In the front hall of the Carnahans’ house in Cairo was a cedarwood table, set up against the wall, on which stood a bronze mirror and many little figures. It wasn’t anything so unchristian as a household shrine, certainly, but Jonathan could not imagine the house without it, because it had been there all his life. There was Geb, squat and happy, and Thoth in his baboon form; here was Hathor as a cow-eared serpent, and there ram-headed Amon; and many like them besides, made from lapis, coral, basalt, or bronze, from any dynasty or kingdom you could care to name. All were things their father had brought back from digs, which their mother had decided she liked.
It was the last thing Jonathan saw every time he left the house, and the first thing he saw when he got back. It bade him farewell on his way to boarding school far across the sea, and greeted him when he came home for summer holidays. When he’d left for the army, a gangling twit with his head stuffed full of tales about heroics at the Suez Canal, his mother had stopped him on his way out the door and pressed something into his hand: moon-crowned Khonsu. “Come safely home,” she’d bid him, and he had, but not to her. He’d lost the figurine somewhere on a beach in Turkey, and when he’d come home, it had been to Evy alone. Their parents had died months ago.
Well, in any case, Evy was the one who kept the house, even if the deed was Jonathan’s; he didn’t like to sleep there any more. In that wise, the table with its little figures were hers more than his, and so it shouldn’t have mattered to him that, when she was at last accepted into the Bembridge scholars and had to move to England to complete her qualifications, she took the table and its figurines with her. It did matter, though. She also took the books and a decent portion of the furniture, but that hadn’t made him stop in the hall with a sense of something terribly wrong.
The most irritating thing was that he could hardly reproach her for having done it. She lived in that house, not Jonathan. He’d been in Alexandria appraising an antiquarian’s hoard when Evy had written to tell him that she was taking her dashing American off to the old country for a few years, and he’d met her and Rick there to see them off on the boat. Though he’d noted at the time the vast amount of baggage the porters were taking up on their account, he’d been busy taking this last opportunity to wind Evy up in person so he could see her huff, and so he hadn’t wondered what she was taking with her.
Naturally, she’d want to set up her new house to be as much like the old one as would give her comfort, especially after all that unpleasantness in Hamunaptra. Still. It had been some months between Evy’s departure and Jonathan’s return to Cairo, and once he was home, he wandered through the house not knowing what to do. He stood in his childhood bedroom a while prodding at dusty old toys, and then walked out the front door, locked it behind him, and proceeded to sulk for a month. He drank and gambled his way around the country for a time, until he got himself in trouble with an arms merchant in Zagazig, and that, at last, was quite enough to take his mind off the matter.
Six months after her departure, Evy invited him to England, and he went at once because he hadn’t a single thing better to do.
England was damp and cold, which was exactly as he remembered it, and suited his mood perfectly: slightly seasick, sunk in melancholy and truly, unfortunately sober, thanks to a farcical series of inconveniences in the last few days of the voyage. He had slept very badly without a nightcap to see him off, and had all the old bad dreams with it; as such, the sight of O’Connell waiting at the dock with an eyebrow raised prompted him to nothing more than a weary, “Hullo, old chap.”
O’Connell’s other eyebrow went up. “Rough trip?”
“Oh, quite,” Jonathan said, and followed him like an absolute lamb -- which seemed to disconcert his brother-in-law marvellously, though Jonathan was in no mood to appreciate it. There was a pub by the station, thank God, and he took some relief while they waited for the train, so that by the time they arrived in London he was near enough in his usual spirits.
Thus, when Evy opened the door of her new house and threw her arms around him, he was able to remark, “Oh, good lord, that’s why you invited me,” in the manner she would expect.
Evy, clearly pregnant, stepped away beaming. “I wanted to tell you in person! And I wanted it to be a surprise. Oh thank you, Rick, dear,” she said, as he passed them in the hallway with Jonathan’s bags. “How was the voyage? Oh, goodness, let me show you the house.”
“Let him take his coat off, honey,” Rick said mildly.
“Oh, yes, of course,” Evy said, in such an obvious fluster of excitement that Jonathan couldn’t help but smile as he doffed his hat and coat.
As he hung his scarf on the hook, he caught a reflection of the movement at the end of the hallway: there was the bronze mirror, resting on the cedarwood table with all its little figures - every one, he saw at a glance, present and accounted for. “Ah,” he said, unable to mask his relief at the sight of it; the strength of feeling took him quite by surprise. To cover it, he said, “Good to see those survived a sea voyage.”
“I know how to pack artifacts, Jonathan,” Evy said primly. “Now really, let me show you about,” and he took her arm with his spirits rising rapidly.
The house was a terraced Georgian thing, taller than it was wide; not quite a rambling manse, but very comfortable, and with a well-stocked library. The rooms were decorated in a similar style to their childhood home, albeit with much thicker curtains and roaring fires to keep out the chill; the halls were dotted about with some outstanding souvenirs from Evy’s expeditions. It was the home of an accomplished archaeologist, and Jonathan liked it immensely.
“And that will be the nursery,” Evy said, with affected carelessness, as they walked down the hall on the third floor. Jonathan didn’t bother to hide his nosiness and poked his head in the door. By the fading light of the October afternoon, he could see the room was painted in cheery blue and yellow stripes, mostly furnished already with a painted cot and a rocking chair by the window. When he emerged, Evy was twisting her hands together over her round belly. “It’s not finished just yet,” she said.
Jonathan patted her hand. “I meant to say before: congratulations, old mum,” he said. “Truly.”
Evy beamed back at him, a bit misty eyed. “Yes, well,” she said, recovering, though the colour stayed high in her cheeks. “Now, let me show you to your room. You must be exhausted, so I’ll leave you be for the while; there are your bags by the door. Dinner’s in an hour, I think, and the cook does an excellent wellington--”
She left him to his room, which was as warm and comfortable as could be, and to his thoughts, which were likewise. He unpacked and dressed for dinner, banishing the dreadful voyage from his mind. After the meal, which had been just as good as promised, he slept as deeply and dreamlessly as he ever had.
His good cheer lasted two days.
Evy’s house was lovely; it was everything around it that proved difficult. The trouble with being in London was that people knew him there; knew him in a very specific context, moreover. He’d attended school with half of Evy’s new colleagues, and been on digs with a few. He could not reasonably avoid their company. Jonathan didn’t mind looking a coward, but he’d feel a bit of a scrub if he deliberately made trouble for her, when he knew her position was in some ways still tenuous.
Drinking other people’s port was no hardship, of course, nor recounting some of his less felonious adventures. He found out there were dozens of different rumours as to exactly how he’d disgraced himself in the eyes of the Bembridge scholars, and there were enough years between then and now for it to be a joke rather than a scandal. Jonathan preferred it that way, enough that he didn’t try to set the record straight.
No, he was happy to talk about Egypt, his sister’s achievements, his own achievements, and even how much the head of the museum loathed Jonathan personally. But other conversations got grim. At this point, the only thing Jonathan reliably had in common with his old chums was that they went to school together, which meant that the conversations amongst his circle tended towards nostalgic reminiscence, and Jonathan began to feel his smile go fixed when they inevitably turned. Most of his fellow graduates had joined the army around the same time he had, with the idea that it would be a jolly fine adventure.
It was natural for someone to ask after an old friend not present, and sometimes the answers Jonathan overheard were innocuous: he’s in India working for the Home Office. He moved to Manchester to see to his father’s factories. I heard he’s in Switzerland, taking the air. All gave him a shaky sense of relief. And then, when Jonathan wasn’t braced for it:
“What happened to Barnabas, anyway?”
“Oh, he died in ‘17.”
There it came, like a crocodile lunging out of a cool green river, snapping its jaws shut around the evening and dragging it irretrievably down to die. Jonathan didn’t like thinking about how many of his old friends were dead, because by his best guess it was a bloody great lot of them. Unfortunately, with this circle it was a topic that was dashed hard to avoid.
