The party spotted Oliver.
The three men pushed aside their robes to reveal automatic rifles, which they shouldered and pointed at Oliver. They began shouting in Arabic for him to drop his gun and lay down on the ground.
Behind them, a young woman wrapped her arms around the older woman she had been escorting and stepped between them, putting her body between Oliver and the elderly woman.
Oliver dropped his gun and raised his hands.
This day just keeps getting worse and worse, he thought.
He stepped back from the gun, keeping his hands in the air, but did not drop to the ground. He had no idea why these people were in the canyon, let alone threatening him, but he intended to find out.
“I am unarmed,” Oliver shouted in his best Arabic. He at least hoped that was what he was shouting. “I mean you no harm. My partner was kidnapped, that’s why I had my gun out.”
The men glared at Oliver and continued to keep their weapons leveled at his chest, but they stopped shouting.
“My name is Oliver. I am an archaeologist. Who are you? What do you want?”
The older woman began shouting at her younger counterpart in a dialect that Oliver could not understand, but recognized as a variant of Arabic. The young woman was doing her best to keep her elder from running forward as they argued. One of the men turned around and joined in the discussion. Oliver had no idea what they were saying, but got the impression that the older woman wanted to get closer and look at him, while the others were concerned for her safety.
Ultimately the woman won the argument. The others stepped to the side and allowed her to approach Oliver with tottering steps, her wrinkled brown hands stretched out towards him. Her assistant followed, skirts billowing as she hurried to the old woman’s side and took her arm.
One of the men approached Oliver, keeping his gun pointed at him the whole time. He came almost within reach, then stopped and said, in Arabic, “We heard shooting and saw a helicopter moving west. What happened here?”
“I told you. My research partner was kidnapped. The men who took her were trying to kill me. They probably think that they succeeded.” He nodded towards the bullet-riddled remains of the Range Rover.
The man nodded gravely and glanced back at the others. The old woman was still shuffling forward. She was not far away now. He called out to her in the dialect that Oliver could not understand. She replied with a burst that sounded to Oliver like questions.
“Why are you here?” the gunman asked.
“I might ask you the same thing.”
“You might, but you are… What, British? American? You speak Arabic with an accent… and I’d wager you don’t have a permit to excavate here.”
Oliver couldn’t have explained why, but he didn’t get the impression that these people were a threat to him. Something about the way they all seemed to defer to the old woman, who now stood just behind his interrogator and had fixed Oliver with a piercing gaze. He slowly lowered his arms and hooked his thumbs into the pockets of his trousers. He tried to relax, despite the guns pointed at him, and decided that the best course of action was to tell the truth, mostly.
“My name is Oliver. I’m a photographer and treasure hunter. I found some clues that suggested I might find a valuable relic here. Since I don’t read hieratic or hieroglyphs very well, I brought along a colleague who does. While searching the estate down there, we were attacked by a group of American mercenaries who are also looking for the relic. They killed the Egyptian who was working with them and kidnapped my partner, then went to track down the next clue.”
It all spilled out of Oliver and when he was finished, he deflated. His shoulders sank and he allowed his body to sag back against the Range Rover, feeling utterly exhausted from the stress of the day.
The men said nothing, but Oliver noticed that their faces had gone blank, where before they had been animated and angry. It was obvious that something in his story had caught their attention, but they were trying to hide it.
The young woman was busily whispering in her elder’s ear, apparently translating Oliver’s story. The old woman nodded slowly, her wrinkled face betraying little as she assimilated the information. When her assistant had finished, the older woman turned her intense gaze back to Oliver and uttered a few short statements.
This time, the young woman translated for Oliver. She had a soft, melodic voice, but there was an intensity to her speech that commanded Oliver’s attention, especially when she addressed him in flawless English. “The priestess asks whether you saw anything else while you were in the house, and what parts of the estate you explored.”
Oliver hesitated. He wasn’t so much surprised by the young woman speaking English, since it was the common tongue of mass media throughout the world, as he was uncertain how much to say. There was no going back now though.
