Oliver recognized the tone in Diana’s voice. It was the same emotion that overtook him every time he discovered a true relic in some ancient tomb or long abandoned temple. No matter how hard he had to work to find the place, how far he had to crawl through mud, how many armed rivals he faced, or how many supernatural wards stood between him and escape, that moment of first beholding a genuine fragment of refined cosmic power always brought a grin to Oliver’s face and a chill to his spine.
“It looks like the tunnel opens just above some sort of viewing platform, behind a statue of some sort. I can see the chamber through the statue’s legs. Below the platform there’s an altar. The staff is laying on the ground beside the altar, surrounded by… bones.”
“Break through. We’ll see if we can get to the staff before Kyle and his men get here.”
Diana did as he said, smashing away the remainder of the slate with the butt of her flashlight and slipping out to crouch behind the left leg of the statue. Oliver followed her and knelt behind the statue’s right leg to survey the room.
They knelt upon a raised stone plinth, upon which stood the larger than life statue of a man. Oliver could not see the face from where he crouched, but looking up past the statue’s back he saw that the man was depicted wearing the headdress of a pharaoh. Over each shoulder he could just see the tops of the crossed scepter and flail that were the symbols of his position.
This must be Ramesses II, Oliver thought, standing guard in the room where the symbol of his ancestors’ shame was made subject to the power of all the gods of Egypt.
Another statue, smaller, but still larger than life, stood a dozen feet to the right of the one they crouched behind, clutching a large bronze sword. Oliver immediately recognized the proud profile of Sephor.
Looking out beyond the Pharaoh’s leg, Oliver saw that the room was built in a perfect square, with a high observation platform surrounding a depression in the center. Eight stone pillars stood around the central area, two on each side of a set of wide steps leading down to a stone altar. Spaced out around the edges of the platform, only faintly visible in the dim light that gleamed out from narrow slits in the ceiling, were a number of shadowy niches cut into the stone of the walls. At least a dozen scorched and shattered skeletons, some bare and others swathed in layers of tattered cloth, lay in various poses of disarray around the platform and down the steps. Many of the clothed skeletons lay beside the rusted and splintered remains of French army swords and muskets.
At the center of all this stood the altar, bathed in the soft glow of daylight that had traveled far through numerous passages and reflected from many ancient mirrors. The altar was built of a pure white stone and inscribed with densely packed hieroglyphs running in rows across its surface and sides. Atop the altar rested two simple curved stones, each notched at the top as if to hold a rod in place so it would rest without rolling away. But that rod, the very shepherd’s staff that Moses had carried with him into Egypt and used to call down the wrath of the Hebrew god upon the Egyptians, had then carried with him through their sojourn in the desert, had used to draw forth water from desert rocks and channel divine power to strengthen his troops in battle, did not rest peacefully upon the altar.
The staff of Moses lay atop a pile of bones and tattered cloth at the foot of the lowest step, surrounded by long streaks of soot scorched across the stone, as if the man holding the staff had been struck down by a fiery blast as he turned away from the altar.
Oliver couldn’t make out the details of the staff from this distance, but it appeared to be nothing more than a simple length of yellowish brown wood, one end blunted from pounding against thousands of miles of sand and rocks in the desert, the other polished to a dark sheen from years of being grasped in the hands of its owner. For all its simplicity, the staff emanated a sense of potency and command that sent chills up Oliver’s spine.
They knelt in silence until Diana took a deep breath and whispered, “I can hardly believe this is real.”
He nodded, but remained silent as he surveyed the room.
“Stay here,” Oliver interrupted. “I’ll go get the staff, then we can take the tunnel back up to the surface and get out of here before the mercenaries arrive.”
Before she could protest, Oliver jumped down from his position behind the Pharaoh’s leg and dropped into a roll on the stone floor seven feet below. He glanced up at Diana and was not surprised to see that she was glaring at him.
