thing unusual about them is that they address both Osiris and Setesh, so you’re probably right about Sephor following a strain of the Egyptian religion that was obsessed with death.”
Oliver nodded and strode towards the passage, shining his flashlight ahead of them and keeping his gun pointed in the same direction, ready to fire the instant anything undead appeared in the beam of light.
They slipped through the opening between the relief carvings of Osiris and Setesh, and continued down a corridor barely wide enough for them to walk head-on for about five feet. With each step, Oliver’s flashlight revealed more of the brightly colored mural ahead of them.
They stepped out into a chamber about ten feet deep and twenty wide. All four walls and the ceiling were painted in an intricate series of murals. While the paint had faded from exposure to oxygen over thousands of years, its location in this dark chamber had protected it from the ultraviolet rays of sunlight. That had done much to preserve the paint, to say nothing of whatever effect magic might have had. As a result, the murals in this room were shockingly vivid compared to those in the main chamber of the chapel, except at the base of the walls, where the murals had been violently chipped away. Two tall bronze lamp stands flanked the doorway and the wall above them was darkened with soot, but not so much that it obscured the story told in the mural. Two small niches were cut into the stone, one on either end of the chamber, but these appeared to be empty.
Oliver was not particularly experienced reading Egyptian murals, but they followed a similar structure to the Mayan images that he had studied extensively during his first expedition to South America, so he had little difficulty following the general flow of the story.
There were no dividing lines between the scenes of the story, and the ancient Egyptian artistic convention of drawing nearly all characters in profile could make it difficult for the inexperienced viewer to identify where one scene ended and another began. However, an observant eye would quickly unlock the key: By watching for the same characters repeating, as well as images of servants changing their facing direction from left to right and back again, it was possible to identify the key element of each scene, even as the edges merged together into a continuous flow of storytelling.
Each scene in this mural occupied a stretch of wall between two and four feet in length and about a foot high. Following the narrative of the mural from where it began, just to the left of the doorway, about six feet off the floor, Oliver concluded that it retold essentially the same story as the scroll that Diana had translated a few days before. At the center of the wall facing the door was a scene that showed Sephor slaying numerous foes and taking a long shepherd’s crook in his hand. Due to its position directly opposite the door, where a little bit of sunlight just managed to cast its destructive glow upon the painted stone, this scene was the most faded, but Oliver could still sense the triumph in Sephor’s body language as he took hold of the staff.
“There’s something missing, Oliver.”
He turned to see Diana examining the niche cut into the north wall of the chamber. Oliver walked over and saw that the niche was set at chest height and surrounded by hieroglyphs carved into the six inches of uncolored stone that surrounded each niche.
“I don’t completely understand what’s missing. There’s not enough context, but these hieroglyphs seem to indicate that a key of some sort was stored in this niche. Key isn’t really the right word though. Maybe more of a token, or a password? It doesn’t really make sense.”
Oliver put his gun away and began setting up his camera and lights to photograph the mural.
He gestured at the south wall of the room. “What about that? There’s another empty niche there.”
Diana went over to examine the hieroglyphs surrounding that niche while Oliver set to work photographing the chamber. Even if the empty niches meant that the clues they sought were long gone, he would certainly be able sell photos of this place to archaeology magazines and websites. He didn’t like the idea of giving up hope, but in the relic hunting business, it paid to be pragmatic. By its very nature, the job required one to accept the existence of things that many people thought mere myth, so there was no sense in deceiving oneself about things that actually were black and white. Oliver had to make money from this adventure somehow.
He began with several establishing shots of the chamber, using the remote flash to get some dramatic light and shadow effects. He then set about photographing each panel of the story, framing his shots carefully so that the entire mural could be digitally reconstructed as a continuous narrative. This took a while and midway through the process Diana announced that she was going back out to finish examining the body of the French soldier. Oliver nodded distractedly and continued working in contemplative silence until he reached the bottom row of the mural. This seemed to elaborate upon the narrative of the scroll a little. Oliver began to grow excited as the painted figures were shown constructing a temple and performing rituals around an altar in an underground chamber, upon which lay the staff that Sephor had captured in battle. The exact nature of these rituals was obscured, however, by numerous shallow marks gouged roughly into the stone.
Oliver had noticed the damage to the mural when they first entered the chamber, but such was common in ancient monuments and he hadn’t paid much attention to it. But now, after spending over an hour carefully photographing the rest of this remarkably well-preserved mural, the chips and scratches struck Oliver as odd. Unlike so many other ancient sites in Egypt, this place had been left practically untouched in the thousands of years since its original occupants had abandoned it, except for this one patch of vandalism.
“Hey, Diana!” he shouted.
“What?” she called back.
“I may have found something. Can you come take a look?”