He returned the old woman’s gaze and did his best to speak in a level tone, switching to English as he said, “We explored the front hall, throne room, and a guest room of the main house. We were following a passage to the back of the house when…” He paused, then shook his head and said, “When we were attacked by a living skeleton.”
He waited for a sign of surprise from the young translator, but she simply nodded and began speaking to the old woman. The elder did not appear surprised, so as soon as the young woman stopped speaking, Oliver continued. “We also entered the chapel in the rear garden. There we were attacked by the living remains of an Egyptian general named Sephor. I destroyed him and we were in the midst of reading an inscription that he made on the wall of the chapel when we were attacked by the mercenaries.”
Oliver caught a look of surprise cross the young woman’s face when he claimed to have defeated Sephor. The surprise passed, darkening into something that Oliver feared would spell his doom. Before she could finish translating he quickly said, “I have photographs of the inscription. Sephor apparently carved it into the wall some time after he was transformed into an undead guardian himself.”
The young woman shot him a cold look, then turned back to her elder and continued to translate what Oliver had said. The old woman’s eyes widened as her assistant translated. She looked at Oliver with an expression that seemed equal parts horror and respect.
As the translator finished speaking, one of the men raised his rifle and strode closer to Oliver, pointing the gun at his head and laying his finger alongside the trigger. His impassive mask had fallen and now his face was deeply etched with rage.
He shouted back at the women in their dialect, spittle flying from his lips and flecking his dark brown beard. Without waiting for a reply from the old woman he switched to Arabic and shouted at Oliver, “You bastard. You filthy heathen bastard! How dare you defile this place? What right do you have to come here and destroy our holy places?”
Oliver put his hands back up, thinking fast. Most of the sites he raided were so remote, so obscure, so long forgotten that there was little risk of encountering human devotees of the shrines he violated. Still, he had encountered relic cults on a couple occasions and been able to talk his way out of a fight more often than not. Generally he would lie to them, perhaps even try to insinuate himself into their sacred myths as some sort of holy messenger or invulnerable herald of evil, but he had already told too much of the truth to start lying now, not to mention that these people were clearly in communication with the modern world.
He looked straight at the man holding the rifle and spoke calmly in Arabic, keeping his voice low as he said, “I had no intention of damaging anything. I came to take photos and look for clues to the location of a temple that has been lost for thousands of years. The guardians attacked me, so I defended myself.”
This had no visible calming effect, but the man did not shoot Oliver between the eyes, so he continued, looking to the women as he said, “Please, tell me who you are. Perhaps we can help one another.”
The old woman pushed her enraged guard aside and took Oliver’s right hand in her own. She gripped his fingers tightly with one hand and reached up, stroking his face with the palm of her left hand as she looked deeply into his eyes. The skin of her fingers felt like brittle paper against his cheek. Oliver swallowed hard, trying to suppress the thought that she could read his mind or peer into his soul. She’s just some crazy old priestess, he thought. A crazy old priestess guarded by men with automatic weapons.
The woman cupped Oliver’s chin in her hand and began to speak to him. Her voice quavered and the expression in her eyes shifted wildly. At times her eyes bored into Oliver with such intensity that he would have looked away, had she not held his chin, and at others she appeared on the verge of tears. She paused at times, to allow her assistant time to translate, then continued before Oliver or the men with guns could interject.
“Your presence here is a sign of evil, Oliver. You have witnessed violence and caused damage in a sacred place where my ancestors once lived in peace. Dangerous men have followed your trail here and even at this moment I feel the threat of them growing. Despite this, you are not an evil man yourself. That which you have destroyed was… profanely sacred… so I both abhor and thank you for its destruction. You are hungry for knowledge that is beyond you. Beyond what humanity should know. I cannot compel you to cease your quest, but I can help you stop a greater evil.”
The woman released Oliver’s chin and dropped her hand to his shoulder. She looked over her shoulder to the armed men and spoke. Her assistant translated for Oliver’s benefit, “We will return home now. This man will accompany us. Tomorrow he will set out to bring an end to the evil that he carried with him to our lands. Then I will return here to see that which we have guarded unseen for over a hundred generations.”
The Staff of Moses © 2022, Andrew Linke