Chapter 29: The Temple of the Staff
Long ago, before the lake dried up and left the island temple standing atop a high plateau, the exterior walls of the temple had extended down into the waters of the lake. Now, those tightly cut blocks of stone bore the same red stains as the rocks upon which they stood, as if the lapping waters had turned red with algae, or blood.
The plaza on which Oliver stood jutted from the face of the island out to the shattered edge of the collapsed bridge. The gates, so recently shattered by the blast of shaped explosive charges, were flanked by monumental statues of Osiris. At the feet of each statue, its head only reaching the knees of the god behind it, stood a life sized statue of man holding a brass trumpet to his lips. Remarkably, neither the deities nor their heralds appeared to have been weathered by the ages. Over the gap where the gates had stood, a series of hieroglyphs were etched deep into the stone lintel. Oliver could not read them, but he assumed they said something about mighty powers of the gods that guarded the temple.
The remnants of the gate, which appeared to have been made from bronze-clad wood, which had somehow remained intact through the centuries, lay shattered and charred across the paved floor just inside the temple. Between the charred fragments still hanging from the bronze hinges, Oliver saw a courtyard with statues of Egyptian gods arrayed in twin rows. Their various heads, snouts, beaks, and muzzles gazed at one another across the court, which was open to the sky. At the end of the courtyard a low wall of brick surrounded a sunken area where smaller statues, which did not appear to depict gods, stood on pedestals flanking the steps down.
Oliver pulled out his gun and ran to the corner of the gateway, intending to peer around the edge and see if he could spot the mercenaries, but his plans were thrown out the window when a mighty blast sounded from heralds on either side of the gate.
Oliver dove to the side and crouched behind one of the statues of Osiris, cursing his fortune. No such welcoming burst had sounded when the mercenaries and Diana had entered the temple, so it must have had something to do with the brass pyramid, which the elder Layla had called the “key,” that he carried in his pocket.
As he waited for the mercenaries to investigate the trumpet blasts, Oliver heard the harsh squeal of bent metal twisting and rasping against itself. He risked a glance around the statue and saw the shattered remnants of the gates twisting outwards as the ancient hinges rotated.
The echoes of tortured metal died away and Oliver heard the crunch of footsteps approaching over the brick pavement. He ducked low behind the statue of Osiris, keeping one eye around the base to watch the gateway, and waited for the mercenary to appear.
When he did, Oliver recognized the man as the medic who had patched Frank’s shoulder in the chapel yesterday afternoon. He now held an assault rifle in his hands and had slung his medical kit over his back.
The man came around the corner of the gate from the right side of the temple interior, gun up to his shoulder as he advanced rapidly through gate and sighted down the length of his rifle, checking first the left, then right sides of the plaza. Seeing nothing, the mercenary lowered his gun and turned back towards the temple.
“I don’t see anything, Commander,” he called.
Kyle’s voice shouted back from the temple interior. “There must be something out there. Trumpets don’t sound for no reason.”
“And what about darkness?” Another voice now. One that Oliver didn’t recognized. It carried a note of panic. “Night doesn’t move around like a cloud, Kyle. I say we cut our losses and get the hell out of this place. Take our chances on the free market if Leonidas cuts us off. Hell man, even the water...”
A gunshot sounded.
Then the thump of a body hitting the stones.
“Anyone else want to argue?” Silence, as Oliver held his breath and waited. Then, “Right. Adams, get back in here. We’re going further in.”
Oliver waited until he could no longer hear the mercenary’s footsteps, then sidled up to the gateway, hoping with every fiber of his being that the trumpets would not sound again.
Oliver poked his head around the gate and saw that the central walkway was still empty. He slipped a little further out and saw six figures standing in the shadows of the covered side court, near the low wall that divided the upper court from the sunken area. Kyle was gesturing towards the steps leading down while Diana stood nose to nose with him and waved her hands wildly. Two of the mercenaries bent and lifted a body between them, then carried it through the doorway of a low chamber built against the right wall of the temple. The two remaining mercenaries stood in silence with their backs to Oliver, watching the argument impassively.
Oliver saw his opportunity. He darted through the gateway and ducked behind the cat headed statue of Bastet that stood on the left side of the open walkway. He paused, holding his breath and listening for any sign that his entrance had been noticed, but no shout came from the mercenaries and Kyle continued to argue with Diana. Their words were still indistinct, but Oliver could tell that Diana was angry about something and, judging from the way she waved her hands at the walls and statues, it probably had more to do with further destruction of the temple than Kyle’s methods of imposing discipline among his men.