So that was the position Jonathan found himself in: he was too proud to get plastered at home alone, he couldn’t get rascally drunk with strangers in case he disgraced his sister by association, and he couldn’t get through a night’s drinking with old friends without the evening descending into a depressing count of their dead, so that he crawled home to his sister’s house full as a wineskin but feeling worse than when he’d left. It really wasn’t the sort of thing he could tell her about, though, so he didn’t, and instead endured O’Connell’s sideways glances when he turned up to breakfast too hungover to speak.
In short, the whole situation made Jonathan want to steal onto the next ship bound for Egypt, but he couldn’t think of an excuse to slope off that wouldn’t leave Evy quite severely disappointed. Not, that is, until the night of the curators’ dinner.
Jonathan had attended a handful of curators’ dinners in his short and disastrous career as an Egyptologist; it was a yearly soiree at the museum, in which the Bembridge scholars and selected guest archaeologists gathered to feast, mingle, and give short lectures upon their material contributions to the museum’s collection that year - in short, it was an excuse for scholars to get smashed and boast about their accomplishments. It was always worth going, if only to keep an eye on one’s rivals, but he’d been out of that illustrious inner circle for so long that the date had quite snuck up without his noticing, until invitations came through the letterbox.
Now Evy, being Evy, would never hear of doing the done thing and staying out of public view until she’d had the baby; indeed she had carried on with her research and studies this entire time, and endeared herself to her few fellow female scholars in doing so. She opened the two envelopes at the breakfast table and immediately began to speculate on who the guest speakers would be, and what she ought to wear; Jonathan met O’Connell’s eyes over the toast rack and they made a silent agreement, as gentlemen, to speak not a discouraging word.
“You’ll come, of course, Jonathan,” Evy said confidently, tucking her invitation back in its envelope.
Jonathan, rather delicately he thought, pointed out, “I haven’t an invitation, Evy - you know old Bosely’s struck me from the list, and he’d rather swallow wasps than reinstate me.”
“Doesn’t have to be a problem,” O’Connell said, looking at him over his own invitation, and Jonathan in an instant saw where this was going. Usually, the spouse of a Bembridge scholar wouldn’t merit the formality, as they were expected to be a gallant wife accompanying her adventurous husband as a sort of natural accessory. However, since it would be a slight to not invite a Bembridge scholar directly, and unthinkable to invite a woman alone to a gathering of men, the curator had to compromise: one invitation each to the scholar and her husband.
“That’s right,” Evy said. “Rick’s got his own invitation, so you can be my guest, and nobody can say a thing about it.”
Frankly, Jonathan didn’t know if the idea of showing up uninvited to the curators’ dinner years after his expulsion sounded like bloody good fun or a potential disaster, but Evy looked determined and Jonathan had, after all, made a silent pact with Rick only moments ago. “Well, if you’re sure,” he said, and poured her another cup of tea.
The curators’ dinner went pretty well, considering that all three of them were in one way or another quite severely out of place. Jonathan spent large swathes of the evening enduring glowers from men who had once counted him a colleague, and ducking around pillars, plants, and conveniently placed statuary to avoid the gaze of Bosely, the head of the museum. O’Connell got more aggressively American as the evening wore on and ever more of Evy’s colleagues tried to engage him in conversation about the finer points of Egyptology, as if convinced he were the secret brains behind her discoveries; by midnight he had achieved a drawl so basso and laconic as to be virtually unintelligible. Evy was dealing with the fact that her very presence was a minor scandal by ignoring it entirely; her circle of chums, many of them the aforementioned scholar’s wives, had formed a sort of moving phalanx and seemed at every point to be engaged in a much livelier and more interesting conversation than anyone else around them.
This wasn’t to say Jonathan spent the entire evening skulking: after all, he had spent recent evenings in the company of many men here, and could pick out a few decent fellows: Trenton, Gable, and Said. Trenton had been a few years above Jonathan at school, and had gone from the army straight into academia without bothering to shed his military uprightness or extraordinary moustache, but since he was utterly disinclined to speak about anything outside of his work or his collection of exotic plants, and was otherwise a stolid drinking companion with a tendency to forgive and forget, Jonathan found his company rather soothing. Gable was one of the few people who knew details about how Jonathan had been kicked out of the institution, but seemed to have kept his mouth shut about it. He was rather Trenton’s opposite, being slight, quick-fingered, and cunning, but he and Jonathan had rather got the measure of one another in years past, and he liked to think there was a mutual respect between them - honour among thieves, and all that. Also, Evy seemed to count him an ally, which helped raise Jonathan’s estimation of him considerably. Finally there was Said, son of an Egyptian banker who had made sure to send his children to only the finest English schools. Said’s family connections had financed many an expedition directly, and he was so blithely generous to his friends that he was probably only saved from ruin by his uncanny ability to predict which expeditions might make a good return on investment.
Jonathan didn’t know any of them well enough to count them as dear friends, but they accepted him into their company readily enough and didn’t tend to ask him hard questions. This was how he found himself during the cheese course at a table with the three of them, having introduced them all to O’Connell. They were seated quite strategically with a table that held Evy and her cohort (including Trenton’s jolly wife) on one side, and on the other side a ten-foot caryatid that happened to block Jonathan’s view of the dreaded Bosely.
Jonathan was sitting in a stupor of fine food and light conversation when he heard the distant tinking of a spoon against a glass, heralding another speech. There was an indecorous chorus of groans from nearby tables.
Jonathan saw a man he knew as Amis bound onto the stage with a vigour that suggested he hadn’t just sat through the same four courses and five speeches as the rest of them. Amis was blond and athletic, positively leonine, with swept-back hair and a commanding beard. Next to Jonathan, Said made an interested noise and sat upright. “Oh, I was wondering when he was going to get on with it,” he said under his breath.
Gable was glancing around the table, as if trying to work out who else knew what Said was talking about - Jonathan could tell, because he was doing the same. “Get on with what?” Gable said. “I hadn’t heard anything about--”
“Shh!” Trenton said, waving a hand phlegmatically.
“Gentlemen!” Amis said, his voice booming in the high vaulted room. “I know we’re all quite stuffed with speeches by now, so I will get to the point.” He flashed his teeth in a grin.
There was muttering at the next table; Evy’s friends had clearly noted Amis’ failure to address them. The lights were going down as servants around the room dimmed the gas lamps. On the stage, a curator pulled down a large white screen on a stand, and with a whir, a projector in the middle table that Jonathan had missed entirely clicked on, showing a slide of a set of Egyptian reliefs. Jonathan didn’t recognise the picture, but he had been out of the loop of new research some time; however, the murmurs around him indicated that nobody else recognised it either, except possibly Said, who was rubbing his hands together. “New expedition,” he whispered to Gable, who was looking positively wounded. “Had to keep it secret, old boy - it’s a big one!”
Trenton harrumphed, his moustaches fluttering.
“What you see before you,” Amis continued, as an assistant replaced the slide on show with a new one, “Is part of an exciting new find. As you can see from the reliefs in this photograph, it is a burial chamber, and its discovery thrills me for two reasons. The first is that, from what measurements we could take of the exterior, I believe it to be a vast complex, suggesting a very significant discovery. The second is that I have every reason to believe the tomb has lain untouched since its occupant was interred, and that the artifacts inside are still intact.”
This prompted a great hubbub, and some jeers. “How do you know if you haven’t been inside?” someone called out.
Again Amis’ teeth shone white as he bared them. “Because, gentlemen,” and here the projector whirred and clunked again-- “Here is the seal!”
The room exploded into excited babble. There on the screen in black and white was the great door of the tomb, and it did indeed seem to have an elaborate and unbroken seal. Jonathan’s first, immediate thought was a vision of golden treasure. He distinctly heard Evy coo.
Some sensible soul in the audience asked the obvious question. “If you could take pictures of it, why didn’t you open it?”
