Two hours into the drive, Oliver saw a bloom of sand to the north. He brought the Jeep to a stop and reached back to pull a set of binoculars out of his bag. Adjusting the focus showed him a swirling cloud pouring out across the desert like the front of a sand storm. Oliver shifted his view upward to the top of the storm and saw the vague outline of a helicopter painted in sandy shades of tan and brown.
The helicopter moved across the desert in near silence. The beat of the rotors reached Oliver’s ears as a whisper of wind, accompanied by an inaudible pulsing thrum that made his chest resonate strangely. As Oliver watched, the helicopter slowed and hovered for a while about two miles farther along his track. Then the beat in his chest slowed and the helicopter dropped out of sight behind the ridge of a sand dune.
So much for getting there ahead of them.
He shifted the Jeep back into gear and continued following the guide stone towards the place where the helicopter had set down. He drove at a slower pace now, wary of alerting the mercenaries to his approach with a plume of sand from his Jeep. If this was the temple, then he was already too late to set up an ambush, so he would have to wait and see how the mercenaries fared gaining entrance to the temple, and whether they still had Diana with them.
Oliver parked the Jeep at the base of the high dune that separated him from the place where the helicopter had set down. He pulled out his pack and slung it over his shoulders, checked his gun, and slipped the guide stone into a vest pocket.
He turned to face the dune, over which lay Diana, the mercenaries, and a temple filled with secrets. He took a long drag from his water tube, stretched his arms and legs, and set off jogging up the face of the dune.
Oliver kept running until he thought that his head might show over the ridge. Then he bent into a crouch and ran bent half over until he was high enough that prudence dictated dropping to the sand and crawling the remaining distance.
He wriggled across the sand until he could just see over the ridge. The opposite side swept downwards to a deep bowl of sand and rocks, with an immense plateau of reddish brown stone jutting up in the center. Atop the stone stood a temple built of carved granite blocks stacked one atop another to form a long, low structure that covered much of the surface of the red rock. A series of stone pillars spaced about twenty feet apart led from the temple rock, across the sand-filled bowl of the dry lakebed, and into a high mound of sand several hundred yards to Oliver’s left. Each of these pillars were also built of reddish stone up to the uppermost three feet of their length, at which point the builders appeared to have switched to a more conventional white sandstone.
Examining the scene through his binoculars, Oliver surmised that the site had remained untouched across the ages in part because of its inaccessibility.
In its prime, this site had been a beautiful temple complex built on a rocky island in the center of a lake. It had most likely been accessed via a bridge built across the pillars, which had since collapsed under the weight of the sand that had drifted onto it over the centuries. After the lake dried up and the bridge collapsed, there would have been no way to reach the temple save making a treacherous climb up the sheer rock face. That, and the site’s location so far to the west of the Nile, had likely protected it from looters until modern times.
The helicopter rested on the sands of the dry lakebed. Turning his binoculars towards it, Oliver saw seven men in desert camouflage moving around the exterior of the helicopter. One of them, Oliver assumed it was Frank, had a white sling supporting his left arm. As Oliver watched, six of the men broke off into two groups and began stalking around the base of the rocky island in opposite directions. Oliver assumed that they would be searching for an easy route to the top of the rock. The seventh man returned to the helicopter and began gesticulating to an unseen figure inside the crew compartment.
It was clear that the mercenaries were not sure how to proceed, and that Oliver had a snowball’s chance in hell of slipping past them and entering the temple first, so he slipped back down the slope a couple feet, pulled the folded paper that Hadiya had given him from his breast pocket, and opened it to read the instructions that Layla had translated from Setesh’s carvings:
The temple of the staff is built upon an island in the center of an oasis lake three days’ journey to the west of my estate. If the guards still live they will make challenge when you attempt to cross the bridge to the temple. Speak to them the sacred words of my household and you will be allowed to pass. If the foul warriors in blue have slaughtered the guards, as I fear, your first challenge will be the gates of the temple. These will open to whoever possesses the key, or to one who knows the sacred name of the god whose staff I captured. I pray to Osiris and Setesh that the staff of the Hebrews has been left untouched, lest you be faced with the plagues that befell our forefathers. In that event, I can only pray that your heart does not tip the balance as you pass between our gods and the sun to enter the inner sanctum. The staff must be kept at the center of the altar, else its power will be unleashed.