Oliver surveyed the left side of the courtyard. The light shining in from the uncovered central walkway was bright enough to both illuminate much of the covered area and cast deep shadows behind the supporting pillars and statues of the gods. If he moved quickly and didn’t trip over anything, Oliver thought he might be able to reach the deeper shadow of the lower courtyard without being spotted. Then he might have the opportunity to get ahead of the mercenaries and lay some sort of trap.
He darted from behind the statue and came to a halt behind one of the supporting pillars twenty or so feet down the hall. He waited there, half-expecting to hear a shout or burst of gunfire, but the mercenaries gave no sign of noticing his presence.
Kyle’s voice echoed across the courtyard. “We’re going in, now.”
“But the guardians!” Diana cried out.
“If you’re so damn afraid of a few skeletons, which, by the way, we haven’t even seen, then stay at the back. Hell, stay in the courtyard for all I care. It’s not like you can go that far.”
Oliver glanced around the pillar and saw Kyle step closer to Diana and push a finger against her forehead as he spoke, “Just remember, the only reason you’re still alive is I might need you to translate something by the end of this. So make sure you stay useful, or I’ll put a bullet in your skull.”
Kyle strode out of the shadows of the covered courtyard into the light of the central path between the statues of the Egyptian gods. The other mercenaries followed a few seconds later, filing out between the legs of the statues, most holding their guns at the ready and glancing about nervously as if they expected the stone deities to spring to life and attack them.
Diana did not follow them.
Oliver didn’t know what motivated Diana to remain in the shadows of the outer courtyard, but he thought her wise to keep her distance from Kyle and his men. They were skilled and remorseless killers, but had no experience delving into the sanctuaries of relics. If there was one place in the world Oliver would not want to stand, it was at the side of an overconfident neophyte tomb raider as they blundered deeper into a labyrinth of magic and traps.
Kyle paused at the head of the steps down to the lower courtyard. His men lined up on either side, all gazing down into the area below. When they didn’t move to walk down the steps Oliver took a chance and ran lightly to the next supporting pillar, the closest to where the men stood.
“...the hell is going on here?” one of the men was saying. “I’ve never seen so many bones in one place.”
“They’re not human,” Kyle growled, placing his foot on the first step.
“But... where did they come from? The ones on top can’t be more than a few days old.”
Kyle didn’t reply. As Oliver watched, he strode down the steps and bent to inspect something on the floor. After a moment he stood and flicked something small and white at the man who had been speaking. “They’re frogs, or lizards, or something like that. There’s nothing to worry about here.”
With that he strode forward, his boots making a disconcerting crunch and shuffle sound with every step, and disappeared behind the low wall that surrounded the lower court.
The mercenaries exchanged glances. One of them nodded over his shoulder towards the shadows where the body of their comrade still lay, then stepped forward and followed Kyle. The others followed, their footsteps building the crackle and swoosh of shattering bones under foot to a brutal crescendo.
Oliver crept up to the wall surrounding the lower courtyard and waited for the sound of combat boots crunching bone to fade. As he approached, a stench reached his nose, creeping in on his consciousness so slowly that he didn’t even notice it until he was almost to the wall. It was a smell of death and decay that reminded him of being a child and coming upon his dog playing with a rotten fish on the banks of the river. He swallowed bile and breathed through his mouth until, after a few minutes, he became inured to the odor. Soon enough the crunching sound faded as the mercenaries left the lower courtyard and disappeared into a dark hall beyond. When they didn’t return for a full minute, Oliver risked a look over the wall.
The lower court was sunk about three feet below the level of the upper courtyard. In the places where the mercenaries had trod, he could make out the brick pavement, but everywhere else the floor of the court was covered in a layer of tiny white bones nearly a foot deep. The topmost layer of bones was thinly strung with bits of skin and viscera from thousands of frogs.
“That’s not a good sign,” Oliver whispered to himself and the words of Sephor’s mad message returned to his mind: You will be faced with the plagues that befell our forefathers.