“Ah,” Amis said, shaking his head. “It is a miracle even these pictures exist; we took this one just as the sun was starting to set, and decided to penetrate the chambers the next day. That very night, our camp was invaded by armed bandits, a veritable army on horseback. Being only a small crew, we had not the ordnance to withstand such an assault, and were forced to break camp and retreat - though at no loss of life. We almost despaired, thinking we had laid the tomb bare for them to rob, but by all reports, the superstitious brigands merely buried it again!” Amis banged his fist on the lectern, the picture of zeal. “Gentlemen, I propose a second expedition, and soon - one better equipped and better armed, with the means to sort and transport a great many artifacts! There is no time to waste; I mean to do it in the new year. I already have one partner willing to lend his expertise to the endeavor--” and here he gestured to the back of the room, prompting Said to smile and wave, and Jonathan to lean back behind the caryatid as several eyes turned in their direction. “Will I have more?”
The sheer volume of conversation this caused was enormous, and Amis looked on it with satisfaction as he descended from the stage. Jonathan put the man from his mind, already daydreaming of the treasures that might well be found in that tomb if Amis was right - not that Jonathan was likely to get a look in, but oh, it was nice to dream. His share of the treasures from Hamunaptra had made him comfortable enough, but there was just something about the very pursuit of such things that absolutely thrilled him. He sighed wistfully, and looked to Evy, expecting her to be blazing with excitement. Instead, he saw her frowning at her plate, Rick’s concerned eyes fixed on her.
Jonathan leaned in close, confident of their not being overheard amidst the general hubbub. “Penny for them, old girl?”
Evy sighed, twisting her hands in her lap. “Oh, Jonathan,” she said, “It sounds brilliant - it could be the find of the century - did you see those cartouches? I’m sure it’s early Middle Kingdom - but even if Amis were the sort to let me come along, I can’t go.”
Jonathan blinked, before understanding belatedly dawned. Naturally: she was just about to have a baby, and could hardly travel to a dig site with a newborn. “Oh, of course! What beastly timing.”
“Yes,” Evy said, crossly. “ Bother.”
O’Connell coughed and leaned in. “Yeah, that’s terrible. Hey, uh, did either of you hear that about the bandits?”
Evy looked exasperated. “Really, Rick, it’s not as if it’s a safe profession at the best of times,” but O’Connell shook his head, taking her hand.
“No, honey, I didn’t mean that. I meant, Amis and his guys got chased off by an army of guys on horseback. Who then buried the place again. The place that apparently hasn’t been touched in thousands of years. Any of this sounding familiar to you?”
Evy’s eyes went wide. Jonathan squinted at him. “Well, that’s not--”
“You don’t think--” she said.
“Sounds like Ardeth’s bunch to me,” shrugged O’Connell.
Evy frowned, and said, “It could simply be some local men who don’t want the place disturbed, or even bandits as Mr. Amis says, perhaps biding their time. But if you’re right, he could be putting himself in grave danger.”
“Amis and whoever else he drags in with him,” Jonathan added, looking around the room. Unfortunately, he didn’t get far before he met the gaze of Gable, who was watching their little conference with a shrewd expression.
“Oh, but what an opportunity,” Evy was saying, as Jonathan tried to arrange his face into a nonchalant expression. “They’ll probably have the site locked down for months for secrecy’s sake - what a bother; I’d so love to know what’s in there.”
“Honey, did you forget the part where it’s probably cursed?”
At this point, Gable leaned across the table to Said and said, “I don’t suppose there’s room for a few more researchers on this expedition?”
“I’ve no doubt!” said Said brightly. “If there’s as much to discover as Amis says, then he can’t properly catalogue it in a timely fashion by himself. Are you keen, Gable? I remember you’re very good with more delicate items, and since I’m helping to fund it I can certainly find a place for you.”
Gable nodded, looked sideways at Jonathan, and raised his voice a little. “Yes, I’d certainly love to be a part of this. It’s only a pity Mrs. O’Connell will be indisposed - she’s one of the best linguists we have.”
“Oh!” Evy sat up proudly, while Jonathan glared at Gable, trying to work out what the man was about. “It’s very kind of you to say so, Martin. It will be a pity to miss out.” Then her brow furrowed, as if a thought had struck her, and she looked at Jonathan. “Though… if you need one, my brother’s not half-bad at reading hieroglyphics himself, as I’m sure you know,” she continued, carefully.
“Ah yes, Carnahan, I do seem to remember you were pretty good,” said Gable thoughtfully, as Jonathan darted a glance between his face and Evy’s. She was biting her lip, looking at Jonathan with an almost pleading expression.
Very quickly, he weighed the odds. On one hand, potential death, whether by armed bandits, a mummy’s curse, or people who looked like bandits and who were very angry about someone unleashing a mummy’s curse. On the other hand, potential riches, home ground, and topics of conversation other than what happened at school fifteen years ago and who got it in the neck where.
“Oh, well,” he said, as nonchalantly as he could, “I may not be a certified scholar anymore, but I’ve kept my hand in. Early middle kingdom, did you reckon, Evy?”
She nodded eagerly. O’Connell had that slightly pained expression Jonathan remembered from the trip to Hamunaptra: like he couldn’t physically stop people from doing something dangerous if they were doing it en masse, but he wished he could.
Jonathan cleared his throat. “Though it does sound jolly dangerous… what with those bandits. Do you have someone for security, Said?”
Said looked thoughtful. “Not yet, though it’s been on my mind. It would have to be a trustworthy fellow,” he said, “And some of these mercenary types can be awfully expensive.”
“That’s true,” O’Connell said, placidly.
“Oh, that’s right,” said Said, “You guarded your wife on her expeditions, didn’t you? Hah, I don’t suppose you’ll be up for it?”
O’Connell shook his head. “I’m gonna be needed here,” he said, earning an adoring look from Evy.
There was a rumbling from Trenton’s direction, and they paused and looked at him. After a moment, Trenton sniffed. “Was thinking of taking a sabbatical next year,” he said gruffly. “This’d be more interesting than writing a paper, I’ll give you that.”
Said beamed. “Wonderful! Three roles filled already, just like that!”
“Yep, just like that,” Rick muttered, not entirely under his breath.
“Thank you, Jonathan,” Evy whispered.
“Think nothing of it,” Jonathan said magnanimously, trying not to feel guilty at how relieved he was at the prospect of going home. (At his excitement about the potential riches, he felt no guilt at all.)
Said raised his glass of port. “A toast!” he said. “To good fortune!”
“To good fortune,” echoed Gable, and everyone around them.
“To a good fortune,” Jonathan muttered fervently, and drained his drink in one gulp.
True to his word, Amis threw together the expedition in a matter of months, and they set sail in late January amidst bitter winds. The weather would of course be much more temperate in the heart of Egypt’s desert - cold at night, but not so stupefyingly hot by day.
It would also mean that Jonathan was leaving before Evy had her baby, which he did with mingled relief and regret. He did rather dearly want to meet the little beast, but the last few months had made him feel increasingly frayed and out of place, like a rucked carpet in the hallway, or a chandelier suspended five feet off the floor - he felt in the way , even in the face of Evy’s welcome. At least on a dig he knew what to do with himself.
The sight of Alexandria’s harbour made his heart lift, and their expedition - ten interested scholars in all, and him - disembarked in ramshackled fashion and holed themselves up in a hotel to get their land legs back.
Amis had disclosed almost nothing of the dig site’s location, and he would not be pressed. Neither would Said, to Jonathan’s mild surprise - good natured and fond of drink though he might have been, he proved very canny at dodging questions even in his cups. All any of them knew was that they were to change to a river barge in Alexandria and sail to Luxor - which they would do first thing tomorrow morning.
Jonathan wrote all of this down in a letter to Evy as he sat alone on the hotel’s veranda, chasing his dinner with a glass of the hotel’s cheapest malt. He had just folded it into neat thirds when a shadow loomed out of the darkness and said, “I had hoped you were not part of this foolishness. I apparently overestimated your desire to live.”
Jonathan did not quite squeak, but he did slop an unfortunate amount of his drink onto the table, quite ruining the letter. “Ardeth!” he said brightly, mopping at the spill. “You certainly know how to welcome a chap home.” Then he paused, as the implications of the man’s presence sunk in. “Oh, damn,” he swore. “That was your lot that chased Amis off the first time?”