Oliver read the letter three times, trying to find some solid clue that might help him survive whatever traps had been laid by the ancient guardians of the temple, but he could find nothing that explained what he ought to do once he entered the temple. This didn’t especially worry him. He had delved into temples and tombs from South America to Iceland with as much information, but Layla’s words had given him hope that he would enter this particular temple with more information than usual.
He risked another look over the ridge. The scouting party on his side of the rock was nearly half way along the length. They didn’t appear to have selected a place to ascend the rocks yet. Back at the helicopter, the man who had stayed behind stood looking up at the walls of the temple high above. Oliver zoomed in as far as he could and saw that it was Kyle. He turned away from the temple and looked into the helicopter, talking to someone within. As Oliver watched, Diana climbed out of the helicopter and held a set of binoculars to her eyes to examine the walls of the temple high above.
Seeing her still alive, Oliver felt a wave of relief.
He slipped back down the hill and pulled out his phone to check for a signal. Unsurprisingly, there was none. He did have a message though.
As he drove away from the home of Layla, and the small pocket of wireless internet reception provided by the signal repeaters that ringed the village, Oliver had sent a quick message to Amber, informing her that he knew the location of the temple and was going after Diana and the mercenaries.
Her reply, timestamped mere seconds after he had put his phone away to focus on navigating the treacherous desert terrain, was short and to the point:
Don’t do anything stupid.
Oliver smiled as he held the phone up over the ridge and took several photos of the helicopter, the rocky once-island, and the men moving along the base of the rocks. He pushed all of the images into a message to both Amber and his father and hit the send icon. If the phone picked up even a hint of signal it would send his messages right away, along with the geolocation data tagged into the photos. He put the phone back in its zippered charging pocket and sipped again from the water tube on his pack as he considered his options.
After several minutes, Oliver hurried back down the dune to the Jeep and pulled the camouflage net from the rear compartment. He climbed slowly back to the top of the dune and settled down under the net with his camera to watch the men below through the strongest telephoto lens he had brought with him. He took care to get close up photos of Kyle and the helicopter, as well as the Leonidas Security patches on his uniform. If he made it out alive, he intended to make life difficult for these men.
The two scouting groups returned to the helicopter within twenty minutes. The news they brought obviously agitated Kyle because Oliver could hear him shouting all the way from his perch atop the dune. Kyle’s words were twisted by the winds that carried them, but the tone was clearly thick with frustration. Oliver guessed that he had been hoping they would find a path to the top of the rock, but they apparently hadn’t. The men all piled into the helicopter and the blades began to spin, slowly at first, but then faster until they were a nearly invisible blur at the center of the dust cloud that had formed around the helicopter.
The helicopter rose into the air and Oliver waited under his net, feeling the thrum of the rotors with every breath, hoping the mercenaries wouldn’t spot him.
The pilot directed the helicopter to hover over the narrow plaza outside the temple gates, between the closed gate and gap where the bridge had once stood. Oliver wondered why they didn’t simply fly to the center of the temple complex and set down, but assumed that they had some good reason for remaining outside the walls. Both the French expedition and Layla had believed that the temple was guarded by supernatural forces, so perhaps the mercenaries had already seen signs of such guards from the air.
Once the helicopter was hovering over the stone plaza instead of a deep pool of sand, the cloud of dust surrounding it dissipated. A roll of black rope tumbled out of the side door of the helicopter and dangled down to the surface of the plaza. As Oliver watched, six mercenaries slid down the rope one after another in rapid succession, followed more slowly by Diana. Each of them ran to crouch in the lee of the wall, beside one of the large statues that lined the plaza, as the helicopter tilted back and moved away from the plateau to settle down on the sandy lakebed once again.