“Relax. I’ll need you to pull me back up when…”
He was interrupted by the look of horror crossing Diana’s face. She opened her mouth to shout and Oliver dove to his left, drawing his gun and spinning around to face the room as he came up out of the roll.
From the shadowy alcoves around the perimeter of the platform, they emerged.
Men and women, their naked skin shriveled to thin leather over their creaking bones. Their eyes glowed a pale blue and streaks of dark blue light, like faintly glowing smoke, streamed out from holes and slashes in their leathery skin. They were accompanied by ferocious dogs with mottled white and red fur and eyes like glowing embers.
The dogs began to growl as white smoke surged from between their bared teeth, filling the air with the reek of sulfur.
The human husk nearest to Oliver opened its dry lips and growled out something in a language he didn’t recognize, its voice screeching past dry vocal cords and lips like wind rushing through dry branches. The fiend finished speaking and waited silently, as if it expected a response, its hollow eye sockets glowing with a dim blue light that seeped out and dripped down its sunken cheeks like ethereal tears. Oliver raised his gun and centered his sights on the fiend’s skull. He slipped his left hand slowly into the outer pocket of his vest and pulled out the guide stone.
“I come in the name of Sephor,” he shouted, holding the stone out in front of him. Though he didn’t look through it, Oliver could see that the fleck of mica at the center of the stone was awash with flickering flames.
At the sight of the guide stone, the nearest fiend nodded silently and raised its left hand in salute, then rattled out a string of words in the dead language of ancient Egypt. The other creatures likewise saluted and stopped advancing towards Oliver as the dogs sat back on their haunches.
Keeping his gun trained on the nearest husk, Oliver took a hesitant step forward. None of the creatures reacted, so he took another step with the same result.
Oliver had reached the steps down to the altar when one of the dogs growled fiercely and gave a deep bark that echoed throughout the chamber. Flames spewed across the stones, scorching them black. The other fiends turned as one and Oliver froze, thinking they were about to charge him. He counted fourteen human shaped fiends, as well as seven dogs, and he only had fifteen bullets in his gun.
Oliver was just deciding whether he should shoot at the undead humans or dogs first when he heard the same words that had been spoken to him uttered again.
He turned and saw Kyle standing in the shadowy doorway between the statues of Ramesses and Sephor, an assault rifle clutched in his hands, his clothes and face streaked with blood. Kyle’s face was pocked with bright red welts, as if he had been bitten by dozens of horseflies. Oliver imagined that Kyle must have faced several other rooms filled with fiends and plagues before reaching this chamber. Only two of his henchmen accompanied him, staggering out of the dark doorway with wild eyes, guns pressed to their shoulders, prepared to shoot anything that moved.
Kyle’s eyes found Oliver’s and they locked.
Neither spoke for a long moment.
Then Kyle laughed. There was no mirth in the laughter, only a deep, hysterical irony that convinced Oliver that Kyle had snapped.
Oliver dove down the steps and rolled behind the altar as Kyle roared and began firing a stream of hot lead from his assault rifle.
The fiend nearest to Kyle jerked backwards and flopped over onto the floor, its body folded at an unnatural angle as a burst of bullets shattered its spine and ripped through its desiccated muscles. The unholy blue fire that animated it blazed bright in the fiend’s eyes as it dragged itself across the floor towards Kyle on rigid fingers, roaring hatefully before Kyle silenced it with another burst of gunfire that shattered its skull. The glowing blue smoke poured out of its body and drifted away into nothingness.
Reacting to the scream of their fellow, the other fiends roared, filling the chamber with a skin-prickling blast of noise like a hurricane ripping through a forest of dead trees. The dogs howled, spewing gouts of red fire that blasted into the stones of the floor and spread out in burning arcs, leaving dark cones of charred stone in their wake. The monsters threw themselves at Kyle and his remaining men, snarling as they charged across the platform.