Ardeth Bay sat down in the chair across from him, wrinkling his nose at the alcohol fumes wafting up from the table. “Yes.”
“Hang on, how did you even know he’d come back? Have you been waiting for him this entire time?”
Ardeth raised an eyebrow. “I did not have to.” From within his black robes, he withdrew a copy of Al-Ahram and flung it on the table. Picking it up, Jonathan scanned the pages and found a short article on a major expedition to be led by one William Amis of the Bembridge Scholars, and listed the very week they’d set sail from England. The newspaper was dated only a few days ago.
“Well, what do you know,” said Jonathan, in some surprise. “He hasn’t been secretive enough .” He flipped the paper down. “Just what is this place, anyway? Amis hasn’t even named it to us, and as far as I know it’s just a spot in the desert.”
Ardeth folded his arms. “We do not know its name. We call it Al Qafas.”
“‘The Cage’?” Jonathan said. “Was it some sort of prison? I thought it was a burial chamber - I’ve seen the photographs; it is a burial chamber. Amis certainly didn’t mention any bars.”
Ardeth shot him a look that suggested he was being purposely dense, which he was, a bit. “You do not need bars that far from any water. And men do not need to be dead to be buried. You and your friends will die if you enter that place, and worse, you will release evil upon the land.”
“For goodness sake!” Jonathan said, “Another curse on the land? How many fellows did they bury alive with scarabs this time?”
Ardeth frowned. “That was only done once, that we know of,” he said. “A curse does not need to be as great as Imhotep’s to still be worth keeping buried.”
Jonathan slumped back, tugging at his hair. “Look, my dear fellow, I don’t want to unleash any curses either, but I can hardly dissuade this lot from going. It’s a full-fledged expedition. The best I can do is quit - that won’t stop them.” At Ardeth’s hardening expression, he hastily said, “And I don’t think killing them all will do much, either! Good God, a boatload of English archeologists murdered on an Egyptian dig, after they’ve told all the Bembridge Scholars where they’re going and how much treasure they think they’re going to find? At best, they’ll simply send more archeologists. At worst, they’ll send in the army.”
“Then what do you propose?” Ardeth said, an edge of frustration creeping into his voice. “I have sworn an oath to contain these devils, no matter the cost, and it is an oath worth keeping. Shall we stand back and watch your men release them?” He stood, a grim expression on his face, and Jonathan hastily got to his feet too.
“Now, don’t do anything rash,” he said.
“What I do will not be rash,” Ardeth said in a low voice. “I had hoped you at least would listen to reason.”
“I’m trying!” Jonathan said, brain racing. “Look here. I can’t stop them from opening that tomb. Perhaps you can, but you can’t stop whoever will come after them to try again - and they will try again. The best I can hope to do is try to stop them all dying at the hands of whatever is inside, and perhaps that would be easier with the help of your men.”
Ardeth narrowed his eyes. “You propose we help them unseal the tomb?”
“No! No, of course not. But, perhaps, you can be standing by to help contain it,” Jonathan said. “If whatever’s in there isn’t as powerful as Imhotep, it might not escape so easily, and your men can simply destroy it where it is, once and for all. One less threat for your tribe to monitor. Goodness, you must travel a lot.”
“We are nomads,” Ardeth said dryly. “So yes, we do.” He looked at Jonathan a long moment, and then said in a grudging tone, “Your idea is not wholly without merit, if you cannot dissuade your men. I have no better one, short of killing you all… and I would rather not do that.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” Jonathan croaked.
Ardeth sighed. “Perhaps, if there are any survivors, they will learn from this, and heed future warnings.”
“Maybe!” Jonathan said, and earned a look that suggested he had just undermined Ardeth’s point entirely.
The barge upriver to Luxor seemed uncommonly slow to Jonathan; slow and flimsy. Or perhaps it was just that he was waiting at every moment to catch a glimpse of black-clad men out of the corner of his eye, knives in their hands and grim work to be done. He trusted Ardeth to keep his word, but exactly how much sway did he have over all the Medjai? Certainly, if it was the choice between one barge sinking with a few key passengers lost, and fire raining down on Cairo again, Jonathan knew what the obvious choice seemed to him.
Nevertheless, the trip passed without incident - if you didn’t count Gable giving him calculating looks. “Are you well, Carnahan?” he said, having startled Jonathan one evening. “You’ve been positively jumpy since Alexandria.”
“Oh! Yes. Fine.” Jonathan tried a half-grin, and when it came out sickly, he tried a half-truth instead. “To be honest, the last time I was on one of these barges, it caught fire in the night and we had to swim for it.”
Gable’s eyebrows jumped, and he looked a little chagrined. “Oh, I see. Never mind, old boy, I’m sure it won’t happen again.” He made to pass on his way, and Jonathan almost breathed a sigh of relief, when Gable paused. “Wait, I heard about that. Wasn’t that the trip to Hamunaptra?”
“Yes it was,” Jonathan said. “Goodnight!” And he fled.
It was only when they got to Luxor and Said had to set about hiring a digging crew that Amis revealed the location of their destination. The dig site turned out to be many miles west, deep in the desert. Amis explained that the site had been first spotted by a doctor flying his Sopwith Camel from Luxor to Kharga in order to treat a very rich patient, but had been delayed by a sandstorm that had made the area impassible for several days. That same sandstorm, Amis believed, had uncovered the tomb. Now, it was simply a matter of uncovering it again.
This did not take very long, as it was very difficult for any men - even the small army Ardeth led - to bury something so huge.
“Good God! It’s magnificent!” Said said, shading his eyes from the back of his camel, as Al Qafas came into view. Jonathan had to agree, and from the murmurs and comments of the men around them, so did everyone else. To simply call it a tomb or even a complex had been an understatement on Amis’ part - though it also didn’t look like any kind of prison.
The area closest to the surface was more like a palace or temple, lined with statues of gods, not all of them ruined by time. A great valley had been scoured out of the dunes by that sandstorm, revealing pillars, stairways, statuary, and even some intact roofs. Though Jonathan could see that some effort had been made to collapse the surrounding dunes back onto the ruin, it was not even half concealed - he supposed Ardeth and his men did not ultimately have the time or manpower to have finished the job before Amis returned. A few more months, and it might have been lost forever. Which was, probably, a pity.
There were no pharaohs represented in the statuary, Jonathan didn’t think - at least, none that remained. Here and there were statues that had crumbled to the waist; many more were largely intact. He recognised Mut, Amun, Anubis, and Wepwawet, but the god he saw most was Khonsu. The sidelock and moon crown were quite unmistakable, even ground down by wind and sand, and he saw them on almost every relief, and in no less than four of the towering statues.
The tomb itself, Amis promised them, was beneath this palatial facade. Undoubtedly, any treasures that had been left in this surface complex would be long gone, but perhaps they had sated the appetites of any who came before. In any case, what remained of the palace would be quite substantial work in its own right, and so, as Amis took his diggers and got to work trying to discover the way beneath again, Jonathan, Gable, and a handful of other scholars that Amis had picked out went to work cataloguing the stony ruin above, which they did wherever sufficient amounts of sand had been moved.
It was slow, piecemeal work. Jonathan could indeed read hieroglyphics better than most of his colleagues, but he still wasn’t nearly so fluent as Evy, and there was little on this surface structure that hadn’t been worn down to illegibility. Still, deeper into the surface complex, under the eaves of the crumbling rooftops, he found some better-preserved walls showing text. He set to work and let the hours slip away from him, the work of translation like a cheery little puzzle - he could almost forget what was at stake, with a challenge like this to lose himself in. After several hours, and with the sun beginning to slip below the horizon, he had a dozen pages of dense notes, and an idea of who was buried here.
They gathered in the mess tent to report their first day’s findings over greasy lamb and fried potatoes (a cook was, of course, essential crew for a Bembridge scholars expedition). Amis, looking imperious at the head of the table, did not reveal his own progress before he’d had them all speak first.