Diana popped back into the chamber a few seconds later. Oliver pointed out the marks scratched into the wall and explained why he thought them unusual. Diana crouched down and gazed at the marks for a few moments, running her flashlight back and forth across them.
Finally she looked up at Oliver and said, “It’s writing. Hard to read because it’s so crudely drawn, but it’s a form of hieratic.”
“Can you read it?”
“Give me a few minutes. Hieratic was essentially cursive to the Egyptians. They used it for personal documents, tribute records, things like that. The flowing nature of the text made it less suitable for stone carving than hieroglyphs, which is why both writing systems persisted in parallel for over a thousand years.”
Oliver flashed Diana a half smile and raised one eyebrow, waiting for her to get to the point.
She swatted at his leg and continued, “Anyway. I’ll need to look this over carefully. It’s not only in hieratic, which is more difficult to read than hieroglyphs to begin with, but it looks like it was scratched into the wall with a knife.”
Oliver nodded and began packing up his camera equipment. “I’m going to poke around the courtyard and main house while you’re busy with this.”
“You aren’t afraid of the skeletons?”
“I’ll mainly look through windows. If I do go in, I’ll take it slow and keep my gun out. The skeleton wasn’t as fast as Sephor and I think it’s pretty clear that destroying the skull stops these creatures.” Oliver bent down and squeezed Diana’s shoulder. “I do this for a living. Don’t be afraid for me. You though…” He pointed down at the gun on her thigh. “Keep that thing at hand. I’ll announce myself before I come through the passage. Keep your ears open and if you hear anything coming that isn’t me, shoot it in the head.”
Diana nodded solemnly and unholstered her gun. She checked the chamber and put the gun back in the holster. Then she shrugged out of her backpack and pulled out a yellow notepad and a pen. She settled into a position from which she could see both the inscription and the doorway and began sketching out the lines of hieratic on her pad.
Oliver nodded in approval and slipped out through the passage into the main chamber of the chapel. Something felt missing in all of this, but he wasn’t quite sure what.
He bent to examine the long dead body of the French soldier once more. The soldier had clearly been killed by a sword thrust to his gut. The presence of a French soldier in this tomb would have been utterly inexplicable were it not for the clue Diana had provided in the form of Gabriel de Pujol’s half-mad letters to his artist brother. He had been part of an expedition sent to scout the desert and ascertain the hostility of native tribes living around the desert lakes. Somehow, they had blundered into this place and, if the descriptions that inspired Abel de Pujol were to be taken at face value, continued on to a place where the staff of Moses was hidden.
Oliver picked up Sephor’s sword and began poking through the larger drifts of sand throughout the chapel. It only took him a few minutes to find the other bodies. All told, there were seven uniformed corpses of French soldiers scattered throughout the chapel. They all bore marks of a violent death by sword. As Oliver uncovered each man, he saw that some still lay beside the brittle remains of muskets, the chipped stocks of which appeared to have been used as improvised quarterstaves in hand to hand combat against an opponent wielding a large sword.
That explained some of it. A picture began to form in Oliver’s mind of the French expedition discovering this canyon and the unspoiled estate located at the far end. They would have begun to explore it, just as their great leader Napoleon had explored the tombs and temples of northern Egypt. Then they came to this chapel and… Oliver pondered what it must have been like for those men to be confronted with the raging corpse of Sephor, armed only with muzzle-loading muskets and bayonets. They must have been courageous to not immediately turn and run. But why had they stayed? Standing against the fiend when it first charged, or even after one or two men fell to it, was one thing, but the soldiers had stayed and fought Sephor long enough that seven men had fallen to him in this place.
What if they hadn’t been simply exploring? What if they somehow knew of the “keys” contained within the chapel’s inner sanctum and this scene of supernatural carnage was not the result of a blundering exploration, but a suicidal battle charge?
Oliver searched the bodies of the soldiers and gathered what letters and journals he found, but his cursory scan of each object didn’t reveal any clues to the soldiers’ mission. These were simple combat soldiers, not officers. They had known nothing of their mission, except that it meant more days of traveling through the torturous heat of the desert.
Disgusted, Oliver tossed the sword aside and strode towards the doorway into the courtyard. He had left Diana with the intent of searching the main house, so he would do just that. Perhaps he would stumble across the body of a French officer bearing a packet of orders, or even a journal in which he described his intended course of action.
Oliver had just stepped out through the chapel entrance when a sudden movement in the corner of his eye caused him to dive forward and reach for his gun.
He was too late.
A weight slammed into his back and in the same instant an arm, clad in desert camouflage covering living human skin, wrapped around his neck.
The arm around Oliver’s neck tightened, cutting off his breath. He flailed ineffectually at his captor, but the unseen assailant was too strong for him. The last thing Oliver saw as his vision darkened was the sandy yellow stone of the garden path.
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The Staff of Moses © 2022, Andrew Linke