Strangely, not one of them descended the steps to cut across the low area in which the altar stood, instead they all ran the long way around the upper platform.
The mercenaries remained in their place by the door, firing around the base of the statues at the approaching fiends until their magazines ran dry. Five human fiends and one hound fell under the force of their fire, but that did not stop the remaining creatures from charging towards them. Kyle met their assault, leaping forward into the room and slashing a combat knife across the neck of nearest fiend, then slamming his booted foot into the chest of the creature as it clutched at the gout of blue smoke pouring from its throat. One mercenary, his face already bloodied from wounds sustained somewhere along his journey through the temple, followed Kyle out onto the platform, only to be rammed by a fiend that emerged from around the statue of Sephor. The mercenary lashed out with the butt of his rifle, shattering the fiend’s skull. The undead guard roared, blue smoke oozing out through cracks in its skull, and threw the man across the platform to strike with a crunch against a supporting pillar, then fell down into a shadowy corner of the lower area. The final mercenary slammed a new magazine into his rifle, took aim, and shot one of the fiery hounds as it charged towards him. The beast dropped and rolled forward over itself, spewing flame in all directions before collapsing into a pile of dry skin and bones.
The fiends continued their merciless assault, the human husks slashing cruelly with unfeeling fingers and snapping with preternaturally strong jaws, without a care for scraped skin or shattered teeth, while the dogs darted around, barking out flames as they attempted to roast or bite the mercenaries without being shot or clubbed. As Oliver watched, one of the dogs blasted a mercenary with a spurt of flame. The man screamed and dropped to the floor, rolling and slapping at the flames on his clothes to put them out. The man slammed into the wall of the chamber and slapped away the last flicker of fire on his leg just in time for one of the dogs to pounce onto his chest. Oliver looked away, but not before he saw the beast growl and dart its massive jaws down at the man’s face.
Scanning the chamber, Oliver found Kyle a quarter of the way around the perimeter of the room, still fighting hand to hand with the fiends. He had managed to slip a new magazine into his gun and was using short bursts of bullets to keep the fire-breathing dogs at bay as he dispatched human fiends with merciless slashes of his blade and rapid kicks to the chest.
Oliver darted out from behind the altar and grabbed the staff with his left hand as he ran towards the statue of Ramesses.
As his fingers closed on the wood of the staff, worn smooth by years of hard use in the wilderness, Oliver felt a surge of energy shoot up his arm and into his brain like an electric shock. Everything around him and inside of him seemed to slow until, in a moment of utter silence between heartbeats, he could hear the scrape of a fire hound’s claws on the stone and trace the slow arc of a cartridge as it was ejected from Kyle’s rifle. His entire body convulsed and he suddenly felt as if he was standing face to face with the most charismatic person he had ever met, blubbering his way through an explanation of his quest to track down relics and re-assemble the mechanism and prove, if only to himself, that a powerful agency lurked in the shadows of the world. His perception was drawn to the staff, still gripped in his frozen hand, and his mind went blank except for thoughts of the staff and what he could do with it if he were to wield its power. He fought back, reaching for memories of Diana, Amber, his quest, and even his father, focusing on them instead of the staff, which had begun to grow hot in his hand.
Oliver was struck with guilt as he considered that his hunt for relics was selfish and had caused him to harm others, but the guilt faded as he focused on his motivation for the quest. The thing that drove Oliver was an insatiable hunger for knowledge, not greed or the desire for power. The image of the staff grew large in his mind again, this time held in the hand of another man, who appeared to flux constantly between the forms of Senator Wheeler and Kyle. Even as the world around him continued to slow, with the flames pouring out of a hound’s open mouth seeming to stand still in the air, Oliver saw the men rising to power as they summoned the magic of the staff to defeat their enemies.
In that moment, Oliver knew what he had to do.
Then the world snapped back into action and Oliver charged up the stairs, staff in hand, screaming Diana’s name. He reached the platform and skidded to a halt beside the statue of Ramesses. Diana appeared beside the leg of the stone Pharaoh and he hurled the staff up to her.