This was the opportunity Oliver had been waiting for. There had been only seven mercenaries, including Kyle and Frank, at Sephor’s estate. That left just the pilot in the helicopter. Judging from the rapid movements of all the men who had rappelled from the helicopter to the plaza, that pilot was likely the injured mercenary. If Oliver could somehow get aboard the helicopter, he could either force the pilot to take him up to the plateau, or disable him and find his own way to the island surface.
He ran down the slope of the dune to the Jeep and tossed his backpack and camouflage into the back. Oliver started the Jeep and drove southward along the base of the sand dune until it leveled out to meet the desert floor. He turned northwest and saw the bowl of the dry lakebed stretching out below. The helicopter was now hidden from view on the far side of the island and Oliver could see the towering white walls of the temple wrapping around the upper edge of the red rocks.
He used the large water bottle in the back of the Jeep to top up the reservoir in his backpack, checked that he had a box of spare ammunition in the side pocket of his backpack and two full magazines in his vest, then rearranged the central compartment of his backpack so that the few climbing supplies he had brought with him were on top. That done, he threw the camouflage net over the Jeep and marked its location on his phone.
Thus prepared, Oliver snugged the straps on his backpack and set off at an easy jog down the slope to the bottom of the dry lake. He glanced up every few dozen steps as he ran, checking that he was not being watched by any of the mercenaries above. Oliver estimated that the red rock was about a quarter mile long at the base and half as wide. It narrowed as it went up, but only marginally so the slope of sheer rock, broken in places with outcroppings of wind-scoured boulders, would be almost impossible to climb without more ropes and pitons than he was carrying.
Oliver took a sip of water from his drinking tube and wrinkled his nose. It tasted stale. He hadn’t noticed it before, but decided that the flavor was probably a result of mixing his own filtered water with the water he had been given back in the village. He tucked the drinking tube away and set off at a lope around the western side of the island.
The helicopter had come to rest on the northeast side, cockpit facing south, so Oliver hoped to come at it from the rear and catch the pilot unawares.
Oliver sidled along the rock until he could see the helicopter. He didn’t see Frank or any of the other mercenaries. The side doors of the helicopter rested open. He slipped his gun out of its holster and checked that there was a bullet in the chamber and no sand blocking the barrel or jamming the mechanism. He took a few deep breaths, then crept forward, ready to roll aside and fire if Frank appeared holding a machine gun. Oliver didn’t relish the thought of killing the man, but Frank had already made it clear that he had no compulsions about killing and Oliver had no intention of dying without a fight.
Oliver heard a voice. He froze, listening.
The voice continued, vaguely melodic as it drifted through the dry desert air.
Oliver crept forward and leaned against the fuselage of the helicopter. He could now make out what the voice was saying.
Oliver poked his head around the edge of the helicopter door and grinned. Frank sat in the pilot’s seat, an empty morphine autoinjector laying on the textured metal of the deck beside him. White wires trailed from his lap up to his ears, where they disappeared under the ear cups of his headset. Frank had clearly raided the medical kit and, assuming he would have a few hours of lonely watch, had dulled the pain of his wounded shoulder. His head bobbed slowly in time to unheard music as he sang along in a rasping, untuned baritone.
Oliver pulled himself into the helicopter as quietly as he could, keeping his gun pointed toward Frank. He paused for a moment until he was sure that Frank hadn’t noticed him, then tiptoed forward and waited as Frank continued to sing along with Iron Maiden’s Fear of the Dark.
He waited until Frank was just finishing the last line of the chorus, then swung his arm forward and around, pushing the barrel of his gun up under Frank’s chin.
Frank started back in his seat, hand swinging down towards his sidearm, then froze as he recognized the feeling of hot steel pressing against his throat.
Oliver stepped between the seats, keeping his gun against Frank’s throat, and yanked down on the earbud wires.
“You should have looked behind you,” Oliver said.
Frank cleared his throat and swallowed. An expression somewhere between fear and rage in his eyes.