Trenton had arrayed his hired guards in patrols around the perimeter of the dig site, and reported no suspicious activity, but some signs of recent life: the remains of camp-fires, cigarette ends, and horse droppings all suggested a large number of men had been here as little as a week past. (This was met by a great many harrumphs, and some brave-faced oaths about what ought to be done to brigands. Jonathan just hoped that Ardeth’s men had a way to stay close while staying out of sight.) Some of the scholars Amis had brought, Woolsey, Schone and Wright, had put themselves in charge of ordering the diggers about; a few more, Gable among them, had been studying the statuary, and were in disagreement about the exact date of the place. They, like Evy, thought the early Middle Kingdom was a likely time, but with insufficient evidence they were squabbling about the dynasty.
“And you, Mr. Carnahan?” Amis said, turning an imperious eye on him. Every face at the table swiveled - they had, over the past weeks of travel, made no bones about Jonathan being not quite their sort, and he’d be lying if he said that didn’t make this moment just a touch sweeter.
“Oh, well,” he said casually, “I think I know who was buried here.” Above the muttering that broke out, he said, “Yes, I found some text in the eastern zone of the complex that talks about some, hmm, general I think? Possibly a prince, but the part that name his lineage is too worn to properly decipher. Went by the name Ahmose, that much is clear. There’s a depiction of some sort of battle; I think he died there. A lot of epithets around it - lamentable, treacherous, that sort of thing.” He looked at Amis with a bright smile. “I’m sure we’ll find a much better explanation underground.”
Amis said, a little stiffly, “Ahmose, who died in battle. Yes, that is consistent with the findings of my previous expedition.” He sniffed, and swirled his glass of wine. “I have discovered treachery of my own.” Jonathan’s heart seized with paranoia for just a moment before Amis continued, “I spent all day digging down into the sands, but those dogs who chased me from here have concealed the entrance to the tomb under blocks of stone. Don’t ask me how the devils moved such heavy weight--”
“ Horses ,” Said coughed.
“--Or why they took such pains, but the fact remains that I will have to divert all efforts to that task tomorrow, if we are to have a hope of reaching the tomb itself.” Amis nodded to them all. “Well done, gentlemen; a productive first day.”
Jonathan spent the evening at cards with Said, Gable, and a few other chaps who treated him a little more warmly that night than they had previously - a gratifying change; he almost felt like a proper Egyptologist again. Flush with success, it was easy to forget that a breakthrough to the tomb below was the last thing he wanted - until later that night, when Ardeth’s hawk landed in front of him.
He had wandered up to the crest of a dark dune to sit, and look over the firelit camp, and then turn his back to it and let the vast canopy of stars swim before his eyes. He felt pleasantly tipsy, warm despite the cold night air, and the appearance of the bird startled him almost into tipping over the ridge. It took him only a moment to recover, though, and notice the bird’s traces, and the message cylinder around its leg.
Slowly, courting fearsome nips the whole time, he opened the cylinder and extracted the message inside. It just said, North.
He sighed, feeling the warm peace of a good night evaporate. Then he took out his compass, squinted at it, and set off down the far side of the dune, the hawk taking flight over his head.
Thank the Lord, he didn’t have to walk far. Over the next rise was Ardeth, a patch of deeper darkness silhouetted against the deep blue dunes. He raised a hand, and Jonathan, thinking to return a greeting, waved just before the hawk settled on Ardeth’s wrist. Oh, well, no shame hailing a chap. They couldn’t all be mysterious guardians of the desert.
“What news?” Ardeth said.
“Good evening to you too,” Jonathan said, putting his hands in his pockets. He wished there was a fire around, but he fancied his night vision had adjusted quite well - well enough to see the glint of Ardeth’s dark eyes, and the eyebrow he raised at Jonathan’s words.
“Salaam Alaikum,” he said dryly. “I take it you have not yet opened the tomb?”
“No,” Jonathan said. “Good show with the stones, by the way. If Amis hadn’t returned in such good time, I fancy your men would have buried the place for good.”
“We tried.” Ardeth grimaced. “It is no easy task to stay here. You will not find your rest easy.”
“Oh,” Jonathan said, who hadn’t found anything particularly unpleasant about the place yet. “Well. In any case, Amis means to concentrate on moving the stones, and he’ll succeed eventually. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon."
Ardeth nodded, mouth thin. "You will tell me what you discover?"
"If I live long enough," Jonathan said. "What’s your plan, anyway? There’s a small army of guards that Trenton’s heading, and he’s no idiot - he knows what he’s about.”
“Yes,” Ardeth said, sounding a touch amused. “Two-man patrols, overlapping, in staggered shifts. Better than many. But not the best.” Jonathan fancied he saw the curve of a little smile on his face. “When the time comes, we may not even have to fight them to get inside the compound.”
“Better to fight the mummies than the men, eh?” Jonathan said, with some feeling, and Ardeth did not disagree.
Jonathan slept poorly.
He hadn’t expected to. He had a good tent, he was well fed, and his bedroll was perfectly warm and comfortable - he’d slept much better under much worse circumstances. But every time he drifted off, something seemed to wake him, whether it was the shriek of a desert creature or a formless, uneasy dream. He woke late, when the sun was up, groggy and overheated. He had missed breakfast.
That was not to say the mess tent was empty, though; several scholars were still shuffling about, or seated with faraway looks. “Good morning,” said Gable, looking unforgivably put-together.
“‘Lo,” said Said, who looked worse than Jonathan felt. He was cradling a cup of coffee, and Jonathan, thinking that a jolly good idea, sought out his own.
Having found it, he flung himself into a chair before them. “Noisy wildlife around here, isn’t there?” he said, cradling the little cup of strong black sludge.
“Oh, awful,” said Said, looking glad of the chance to complain. “I barely slept a wink.”
Gable rubbed his eyes. “Yes, it wasn’t the best night, was it? Perhaps there are fennecs around, or some birds.”
“They gave me bad dreams,” Said continued.
“I think that was the lamb,” Gable joked, and Said threw him a filthy look that made him laugh. Jonathan sat with them until the coffee had done its work. Then he found a handful of dates and a stray bread roll on the coffee table, and snaffled them on his way out.
The rest of the camp, it seemed, had fared similarly: poor sleep and bad dreams all around, with the hired diggers already convinced of an evil presence. However, Amis gave them no quarter, and if he had slept badly, he gave no sign.
Jonathan, having proved himself somewhat with the previous days’ translations, felt a need to continue on the same path, but further study of the same wall did not help overmuch. There was no legible detail about where this fateful battle had taken place, or who it had been against. What he did notice this time was the vitriol in the language. He’d marked some of the epithets before, but the impression he got today was that this general Ahmose had been betrayed in some way, and that was why he’d died; some skulduggery or cowardice had ensured his death. But who had betrayed him was still in question, as was exactly what his tomb was doing so far out of the way. And so elaborate! Jonathan expected they’d find not only Ahmose but his whole, undoubtedly wealthy family below them - that is, if they got the chance to study the tomb before whatever this curse was killed them all.
He sighed, quite put off his work by the thought of it, and went in search of company and refreshments. He found Gable at the base of one of the broken statues, brushing delicately at an inscription at the bottom, which looked to Jonathan’s eye too worn to make out. Evidently Gable thought the same, because when he noticed Jonathan approaching, he cast the brush aside and got up, dusting off his knees as he did. “Wotcher,” Gable said. “Any luck?”
“Not much,” Jonathan admitted. “You?”
“Not much,” Gable replied. “There’s nothing for me to do up here that half a dozen other fellows aren’t doing. I’ve mostly been sketching the statuary, and even that feels redundant with Said around.” He gestured, and Jonathan turned to see Said in the distance with an assistant, mounting a camera on a tripod, evidently aiming to take a picture of the northern gate with the row of pillars behind it. Gable leaned in conspiratorially and said, “What I’ll be good for is still beneath our feet, as it were.”