“Go! Meet me at the gate.”
Before she could reply, Oliver had spun away and dashed through the doorway and up the stairs.
“Get back here!” screamed Kyle, sending another burst of gunfire into a fiend and turning to follow Oliver. The remaining fiends and their canine companions gave chase, screaming and howling in rage as their quarry disappeared up the slanted ramp on the other side of the dim doorway.
Oliver had no idea where he was going, but he knew that he needed to keep Kyle away from Diana as she carried the staff up the tunnel to the courtyard. Still running up the steep ramp, he reached into a side pocket of his vest and pulled out an emergency chemical light. He bent and slammed the plastic tube against his knee, bursting it to eerie green life in the dark of the tunnel.
Gunfire sounded from behind and Oliver dropped to the ramp. He threw the light stick up the ramp and lurched to his feet, firing his gun blindly down the ramp twice as he pounded upwards in the dim green light.
Kyle screamed a curse at him from below, then let out a string of profanity as he was silhouetted by the hellish blaze of fire spewing from the mouth of a hound that had reached the doorway. Oliver risked a glance back and saw Kyle leaning against the wall and firing his rifle down at a press of fiery hounds and reaching, screaming human fiends competing to pass through the narrow doorway. Kyle’s maniacal laughter joined in a cruel chorus with the din of gunshots and the screams of the fiends.
Oliver turned away and kept running. In the dim light he could see the end of the ramp leveling off into a dark room.
The instant he reached the end of the ramp, Oliver tumbled sideways to put the heavy stone blocks between himself and Kyle. He pulled his last chemical light out of his vest and hurriedly cracked it, then held it up to reveal a small room with statues of Egyptian gods arrayed around the edges, all facing inwards towards a stand on which rested a large bronze bowl. Oliver searched the perimeter of the room for an exit, his gaze faltering over bloodstains on the floor and the mutilated corpses of a mercenary and five large dogs with pointed ears and black, heavily muscled human arms where their front legs should have been. The mercenary’s throat had been torn out by the jackal headed monster that rested atop him. The beast had been nearly shredded by the dozens of bullet holes ripped into its back and side.
Oliver spotted the exit and ran, the noise of Kyle’s laughter and gunfire echoing up the ramp behind him. He had to trust that Diana would carry the staff up to the courtyard, and that whatever force had infiltrated his mind when he first touched it would leave her unharmed and allow her to carry the staff to the surface. That was a risk, but one he had to take. There had been no time for him to climb up to the tunnel, and if he didn’t escape Kyle and the guardians, she might still manage to escape with the staff, or at least destroy it before Kyle could find her.
He passed through the doorway at a run and found himself in a narrow corridor of stone. He darted along it for about twenty feet, then came up to a wall with a small nook set into it. Painted images of an Egyptian god with a crocodile head surrounded the nook, in which was set a bloodstained altar of white stone. Rows of hieroglyphs were etched into the curved wall of the nook above the altar.
The corridor split here, one passage running right and the other left on either side of the altar nook. Oliver looked frantically for a sign of which way the mercenaries had taken when they entered the temple. It only took him a moment to find the line of white chalk, glowing an eerie green in the chemical light, marking the passage to the right. Looking down he saw bloody footprints on the floor, approaching the altar nook from that same passage. Oliver turned right and moved down the narrow passage as quickly as he dared in the half light.
He soon came to another sacrificial nook, at yet another split in the passage. He continued to follow the chalk marks and bloody footprints past two more turns and altars. It was now clear that he was in a maze. No wonder it took them so long to reach the staff chamber, he thought. At one point he came to a split where the chalk marks indicated that he should turn left, but the bloody footprints continued on ahead. He paused for only a moment, then heard Kyle’s voice screaming a threat from somewhere behind and turned to follow the footprints.
