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27 – Guide and Key

Oliver woke the next morning with the rich scent of coffee filling his nostrils. He opened his eyes in the dim light of the common room and rolled over, being careful to not fall off the sofa. Every muscle in his left side flared to a fiery wakefulness, reminding him of yesterday’s events. His eyes fell upon a large mug resting on the table, filled to the brim with a dark brown liquid. He glanced around, but didn’t see anybody else.

He swung his legs down to the floor and leaned on his knees for a moment, waiting until the pain subsided into a dull ache, then dropped to the floor and did several pushups to try and work the ache from his muscles. The pain returned, but he pushed through it and kept moving until his arms pumped his body fluidly up and down. He rolled to his feet, wincing as his bruised muscles and organs screamed at the sudden movement. Oliver knew he didn’t have any broken bones, but the damage he had sustained yesterday would take at least a week to fully heal.

Oliver sat down on the sofa and pulled on his shirt. He picked up the thick brew and sipped at it experimentally. The liquid was as thick as heavy cream and far stronger than normal coffee. It left a slightly gritty feeling on his tongue, but it was so sweet that he couldn’t help but keep drinking it. He sat on the sofa for a few more minutes, mulling over the events of the previous day as the caffeine worked its way into his system.

He was half way through the mug of coffee when Hadiya pushed through the curtained doorway to the family’s rooms. “Good, you’re awake. I was worried when the noise of making coffee didn’t wake you, but thought the smell of a mug right beside your nose might work.”

Oliver raised the cup in salute and thanked her, then set it down and began pulling on his boots while Hadiya busied herself at the stove. 

“My mother and father are out refueling the Jeep. When they return we will have breakfast, then I imagine you will be on your way to rescue your partner.”

Oliver folded the thin blanket that he had slept under and laid it on the arm of the sofa. Then he picked up the cup of coffee and walked to the kitchen table. He watched Hadiya in silence for a moment, sipping his coffee and trying to think of the right words for the question that had been bothering him since Hadiya, her grandmother, and their guards had rescued him yesterday. Finally he said, “Hadiya, I’ve been thinking about this all night. Why didn’t your men just shoot me yesterday?”

She turned from the counter, still twisting a ball of dough in her hands, and gave him a quizzical look. 

“Not that I don’t appreciate it, but what do you gain by keeping me around? What can I do for you?”

Hadiya hesitated, then said, “I know the reason, Oliver, but it is my grandmother’s place to tell you, not mine. Now go get washed up for breakfast.”

Oliver watched as she turned back to the counter and tossed the flattened disk of bread onto an oiled cast iron skillet. He drained his coffee mug and set it on the table, then slipped through the curtain and down the hall into the bathroom. 

When he returned, Oliver found the elder Layla sitting in her chair at the table, her hands resting on a wooden box that was polished to such a sheen that it seemed to glow softly in the growing light of the morning sun. Taking his seat at the table across from the old woman, Oliver could smell the rich scent of olive wood that had been preserved by frequent polishing with a rag soaked in olive oil. The light was too dim for him to make out the precise nature of the inscriptions on the box, but he could see the vague outline of several hieroglyphs running across the side of the box facing him.

“Good morning,” he said, bowing his head to the old priestess.

The old woman nodded and replied in her own tongue. 

Hadiya translated, without looking away from the stove, “Good morning, Oliver. Are you prepared for the journey that awaits you?”

“I think I am, but I don’t know the nature of the journey. Where do I go? How will I save my friend?”

Layla didn’t reply for a moment. Her hands caressed the box on the table, crooked fingers slipping into the grooves of the engraved hieroglyphs and tracing their outlines. She seemed to look past Oliver and into some distant place that only she knew. 

“I am an old woman. For over seventy years I have served the gods of my ancestors and preserved the sacred memory of Sephor’s folly, as did my mother and grandmother before me, and their mothers before them. As long as I have lived I expected that my daughter and her daughters would do the same. But now…” She hesitated long enough that Hadiya was forced to pause in her translation and wait for her to continue. 

Eventually, Layla sighed deeply and said, “Now I am unsure what we will do. Sephor has been destroyed and violent men are moving to desecrate the temple that holds the rod of power.

“The men who attacked you are not the first to have sought to take this relic. Seven generations ago a party of French soldiers came upon our village as they explored the land. My ancestors said little to them and they were soon gone, but not before the rebellious son of the elder, bored with his simple life in this peaceful place, offered to show them the sacred canyon in exchange for a commission into the French army. He went away with them, only to return a month later bearing a tale of woe.

“The boy had led the soldiers to the sacred canyon and told their leader, a lieutenant, of two relics said to be hidden in the chapel. They did not destroy Sephor, but they managed to capture the guide stone and the key. The lieutenant was furious with the boy because several of his men had died in the assault, but the boy pleaded for his life and showed the lieutenant how to use the guide stone to find the Temple of the Staff. He then guided them to the temple and helped them to gain entry. 

“Soon after they entered the temple, they were driven off by the powers that guard that temple. The soldiers who still lived retreated to the north, never to return, while the rebellious boy retrieved the relics from the corpse of the lieutenant and journeyed back to this village.”