Jonathan nodded and meant to smile, but it must have come out as more of a wince. Gable narrowed his eyes.
“Is there something you want to tell me, old boy?” he said. “I hope you don’t mind me saying, but you’ve seemed a little nervous every time someone brings up the tomb, which is dashed strange considering how you volunteered to be here.”
“Nervous?” Jonathan said. “Nervous? Me? Perish the thought.”
“It’s not those bandits, is it? Trenton’s got it in hand, I’m sure.”
Jonathan waved a hand, scoffing. “No, I’m not worried about them - and I hardly think bandits is the right word,” he couldn’t help but add. “Bandits would loot the place; they were trying to bury it again.”
“And what exactly were they trying to bury?” Gable said. “They went to a great deal of trouble, after all.”
“What indeed,” Jonathan said darkly, looking away. In the distance, Amis’ army of diggers had arranged themselves in lines with long ropes over their shoulders - they were aiming to drag the stones away. The sun was high. It was going to be back-breaking work, and for likely no good reward.
Gable looked shrewdly at him, and Jonathan realised he should have diverted the conversation a few sentences back. Before he could speak, Gable said, “Do you believe in curses, Carnahan?”
Jonathan opened his mouth, and then closed it again, and then belatedly laughed. “Which of us doesn’t? It’s practically a requirement of the job,” he said.
“Amis doesn’t,” Gable said flatly. “Most of the ones he picked don’t, or swear they don’t. They take pride in being rational men. But I’ve seen the ways rational men can fall apart."
"Yes, well." Jonathan looked away. "It's a lucky man who hasn't."
Gable gave him one of his sideways looks, a half-smile on his lips. "Be that as it may, you seem a lucky fellow to me, Carnahan. Perhaps you'll be good luck for us."
"That dig you went on with your sister, the Hamunaptra business - quite a lot of men died there, didn’t they? But you got through alright; in fact, you did quite well. So either you're lucky, or you know something the rest of us don't."
That was the most blatant fishing he’d ever heard from Gable. Evy, of course, had been selective in her papers about the events at Hamunaptra. The fire in the sky and rivers of blood had been reported internationally, but few serious men took them as supernatural occurrences, and Jonathan supposed that to an outside observer, the dig at Hamunaptra and the plagues of Egypt seemed unconnected.
It occurred to Jonathan that Gable, as Evy’s friend, may have known more of the truth of the matter, but he felt too tired to try teasing out what Gable actually knew. He just said, “You're right. I must be lucky after all.” And then he took his leave.
He didn’t manage much else of note that day. Amis made the poor diggers work until well after sunset, while most of the rest of their party had taken themselves to the mess tent for supper and conversation.
When the cry went up, Jonathan started violently, half-convinced the curse was breaking already, but it became quickly apparent that it was a cry of triumph: Amis came into the tent not ten minutes later, covered in dust and flushed with success. “I have uncovered it,” he said, ferocious with his satisfaction. He sat down at the table and began hauling food onto his plate. “I have told Trenton to put as many guards around the entrance as he can spare. First thing at dawn we shall open the door, gentlemen. First thing!” Then he picked up his laden plate and a bottle of beer, and bore his prizes away into the night.
“Well,” said Said, “That’s good news, at least.”
“Thank God for that,” Gable said, “I was beginning to feel useless. There’s far too many scholars here, and not enough to study.”
“Mm,” managed Jonathan, who had a feeling of simultaneous dread and excitement so painfully reminiscent of the eve of a battle after long weeks of sitting about that it was quite souring his dinner. He skipped cards that night, taking himself instead over the north ridge of the dunes, and then went to bed in the vain hope of good sleep.
Jonathan dreamed that night of the landing at Cape Helles. In the dream, it didn’t seem strange to him that his younger self and every soldier around him was dressed half like a schoolboy, or that the sphinx in the mountains above them was a literal sphinx. He was himself now, and himself then. He wanted to shake his young self and drag him by the ear away from it all, and he was unaware of himself, excited by the plan to take Constantinople though he wasn’t entirely sure what Turkey had to do with the war at large. He tried to shout at himself, but not a sound came out of his mouth. Everything was queerly muffled, and he felt dread like a corpse slung over his shoulders, cold and stinking, so heavy it threatened to drive him into the ground.
He woke with the buzzing of flies in his ears, his mouth dry and tasting like potted meat. It was cold in the tent, and he gasped when he realised there was a shape looming above him in the dark. Before he could cry out, a hand stole over his mouth and held there. “Quiet,” a voice hissed, and a match was struck. Jonathan squeezed his eyes shut against the dazzle of that little point of light, but he felt his hammering heart start to slow already. He had recognised that voice. The shape of Ardeth’s face resolved itself out of the darkness, and Jonathan met his eyes long enough that Ardeth nodded and withdrew his hand. He blew out the match, and Jonathan did his best to blink the spots out of his eyes.
“Not the gentlest,” Jonathan groaned. He felt utterly disoriented, his eyes refusing to adjust. What time was it? Where had he put his boots?
“You were hard to wake,” Ardeth muttered. “I got your message. At dawn, you said?”
Jonathan squinted at him. All he could see was a silhouette. “Yes, that’s right.”
The silhouette nodded. “My men are in place.”
“You’re not going to attack, are you?” Jonathan said. He’d found a boot at last, and on autopilot turned it upside-down and banged it against the floor before shoving his foot into it.
“No,” said Ardeth cautiously. “We will watch, and wait for the sign. Jonathan,” he said, and Jonathan looked up from tying his boot, and now could see the glint of his dark eyes. “We are here to make sure nothing of the curse escapes this place. We will destroy whatever Amis unleashes. If my men must go in there, I cannot guarantee your men will all escape with their lives.”
Jonathan sighed, feeling incredibly weary. “Yes, I know. We’re between Scylla and Charybdis, if Scylla was trying to destroy Charybdis. I understand.”
Ardeth grunted in a way that suggested he didn’t, in the particulars, but accepted Jonathan’s concession. He held out a hand, and Jonathan took it and was hauled to his feet. The door of the tent moved, revealing a sliver of dark sky, and in an instant, Ardeth had disappeared into the night.
Jonathan found the lamp and lit it, then found his watch: it was a quarter past five. Well, it was late enough that he may as well be awake.
The diggers had done the work of pyramid-builders in moving those stones. Now, the blocks hemmed in a sunken stairway, which had been swept clean of most of the sand. Jonathan ambled up just behind the rest of the group, only to find they still hadn’t gone in: Said was taking Amis’ picture in front of the entrance first, just as the sun rose to bathe him in its light. Everybody else simply had to mill about, tools clutched in their hands, all of them looking tired and cross.
Gable sidled up to Jonathan, away from the hubbub. “Look here, old boy,” he said in a very low voice. “I’m going to ask you to be straight with me: those men who buried this place, do you think they mean us harm?”
“I don’t know why you’d ask me,” Jonathan said, having no intention to be straight with him.
Gable looked distinctly unimpressed. “Shall I ask your friend directly? The one all in black who left your tent this morning?”
That made Jonathan pause, trying to keep his face neutral and probably failing. What the hell had Gable been doing up that early? Had he been spying on Jonathan deliberately, or was this some sort of horrible coincidence? “That’s not,” he said, and, “You mustn’t.” He shook his head, giving up, and hissed, “I think we have rather more to fear from what’s down there.”
“And what is that exactly?” Gable said intently.
“Well,” Jonathan said, and stopped in frustration. “I don’t know. And neither to they, exactly. They don’t want to kill us. But they call this place a cage, and they mean to keep whatever is down there from escaping.”
“Good God,” said Gable. “They really believe there’s something down there?”
“Do you believe them?”
Jonathan sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Listen, Gable. I don’t know how much about Hamunaptra Evy has told you, but Ardeth - the man who left my tent this morning - well, he tried to warn us about that, and we didn’t listen to him. It wasn’t his men who killed those poor Americans, or Dr. Chamberlain. It was what we dug up.”