He moved more quickly now, following the footprints past a dozen more altars to the various gods of the Egyptian pantheon as Kyle continued to shout his name and threaten brutal recriminations, until Oliver turned one last corner and saw the faint glow of light at the end of the passage. He ran forward and saw that the light was seeping under and around the tattered remnants of a heavy curtain. When he reached the curtain, which had once been dyed a rich crimson but was now faded and tattered with age, he pushed it aside and stepped into a chamber that had clearly been designed as a ritual bath.
Bright sunlight poured in from the open doorway to the courtyard, illuminating the wide shelves built into the walls, some still bearing frail piles of ceremonial robes that looked as if they would crumble at a touch, and a deep bath with cut steps leading in from one side and out the other. The faint stench of rotting frogs returned to Oliver’s nose as he paused to catch his breath and listen for any sign of Kyle catching up behind him. The shattered skeletons and torn skins of amphibians poured into the room through the door, reaching nearly to the bath at the center of the chamber. Many had been ground to small pieces and scattered across the floor as the mercenaries tracked through the room.
Kyle can’t be far behind, Oliver thought, glancing over his shoulder. He knows the path. He’s been through here before.
He could continue into the courtyard and hope that Diana was there waiting, but then they would have to make it all the way down the length of the courtyard, across the plaza, and down from the plateau of the island. Somehow Oliver doubted that they could accomplish half of that before Kyle stepped into the courtyard and shot them in the back. Though Oliver expected that Kyle would be running low on ammunition, he knew that the mercenary’s assault rifle would be accurate at a much greater range than Oliver’s handgun.
Oliver made up his mind.
It was time to end this.
He jumped down into the ceremonial bath and crouched in the corner nearest the curtained door. He leaned against the side of the bath to steady his aim and take some of the pressure off his aching legs, then rested the barrel of his gun on the edge of the bath and sighted about three feet above the floor in the middle of the doorway. Only the very top of Oliver’s head was visible over the edge of the bath.
He waited, breathing as softly as he could.
He didn’t have to wait long.
Kyle burst through the curtained door, moving fast in a low crouch.
Oliver pulled his trigger twice, allowing his aim to buck upwards with each shot. The first bullet slammed into Kyle’s right leg just above the knee, sending him twisting down and to the right with a scream of agonized rage. The second shot slammed into his chest. Kyle hit the ground hard and his rifle clattered across the stones.
Oliver jumped up the stairs three at a time and delivered a vicious kick to Kyle’s shoulder, flipping him over and eliciting a groan of pain, then pointed his gun directly at the mercenary’s face. Kyle’s eyes were dull and unfocused, but still alive. Oliver looked at Kyle’s chest and saw no blood. The man must have worn light body armor under his camouflage. The shot to the chest had stunned him, but done no serious damage.
Oliver pressed the muzzle of his gun under Kyle’s chin and bent to release the cover on the mercenary’s sidearm case. He pulled out the handgun and tucked it into his own belt.
He glanced at the spreading pool of blood around Kyle’s wounded leg.
“You have two choices: Keep your mouth shut and I’ll get you out of here. Say a single word, and I mean so much as a ‘but’ or ‘please’ and I’ll shoot you in the other leg and leave you to try and crawl out of here and hope that your last minion is still around to help you.”
He stood, keeping his gun pointed at Kyle’s face. “Blink your eyes. Option one, or option two.”
Kyle looked at Oliver with undisguised hatred. He didn’t blink.
“So you think there’s a third option, do you? There isn’t.”
Oliver stepped back, lowering his gun. Kyle continued to stare at him defiantly. The edge of his mouth twisted up in a vicious smile, even as his eyes started to water from the effort of keeping them open.
Oliver shrugged, aimed, and shot Kyle in the left knee.
He turned away from the screaming mercenary and collected the man’s assault rifle before walking through the doorway to the courtyard.
The Staff of Moses © 2022, Andrew Linke