Layla stopped speaking and caressed the box in her hands. Oliver nodded slowly, the realization dawning that the box must contain the guide stone and key. That would explain why the French soldiers had attacked the chapel in Sephor’s estate, but not made any effort to loot the riches of the main house. He recalled the layout of the inner sanctum, where he and Diana had puzzled over the two empty niches in the side walls of the chamber. 

That must be where the guide stone and key had rested until they were stolen by the French soldiers, Oliver thought.

He stood then and retrieved his camera from the backpack resting beside the sofa. He pulled a chair up beside Layla and switched the camera into review mode, loading up the images of the inner sanctum from its memory card. 

“Hadiya, could you explain to your grandmother that these are photographs I took in the chapel. She didn’t see them last night.”

Hadiya set her cooking aside and came to stand behind Layla. She spoke softly to her grandmother, translating as Oliver flipped between photos and pointed to parts of the inner sanctum that seemed relevant to the story she had just related. 

He showed her the bodies of the French soldiers and the remains of Sephor. At the sight of her destroyed ancestor, the old woman began whispering to herself. Hadiya explained to Oliver that her grandmother was praying for the soul of the ancient warrior, freed from torment after so many years. When Layla grew silent again, he flipped to another photo and pointed out the empty niches in the inner sanctum of the temple. 

He zoomed the image in close enough that Layla could inspect the inscriptions around each niche. The old woman’s eyes lit up as she gestured between the screen of the camera and the box on the table. The inscriptions were remarkably similar. Then Oliver flipped to a photo of the roughly carved inscription. 

Layla studied the photo of the inscription intently, asking Oliver to zoom in on several portions in turn. Finally she spoke, almost in a whisper. 

Hadiya listened, then said, “You must leave as soon as my parents return with the car. I will pack supplies for you.”

“I am eager to rescue my friend, but why is your grandmother in such a rush all of a sudden?”

The old priestess did not reply to Oliver’s question. Instead she began speaking rapidly to her granddaughter. Hadiya pulled a pad of paper from a drawer and began writing as quickly as she could, occasionally interrupting the old woman, apparently insisting that she repeat herself. Oliver watched in silence, waiting for an explanation. After several minutes, Hadiya stopped writing. She tore off the paper and folded it up, then handed it to Oliver.

“This is a rough translation of the instructions that Sephor scratched into the wall. He was furious that his relics had been stolen, but was unable to pursue the thieves because of the magic that bound him to the chapel, so he left instructions for his descendants to find the temple and retrieve the staff if the soldiers hadn’t already taken it.”

Oliver made to unfold the paper and read the instructions, but Layla laid a hand on his and shook her head. She motioned for him to put the paper in one of the pockets of his vest. 

Confused, he did as she told him. 

Layla turned to the olive wood box on the table and rested her worn hands on it. She breathed a few words of what Oliver assumed to be an ancient prayer, then lifted the top of the box. The top half slid smoothly apart from the bottom, revealing a piece of crumbling parchment inscribed with hieratic script atop the thick folds of a finely woven white linen cloth. She set the lid of the box on the table and paused for a moment to whisper a few more words. Then she tenderly moved the parchment aside and laid it atop the lid. With one more murmured prayer she lifted the linen cloth.

Underneath, two objects rested in gentle indentations they had made in another linen cloth. One was a oval disc of alabaster stone about the size of Oliver’s palm with a large hole bored through the center. Within this hole was set a large fleck of mica. Carved inscriptions in hieratic and, to Oliver’s surprise, a script that reminded him of ancient Hebrew surrounded the hole on one side. The other object was a pyramid of polished brass, about an inch to a side, with fine lines of hieratic script scribed into each surface.

“These are the guide stone and key that were stolen from the chapel of Sephor by the French soldiers. With these you will be able to find the temple of the staff and open its outer gates. After that, you must follow your heart and heed the instructions that my granddaughter has written for you. I pray that you will reach the temple in time to save your friend.”

Layla lifted the brass pyramid from the box and handed it to Oliver. It was still cold with the night’s chill and felt heavy for its size. At Layla’s prompting, Oliver slipped the pyramid into a zippered pocket on the front of his vest. She then handed him the guide stone and pantomimed holding it up and looking around.

Oliver held the guide stone up to his right eye and looked through it. At first he saw nothing unusual. The fleck of mica set into the hole was clear enough for him to see through, but it distorted the image so he had trouble making out the features of the women in the room with him. He turned his head from side to side, examining the room through the mica, and was about to set the stone down when he noticed something strange. 

When he turned his head to the right, Oliver could just see a faint reddish orange glow at the edge of the mica fleck. He initially wrote it off as the sun rising outside the front window of the house, but then he realized he was sitting with the window to his left. 

Oliver turned in his seat and looked to the right. As he turned his head a narrow line of flickering flame appeared in the fleck of mica. He lowered the guide stone and found himself looking at the side wall of the room. He put the guide stone back to his eye and the flame appeared again, flickering against the wall of the house as if he was looking through the wall at a distant pillar of fire.

Layla spoke solemnly beside him and Hadiya translated, “Follow the fire and you will find the temple. Rescue your friend and prevent the staff of the foreign god from falling into the hands of the violent men. I only ask that when you have rescued your friend you return the stone and key.”

Oliver looked away from Layla and raised the guide stone to his eye again. Despite his aching muscles and the knowledge that Diana was in danger, Oliver couldn’t help but laugh out loud.

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The Staff of Moses © 2022, Andrew Linke