Gable stared at him, then looked back at the crowd of milling archaeologists. His jaw worked, and Jonathan got the idea that Evy had let slip something about Hamunaptra after all. “So what exactly do you mean to do?” he said.
“Well,” Jonathan said with as much cheery bravado as he could muster, “I’m rather depending on them being wrong, but on the off-chance they aren’t, I shall try to work out what the hell is down there so they have some warning, and hope we may all escape with our lives.”
Gable shook his head. “Why on earth did you come here, knowing all this?”
“I didn’t, then,” Jonathan said glumly. “It was only a hunch. And Evy wanted me to go, because she’s having a baby. And I wanted to go, because there might be treasure.”
Gable nodded. “Well, I can respect that, at least.”
Their conversation was cut off by Amis, who leaped to the top of one of the stone blocks with the vigour of a boy half his age, and addressed his small assembly as grandly as if they were an army. “Gentlemen,” he said, “We are undoubtedly about to discover a great wonder. There will be much to see, I am sure, but--” and here he chuckled, “--I must ask that we be organised about this. Forrester and Schone will be staying above to keep watch and to organise what we bring out to them. Woolsey will take a party of diggers to excavate the eastern tunnel, and to evaluate the soundness of the ceiling. Wright and Eggers will map the layout and catalogue its features, and so I am sure they will be right on our heels - Said, Trevors, Carnahan, Gable: you will come with me.”
Their assignments set, Gable and Jonathan exchanged a wary glance and stepped forward to take their place near Amis. Said bustled forward to join them, evidently excited, with the young Trevors in tow holding all the camera equipment; he was a round-faced stripling still doing his degree, and clearly had parents who were the right sort of people. Amis nodded in satisfaction, turned, and set off down the steps into the tomb.
The shift from desert sun to cthonic gloom, with its commensurate drop in temperature, was abrupt; they lit torches at the bottom of the stair, and diggers bustled in behind at Amis’ barked command to light more lamps, and set them on the ground to light the path. The walls were painted here, the colours still bright in the torchlight - largely standard depictions of myth and legend, in the common decorative fashion, but also a depiction of a pharaoh and nobles, including one who appeared to be the dead man, which would certainly help date this place.
He noticed that, as Khonsu was prevalent above, so Wepwawet was below - fitting for a general, he supposed, especially a royal one. He seemed to be in the corner of every mural. Jonathan rather wanted to stop and interpret, but Amis was pressing on, to the sealed door of the tomb.
“Finally,” he muttered, standing before the grand door. Jonathan, trying to read the hieroglyphics written there, expected him to stop and make another speech, and Said evidently did too, by the way he started rummaging in Trevors’ pack for his camera - but Amis instead took a chisel out of his pocket, wedged it in the crack of the door, and before anyone could protest gave it a hammerblow and broke the door open.
“Oh, I say!” Gable cried. At Amis’ baleful glare, he subsided, muttering, “We could have kept that seal in one piece.”
“Let us press on,” Amis said firmly.
The chamber beyond was much finer than the entrance they had left, and all of them let out appreciative murmurs. There was fine furniture here - much of it painted wood that had long since collapsed in decay, but the gilt that had adorned it remained, and even more gold decorated the walls, along with lapis and precious stones. The paintings on the wall were more beautiful than those outside the sealed door; he imagined that, when it was made, this room would have looked rather like a parlour in which the inhabitants of the tomb could sit and nibble sweetmeats. It was beautiful, and boded well for treasure beyond, but the heat of their torches and the wind of their passing stirred up the noisome dust and wound the spring inside of Jonathan just that bit tighter. Amis at least let them linger in here - since this room was new to him too, natural curiosity had taken him, and they spent a few hours in it, Jonathan translating any writing he could find whilst doing internal calculations about the value of the items therein.
His eye was caught by a little figure half-hidden by a collapsed table just in front of the door to the next chamber, and he crouched down to inspect it. It was a statuette of Khonsu, carved out of pale jade, which must have been set upon the table once. It was chipped about the crown, just like the one his parents had had on the table in their house, and Jonathan pocketed it on instinct. He didn’t make the gesture obvious. He knew everyone else’s back was turned, and nobody else had inspected this area yet. He spent a minute poking at the table for appearance's sake, until Gable said, “Leave off, there, Carnahan - I might salvage that yet.”
The door beyond that led to another chamber, and this one was filled with smallish statues, gilded, some inset with precious stones, and a chariot, and plumed barding for horses, and racks of bronze weapons. At this, Amis sent Trevors scurrying back with orders to bring many diggers who could be trusted to start removing the artifacts to the surface. This, too, took hours; they were dusty, and parched, and so very tired. Eventually, they persuaded Amis to let them stop for refreshments, and reluctantly he sent them up, to where the high sun seared their eyes.
Seeing the tables laid out for sorting, and the artifacts coming up to dazzle in the sun, Jonathan felt his fear starting to recede. No curse had been unleashed so far. Perhaps Ardeth would have no reason to bring his men after all. With that cheery thought, he returned.
They needed the help of diggers to open the next door, a stone slab that was wedged in place by what turned out to be a corroded bronze blade trap, set to fall rather like a guillotine on whoever pushed on the door. The blade was now green, warped and bubbling with verdigris, and it took another hour to get it unstuck. By this point, Amis was getting impatient, as they had only an hour until sunset.
The stone door revealed a corridor. At one end was a huge bronze-plated door, barred with a great haft of wood that must have taken three men to lift into place, and would now no doubt crumble at a touch. At the other end of the corridor they could see a great deal of writing carved into the stone walls, and a statue of Wepwawet. That seemed like Jonathan's best hope answers: the writing was quite literally on the wall there, and forewarned was forearmed, after all, so he peeled off from the group to read it.
While Amis and Gable argued about the best way to open the bronze door, Said went about with his camera, Trevors lifting the flash for him and trailing an acrid stink of burning powder wherever he went.
The hieroglyphics here were easier to read than the ones above, in that they were not worn half away by weathering. Ahmose, the general, third son of the pharaoh - aha! - betrayed to his death. Jonathan brought out his notes and staked his torch to the ground. He read along, lips moving, feeling painfully slow.
Ahmose, the general, betrayed to his death by his own men. There was a battle, a great battle, which was narrowly won. Ahmose, mighty and brave, ordered his remaining men to pursue the enemy. Over the river and into the desert they pursued, as lionesses pursue antelope, as the hawk pursues the lapwing - this went on. Jonathan, reading between the lines, though Ahmose sounded like a tit who ought to have turned around and gone home.
Ahmose the lioness crossed into the desert with his remaining men. The men did not want to go on, and argued with Ahmose. Ahmose, descendent of gods, punished his commanders there in the desert. His men, treacherous, loyal to their commanders above Ahmose, turned around and went home. Ahmose, betrayed, was caught in the desert by his enemies. Wounded grievously, he was carried home by his retreating bodyguards - dead before they reached the safety of Thebes.
Jonathan’s hand moved as if on its own, scribbling one thing while he read further on. A mighty monument must be built to Ahmose, and the soldiers who had betrayed him justly punished. Instead of being executed immediately, they were imprisoned while the tomb was built. They were imprisoned in the desert, many days from any spring. The tomb was built around them, so many were they. They would serve Ahmose in death as they had not in life, but they would not be honoured as his bodyguards were honoured. The soldiers were sealed in the tomb, left to suffer and die as Ahmose had been left to suffer and die.
“Oh, bugger,” said Jonathan, just as the great bronze doors at the other end of the corridor swung open with a crash.
Said dropped the camera, and Trevors muttered an oath. Gable had been rather nearer Jonathan than the door, but was looking through it with puzzlement, and Jonathan, creeping forward reluctantly, craned his neck to see what they were seeing.
