Oliver allowed himself to take a deep breath. He did not understand what had just happened, or how he was expected to bring an end to an ancient evil, but he figured that it had something to do with stopping the mercenaries. The old woman released his hand and began walking back towards the cliff path. One guard, the one who had threatened Oliver, ran ahead of her and began to jog up the path.
The younger woman glanced back at Oliver and said, “We will speak more later.” She turned and followed the old woman, taking her arm to help her up the steep switchback path to the top of the cliff.
One of the remaining guards slung his rifle under his robe and enveloped Oliver’s right hand in a double-handed handshake. “I am Zaid Ahmad, chief guardian of the Elder,” he said in Arabic.
“Oliver Lucas. Photographer and international trouble-maker.”
Zaid did not smile, but something in the set of his shoulders and glint of his eyes gave Oliver the feeling that he got the joke and approved.
“Take your bag and follow us. You will forgive me for keeping your gun for a while.”
They marched up the narrow path. Zaid walked in the front with Oliver behind him and the still unnamed guard taking up the rear. It didn’t take long for them to catch up with the old woman and her young assistant, who introduced herself to Oliver as Hadiya.
“You speak English very well, Hadiya,” Oliver commented between panting breaths as they marched up the steep incline.
“Thank you. I participated in a student exchange program in New York for two years while I attended university.”
“What did you study?”
“The closest equivalent in English would be something like Women’s Rights in International Relations.”
“That’s very modern.”
Hadiya shot Oliver a sharp look. Her dark eyes cut into him and he had the distinct impression that he had offended her.
“I might be from a small village, but we aren’t some backwards tribe scrabbling in the dust of your modern empire, you know. We have electricity. We have medicine. I was encouraged by my parents to attend university so I could get a bigger picture of the world. I did well there, then returned to the village out of respect for my family’s honor and my grandmother’s beliefs.”
“I didn’t mean to offend you.”
“All I meant was that your choice of major reflects an interest in society that many people lack, no matter where they come from.”
She looked away from Oliver as she helped the old woman, who Oliver now assumed to be Hadiya’s grandmother, keep her balance on the steep path.
After a while she said, “I apologize for snapping at you. My grandmother appears to trust you, so I will try to do the same.”
“And I apologize for bringing trouble to your people. Can you tell me more about yourselves? For starters, how do you know of Sephor and his estate?”
“My family are the leaders of a village several kilometers southeast of this place. For over a hundred generations the women of our line have been priestesses and chief elders, while their husbands and sons served as defenders of the people.”
“A matriarchal society here in Egypt. One that has persisted for over a thousand years. That’s interesting,” Oliver mused.
“Yes, it is. We believe ourselves to be descended from the wife and servants of Sephor, those few who escaped a terrible slaughter. For the most part, we live as you might expect any other small village centered around an oasis. We grow crops. We raise animals. We pray that the spring does not fail. We never grew large enough to concern the pharaohs, or caliphs, or generals, because our elder women always reminded us of Sephor and how he grew too proud until one day his pride destroyed him.”
“I find it hard to believe that nobody in your village ever sold the secret of the estate to an archeologist or grave robber. That nobody ever attempted to plunder Sephor’s house for riches.”
“Some did. Those we caught were executed for blasphemy. Those we did not catch were never seen again. The guardians of the estate saw to that.”
“The undead skeletons.”
Hadiya thought about that, then nodded. “Yes. I suppose so. I have never seen them myself, thank god, but my mother would tell me stories of walking skeletons to keep me from straying outside the village as a child.”
Oliver smiled at that. He was still trying to take in the idea that he might be speaking to an actual descendant of the people who had lived in the canyon estate before it was destroyed.
As they spoke, the party had reached the top of the slope and trudged across the rocky surface of the desert towards a large white passenger van parked about a quarter mile from the canyon wall.
Zaid noticed Oliver looking at the van and said, “We parked a few hundred meters away from the cliff so that our approach would not be heard by anyone in the canyon.”
“How often do your people visit this place?”
Hadiya answered him saying, “Six times a year my grandmother comes to bring offerings to the old gods. My mother accompanies her. One day my mother and I will take over the duties… or at least, so I had always expected. Now that you claim to have destroyed Sephor, who knows what will become of the rituals.”
“And I just happened to arrive on that day?”
“No. The men regularly patrol the canyon, bringing back news if they see any interlopers. And my grandmother has been having nightmares recently, visions of death in the sacred canyon.”
Hadiya helped her grandmother into the center bench seat while the men took their places in the rear bench and driver’s seat. Once the old woman was settled, Hadiya turned to him and said, “I don’t know what to think of you, Oliver. You show up out of nowhere, bringing my grandmother nightmares and visions of death, confess to destroying our sacredly profane ancestor, and tell us that a relic we have worshiped from afar for generations is in peril. Part of me still wishes that grandmother had let the men shoot you down in the canyon. But then… this is a strange day. We shall see where it leads.”
She turned away, shaking her head, and climbed into the van beside her grandmother.
Oliver paused briefly, unsure what to say. He still wasn’t certain whether these people were grateful or furious that he had destroyed Sephor’s undead body.
These people kept using such a strange term to describe Sephor: Sacredly profane. Oliver thought he had an idea what they meant, but it was so vague he couldn’t be sure.
Zaid called for Oliver to ride along in the front passenger seat and they set off southward, the rim of the canyon on their left as they drove. Zaid kept the van on rocky terrain and hard packed sand, steering clear of large rocks, ravines, and deep dunes where the wheels could become bogged down in soft sand. The men said nothing the entire journey, but Hadiya and her grandmother spoke constantly in their dialect. At times their voices rose and Oliver could sense anger in the unfamiliar words. At other times the old woman nearly wept as she spoke.
Oliver said nothing. Even for one accustomed to dangerous situations and supernatural events, this day had been filled with more than its share of startling revelations. He tried not to think about what Diana might be going through, or of the mercenaries who held her and might at this moment be standing at the entrance to the forgotten temple.
He listened to the rhythm of the women speaking behind him, felt the swaying motion of the van across the rocky desert, and allowed his eyes to drift shut.
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The Staff of Moses © 2022, Andrew Linke