Oliver reached forward with his free hand and relieved Frank of what weapons he could see, slipping the mercenary’s handgun and combat knife into the outer pockets of his own pack. He extracted his gun from Frank’s neck and sat down on the edge of the copilot seat, keeping the weapon pointed at Frank’s face.
“Strap yourself in. Tight.”
Frank complied, working clumsily with his one good arm.
“Obviously, I’m not dead. Right?”
A slight nod.
“So here’s how this is going to work. You take this helicopter up to the top and let me down inside the wall, or I kill you now and climb up myself.”
“I can’t do that.”
“I think you can.”
Frank shook his head slightly and coughed, then replied, “I can’t see inside the walls. It’s all dark.”
“Don’t lie to me Frank. The morphine might block the pain, but I can still put holes in you.”
“I’m not lying,” Frank replied through gritted teeth. It was clear that he wanted nothing more than to rip Oliver’s throat out. “It’s like… I don’t know… like the walls are filled with oil or something. We couldn’t see a thing inside the temple when we got here.”
Darkness… Now that is interesting, Oliver thought. From his vantage point on the dune, he had only been able to see the exterior walls of the temple complex and a few vague shapes that might have been the roofs of interior buildings.
His thoughts were interrupted by a resounding boom that echoed back and forth across the dry lakebed.
Oliver looked out the cockpit window and saw a cloud of dust pouring down from the surface of the island fifty feet above.
“Guess your little girlfriend failed. Blasting the gates open was Kyle’s backup plan,” Frank said.
“Idiot,” Oliver grunted.
“Get your panties out of a twist kid. We know how to use shaped charges. I’m sure your girlfriend is just…”
“Shut up and get this thing in the air!”
Frank rolled his eyes and laughed contemptuously. “Why the hell would I do that?”
“Because if I don’t kill you first, that stuff might!” Oliver grabbed Frank’s blond-stubbled chin and twisted his head around, pointing out the window with his gun.
The dust cloud above had already begun to dissipate and through it a roiling blackness welled up on the edge of the plaza above. As they watched, it began to cascade down the side of the island, moving with a slow certainty, like warm molasses pouring out of an overturned bottle. The darkness oozed down the slope, cascading across the sheer rock faces and pooling atop boulders before slipping downward again. Though the body of the darkness moved like a liquid, the edges of it whipped away in the desert wind, spreading black tendrils across the sky. Wherever the viscus cloud moved, it covered everything in a profound blackness that not even the burning light of the desert sun could pierce.
Frank’s neck muscles went slack for a moment as he gaped at the spreading dark. Then he snapped his head out of Oliver’s grip and set to flicking switches on the console in front of him.
Oliver felt a shudder run through the frame of the helicopter as the motors leapt into sudden motion. A deep thrumming sound started in the engine compartment and quickly ramped up in pitch and frequency as the helicopter shuddered to life. The rotor blades lurched into movement and rapidly built up speed as Oliver scrabbled to find the buckle of his harness and get himself strapped in.
The darkness continued to pour down the side of the island until it pounded soundlessly into the sand of the lakebed and began to pile up on itself in a boiling, swirling mass of blackness. The dark began to spread out across the sand as it grew in height, creeping towards the helicopter in a deepening mass. The downwash of hot air from the helicopter blades pushed back against it momentarily, causing the dark to divert around the helicopter like a stream of liquid turning aside to surround a stone in its path.
“Get this thing in the air!” Oliver shouted.
“This is already an emergency takeoff,” Frank screamed back at him, his words barely audible above the roar of the engine. “If I push it any faster, the engine will burn out.” He grasped the control yoke and rocked it gently back and forth, but the helicopter didn’t move.
Oliver turned his eyes back to the pool darkness that had now completely surrounded the helicopter and begun to pile up around the invisible wall of air thundering down from the blades. As he watched, the black cloud slipped closer along the sands, wrapping around the edge of the downwash. A single tendril of the darkness slipped forward and skittered back and forth across the sands, battered about by the torrent of air pounding down on it even as it continued to grow thicker and creep closer to the helicopter.