A glitter of golden light caught Oliver’s eye and an empty brass bullet casing clattered to the ground a few feet from him. He ducked and raised his gun automatically, pointing it in the direction he had seen the light, even as his rational mind told him that he would already be dead if one of the mercenaries had fired at him from the other side of the courtyard. Sighting down the barrel of his gun, Oliver saw Diana crouching against the wall on the opposite side of the open walkway. He allowed himself a smile of relief and lowered the gun, waving for her to come to him. She moved forward to the edge of the open walkway between the statues of the gods, hesitated for a moment, then ran across the walkway into Oliver’s arms.
As soon he had her in his arms, Oliver dropped, pulling them both down below the edge of the wall. Diana clung to him wordlessly for nearly a minute, her body shaking with repressed emotion, though she did not cry.
Oliver breathed deeply and whispered, “I’m so sorry I let them take you.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” she replied, still clinging to him.
He smiled, allowing himself to enjoy the warmth of Diana’s body against his own, then pushed the emotion down and locked it away again. If they were to get out of this temple alive, he would have to stay clear-headed.
He bent his head until his mouth was beside Diana’s ear and whispered, “I’m glad you’re alive.”
Her body shivered hard against his several times at that, then she spoke into his ear and Oliver realized that she was trying to keep from laughing. “Thanks, Oliver. Me too.”
She leaned back away from him and whispered, “Can you get us out of here?”
Oliver nodded, then hesitated, thinking of the words that Layla had translated for him. “Diana, you lied to them about the inscription on the chapel wall. You only told them about the directions, not the warning.”
Her eyes widened and she nodded.
Oliver smiled. “That was quick thinking, and brave. They probably would have killed us right there if they thought there was no chance of getting to the staff.”
He examined Diana. She was still wearing the climbing harness that she had used to descend from the helicopter. She was covered with dust and grime from the temple and the destruction of the gates.
“I’ve got a rope in my bag. We can go back to the plaza and you can rappel down to the desert and use my phone to find the Jeep. There’s water there, and food, and another set of binoculars. If I’m not back in two hours...”
Diana shook her head. “No way. If you’re still going in, I’m coming with you.”
He looked at her uncertainly. He had never intended to pull her into such a dangerous situation and, while he was sure she was brave enough to follow through, he didn’t want to put her in harm’s way again.
“This is all so new to me, Oliver. I’ve read your posts and listened to your stories for years, but this is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to actually live them. Do you have another gun?”
Oliver nodded. “I took it from Frank.”
“Alright. Give it to me. And a sip of that water. Those bastards wouldn’t let me drink since we got up here. Then I’ll go in with you.”
Oliver allowed a smile to creep onto his face as he unslung his backpack and pulled Frank’s gun from a side pocket. “You have a holster?”
Diana nodded and patted her belt, which Oliver saw had a nylon sidearm holster attached to it. “I took it off the dead mercenary. I figured I might be able to snag a gun if one of the others had a run in with whatever traps or guardians are back there.”
He passed her the gun and watched as she checked it and secured it in the holster, then handed her the drinking tube from his bag. “Remind me why we broke up all those years back?”
“Because you ran off to the jungle with your cousin and I didn’t hear from you for two months.”
“Right. After this, I might have to keep you with me.”
Diana put the rubber nipple of the tube in her mouth and sucked deeply, a look of anticipatory relief on her face at the thought of finally getting a drink. Then the expression on her face turned to horror and disgust. She threw the tube down and spat dark liquid out on the ground, then gagged, spit, and retched at Oliver’s feet.
Oliver picked up the tube and squeezed the nipple, letting a drop of the liquid spill out onto his fingertip. He pinched it between finger and thumb, feeling the smooth viscosity of it, like oil against his skin. He sniffed the bitter saltiness of it, then wiped it off on his pants.
“Why the hell do you have blood in your water bag...” Diana froze as the answer to her own question dawned across her face. “The plagues.”
Oliver nodded, his face grim. “Napoleon’s men must have reached the staff and done something to unleash the power within it.”
“Is that possible?”
“I’m afraid so.”
Oliver pulled the note Hadiya had written for him from his shirt pocket and examined it again. Layla had said that it would help him survive the temple and reach the staff, but he was beginning to wonder if she had simply been conveying the sentiment in Sephor’s half-mad scratches on the wall. He read the note over again, holding it low enough that Diana could read it as well, and looked slowly around the courtyard. The somber faces of the Egyptian gods gazed back at Oliver from their places on either side of the sunlit path, their stony eyes seeming to laugh at his inability to crack Sephor’s riddle.