“Good God,” said Amis, and shone his torch over the corpse stretched out before the door, its clawed, bony hands reaching out to them. Beyond it, the chamber was filled with other skeletons, slumped against walls or sprawled on the ground. The walls of this chamber, too, were painted colourfully, though stains and smears of something dark marred the plaster here and there - finger-shaped smears, and gouged paint. Amis crouched down, looking fascinated. “Did he starve to death in here, do you think, trying to claw his way out? I wonder--”
But that was all he said, because as his fingers brushed the top of the corpse’s skull, the corpse seized, and leapt, clawing blindly at Amis. Amis hollered, as did Said and Trevors, and, quite frankly, Jonathan; Amis fell back, and that was as much as Jonathan saw, because at that point he grabbed Gable by the scruff of the neck and began hauling him back up the corridor at a dead sprint, and pretty soon Said outran them both. There was a terrible crunching, squealing, rattling sound behind them, as if - and Jonathan was appalled at how vividly he could picture it - an entire roomful of skeletons were all getting up at once.
They ran pell-mell through the previous rooms, scattering workers. “Go, run!” Said cried as they pelted past. Through the once-sealed door, Jonathan held up his arm to shield his eyes from the glare of the sun - but there wasn’t much of one. Instead, the last rays of the sunset washed over him. A sprinkling of stars already showed in the purpling sky.
Standing five feet from the entrance was Ardeth, his rifle trained on Trenton, who was red with outrage. Ardeth’s tribe surrounded the rest of the workers like black-clad wraiths, some on horseback, some on foot, waiting and watching. Ardeth called, “Is it time?” as Jonathan came sprinting up the steps.
Jonathan replied, “What do you bloody think?!” and skidded to a halt at his side, panting. Ardeth shoved a loaded rifle into his hands, and Jonathan could have kissed him for it.
“Where’s my rifle?” Gable said indignantly, and then turned with a start as there was a horrible cry from the entrance of the tomb.
Said said, “The skeleton… Did-- did you see--?”
“Yes, I saw,” said Jonathan, in what he thought was quite a reasonable tone, but it was drowned out by the commotion of Wright hauling himself up through the entrance, whey-faced, his clothing rent and bloodied. There were screams behind him, the terrible sounds of a battle going on that sounded badly one-sided to Jonathan’s ears.
Ardeth called a command to his men, some of whom stepped forward, rifles at the ready; Jonathan reluctantly followed. A poor lone digger sprinted out and was almost shot for his troubles, but with his hands up he fled crying past them.
They paid him little mind, for hot on his heels were the skeletons of Ahmose's imprisoned army, quite upright, armed, and fast. Ardeth blew the head off the first one, and off the next, and Jonathan took aim too and let the rhythm of aim-fire-reload fall over him. In the sun’s dying light, they blasted the horrible things to pieces at the entrance. Such were their numbers that a few skeletons slipped up the stairs while they were desperately reloading, and had to be hacked to pieces by the ring of Medjai waiting with drawn swords.
Then, a curious thing happened: as full dark fell, the skeletons seemed to stop just out of reach. They milled instead of attacking. After a moment, one started forward as if shoved - and, as the light of the moon fell on it, it collapsed into a pile of bones and dust.
Shock and murmured prayers rippled up around him. Ardeth didn’t lower his rifle, but the confusion on his face matched what Jonathan felt. And then, Jonathan darted a glance over the ruins, and saw one of the looming statues of Khonsu.
“Oh,” he said dumbly. “Travelers by night. I suppose that’s us.”
“Explain,” said Ardeth, not taking his eyes off the enemy.
“I think they can’t bear the light of the moon,” Jonathan explained. “Er. Don’t ask me why they’re alright in the sun, I don’t know. But only look at all the statues of Khonsu out here - he commands the moon, and protects night-travelers. I think he’s their enemy.”
Ardeth finally looked away from the mouth of the tomb, and met his eyes. “If that is true,” he said, “It means we have until dawn to destroy them. Do you know what they are?”
So Jonathan explained, as best and as quickly as he could. Ardeth nodded along, and at some point another Medjai, clearly fluent, started translating rapidly to his fellows. By the time Jonathan had finished, he had drawn a ring around him: Ardeth, Gable, Said, and the ruffled-looking Trenton. Medjai were coming forward with boxes of ammunition, loading for bear.
“What the hell is happening? Where’s Amis?” Trenton said.
“I think he’s dead,” Said said miserably. “That creature fell on him like a tiger.”
Trenton, sputtering, looked at Ardeth. “Who are you?”
“Ardeth Bay,” Ardeth said. “We we are the Medjai. We tried to warn him. He did not listen.” He looked over his shoulder, and called a command to some of his men. “You,” he said to Jonathan, “Guard the entrance. And if we do not come back again, bury it, and leave this place forever.”
“Now, just wait a minute,” said Jonathan, alarmed, but Ardeth didn’t wait. He and his men walked down into the entrance of the tomb three abreast, firing steadily, while Jonathan stood at its edge and dithered. Finally, he said to wide-eyed Gable, who had found a rifle at last, “Well! You heard what he said!” and followed after the Medjai.
Now, it can be said very definitely that Jonathan Carnahan was a coward. Since the day he realised what a stupid, pointless thing it was to be brave, he had retreated from absolutely everything he found alarming in life, and refused to reproach himself for it. So his decision to follow Ardeth into a tomb of unknown horrors was not an act of bravery at all. It merely seemed less unpleasant than staying on the surface with the shaken Said and hollow-eyed Trenton, and counting how many more of his old friends were dead.
The tunnel was dark and incredibly noisy with the echoing report of guns, and after about fifty feet Jonathan tripped over the corpse of poor Trevors, covered in flash powder, his dark eyes wide and staring. Nearby, a skeleton had been blasted to pieces. He crept through unsealed door, past the rent bodies of men he’d had breakfast with that morning, and brought his weapon to bear as he neared the armoury.
The place echoed with screams and gunshots, and Jonathan paused by the door, his breath coming fast. Up ahead, he saw one of Ardeth’s men swing at a skeleton and cleave it in half, only to then turn his back on it. Jonathan, with vivid memories of Hamunaptra, aimed and fired. The upper half of the skeleton, still perfectly capable of movement, had made it several feet in a lunge at the man’s back when Jonathan blew it apart with a shotgun blast.
The man, alarmed, spun around and looked wide-eyed at Jonathan, who gave him a nod and reloaded his gun. On the other side of the room, Ardeth was smashing a skeleton to bits with the butt of his rifle.
For endless minutes, the guns fired, the sheer volume of skeletons stymied by the choke point of the doorway, and Jonathan remembered with dread that the remains of a whole army were supposedly down here. But at long last, though he was deafened by gunshots, half-blind with muzzle flash, and could barely lift his rifle anymore, silence fell. Jonathan waited, tense as a wire, while Ardeth’s men swept from chamber to chamber. He waited, panting, at Ardeth’s side, until they returned with the all-clear.
A ragged cheer went up around him. Jonathan only managed a faint, “Oh, good.” Then a thought struck him, and he looked at Ardeth in some hope. “I don’t suppose this means we can come back and study the rest of it?”
“Absolutely not,” said Ardeth.
Jonathan sighed. “Worth a try,” he said.
Jonathan returned to England with the ragged remains of the Bembridge Scholars Egyptology department. It was a very quiet trip. But he felt an inexpressible relief when he overheard Trenton and Said frankly discussing what had happened, and what on earth to tell the department.
February in London was wet and miserable, but he felt a spring in his step as he approached his sister’s house, like the journey was over now, though he meant to return to Egypt again soon. Evy opened the door herself, with a baby on her hip, and he looked at his nephew in some astonishment. There he was! The next Carnahan, as he lived and breathed.
“Alexander, is it?” he said, shaking the little chap's pudgy hand. The baby, with O'Connell's blond hair and a bewildered expression, curled tiny fingers into his palm.
“That’s right,” Evy said, smiling. “Oh, Jonathan, I am sorry you had such an appalling expedition.”
“Oh, well,” he said. “It could have been worse. No, I mean that - it honestly could.”
He followed her into the house, though he stopped briefly at the cedarwood table, rearranging the figures just a bit. He left it there, between the figures of Amun and Mut: moon-crowned Khonsu, back where he belonged.