Then the rotors reached their lift speed and the helicopter leapt several feet into the air. As it lifted, the surrounding darkness rushed in like walls of dark water. The darkness rushed in to fill the space beneath the helicopter, then quickly grew deeper as the helicopter climbed into the air.
Oliver pulled the copilot’s headset from a hook above his head and slipped it on. Then he grabbed the pilot’s headset where it dangled behind Frank’s seat and pushed it over Frank’s head. The mercenary growled indistinctly and shook himself, tossing the helicopter about in the air, then he settled down and shot Oliver a fiery look. He brought the helicopter to a hover about thirty feet above the surface of the lakebed as the darkness continued to spread below.
Frank looked up from the spreading pool of darkness and said, “What the hell is that?” He spoke in a soft, awestruck tone that made Oliver wonder if Frank had ever been this afraid before
“Darkness. A darkness that no light can pierce.”
“But what… Where’d it come from?”
Oliver looked at Frank incredulously. “Do you have any idea what Kyle has gotten you into?”
“Not just artifacts. Relics. Objects filled with supernatural power of the sort that the average person never encounters.”
Oliver gestured to the still expanding pool of darkness below them.
Frank said nothing, only shook his head slowly as he watched the growing pool of darkness below.
Oliver looked toward the island and saw that the cascade of darkness had ceased to tumble down the rocks. Small puddles of black still pooled in crags of rock, but no other sign of the black flood remained on the rock face.
“Take us higher. We need to check on your team.”
Frank complied, adjusting the yoke of the helicopter to pull them level with the plaza just in time to see the last of the mercenaries holding Diana at gunpoint, forcing her to walk through the shattered fragments of bronze and wood that were the only remnants of the temple gates. The darkness had slipped past them, seemingly without causing any harm, and Oliver could see only a few narrow streams of it slipping through the cracks of the plaza.
“Damn it,” muttered Oliver. “You know Frank, your boss is rewriting the manual on how to be an idiot.”
Frank grumbled something indistinct and started to bank the helicopter away from the temple.
Oliver pointed his gun at Frank again and said, “Nope. You’re going to let me down on that plaza or I will shoot you the moment we land.”
“And if I don’t land?”
“Then you’ll have to keep flying until we run out of gas and crash. Either way, you’re dead. Or you can just let me down in the plaza and do whatever you want. I’d recommend flying back to Cairo and disappearing before your employers find out what happened out here.”
Frank glowered at Oliver, then adjusted the control yoke until the helicopter hovered thirty feet above the temple plaza.
The plaza was only about ten feet wide, too narrow for the helicopter to set down without hitting the outer wall of the temple, but it stretched along the front wall of the temple for fifty feet or more on either side of the shattered gate. Keeping his gun trained on Frank, Oliver unbuckled his harness and moved slowly into the crew compartment. He stayed far away from the open doors until he had finished donning a climbing harness from a rack behind the crew seats and snapped the rappel device onto one of the ropes. He kicked the coil of rope out the door. He secured his gun in the holster on his leg and grabbed a spare coil of rope from the rack beside the door.
“Thanks for the ride, Frank!” he shouted.
Then Oliver jumped out the door of the helicopter.
He slid down the rope as fast as he dared without chancing a broken leg when he hit the ground. As he had expected, the helicopter began to pull away from the plaza as soon as he was out the door. He hit the pavement hard and was immediately dragged forward by the rapidly departing helicopter.
Oliver gave the carabiner a desperate squeeze and twist and the rope was ripped from his hands. It skittered over the edge of the cliff as Oliver skidded to a stop mere inches from the precipice.
He got to his feet and dusted the sand from his clothes, watching in silence as the helicopter flew away from the plateau of the former island and settled down beyond a dune at the edge of the dry lake. Down below, the darkness continued to seethe as it spread out to fill the bottom of the lakebed.
Oliver turned to face the ruined gates of the temple.