“That’s a good translation of the inscription,” Diana remarked. “Where’d you get it?”
“An old priestess,” Oliver muttered absently, his eyes drifting down towards the lower courtyard and its morbid carpet.
At the far end, nearly hidden in the shadows of the low roof, the wall was carved with a scene of judgment. Ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses were stacked in ranks above a relief carving of a balance scale. On the right side of the scale was a depiction of a man dressed in the garb of a pharaoh. On the left was a set of glyphs that Oliver thought he recognized. He handed the paper to Diana and moved forward to stand at the edge of the foul expanse of rotting flesh and bones. He reached behind him and pulled his camera out of its padded pocket at the base of his backpack then held it up to his eye, using the zoom lens to inspect the mural while snapping a few quick photos.
“I’d love to speak with this priestess of yours. She translated a few words that I couldn’t. Here, where she wrote ‘tip the balance’ I didn’t know how translate the phrase.”
Oliver nodded absently. He didn’t want to step into the bones until it was absolutely necessary because they would make such a loud crunching noise that the mercenaries were almost certain to hear them coming, not to mention the risk of snakes, scorpions, and traps hidden beneath. They had to find some way of getting to the staff before it could be brought out of the temple by Kyle and his men. He had never before encountered a relic with the power to sow destruction on this scale and hated to think what would happen if it were brought out into the world. Tracking the camera up across the mural, Oliver frowned at an odd dark patch under the radiating arms of a sun.
“Odd, this, but it makes more sense,” Diana continued. “She translated the word ‘crawl’ as ‘pass’ in the last line.”
That gave Oliver an idea.
“Come on. I think I know how to get in there without them hearing us coming.”
Not waiting for Diana to acknowledge him, Oliver slipped his camera into its compartment and descended into the lower courtyard. He kicked aside the rotting piles of bones and frog skins as he made his way directly to the mural.
Diana pushed the paper into a pocket and jumped to follow.
“The priestess who gave that to me said it might help me reach the staff before the mercenaries. I think I see...”
He reached the wall and, feeling a twinge of guilt at risking damage to the ancient wall carving, used the forehead of an Egyptian god and the narrow ridge of the right balance to boost himself up high enough to reach the blank expanse of stone between the sun and the balance. His fist pounded against a thin layer of stone, giving a hollow thud.
The stone between heads of the carved figures of the gods and the splayed rays of the sun seemed to be nothing more than a thin cap of slate.
He pounded on it again, cracking the stone, then shattering it and sending shards tumbling down over his shoulders into the bones below, revealing a dark crawlspace leading back into the depths of the temple.
Oliver reached into a side pouch of his pack and pulled out a small, but intensely bright, LED flashlight. He clicked it on and examined the entrance to the crawlspace.
There would be plenty of room for Diana and him to move through, but he probably wouldn’t fit with his backpack on. He could push it ahead of him but that would make a loud scraping sound and slow their progress, negating the point of taking this path. He jumped down and turned to see Diana standing amid the bones a few feet away.
“I’m going through that tunnel. If you still want to come with me you can follow behind. If not, you can take the rope from my pack, climb down, and head for the Jeep.”
Oliver stepped around Diana and set his backpack on the steps to the upper courtyard, then returned to the mural and laid a hand on Diana’s shoulder.
“You think you can get up there on your own?”
She shook her head. “No. Not tall enough.”
Oliver passed her the flashlight, then bent and cupped his hands. Diana got the hint and used Oliver’s hands as a step to grab the edge of the tunnel. She pulled herself up into the hole and crawled forward. Oliver repeated his balancing act on the stone ridges and pulled himself into the tunnel behind Diana.
They crawled down the tunnel in silence, the sound of their own breathing and the shuffle of their knees and hands loud in the dark stillness. There was remarkably little dust on the floor and walls, though Oliver did occasionally brush up against a sharp fleck of stone that had chipped away from the blocks as they were set into place and lain undisturbed in this cramped space for centuries. His initial concern that they might encounter some dangerous pest was soon brushed away as they crawled deeper into the space between the walls without encountering any sign that this passage had played host to living things in the last five thousand years. The air was cool and had the intense, skin-pricking dry quality that is only felt in places surrounded by literally tons of moisture-deprived stone.
Every few feet, the tunnel sloped abruptly downward, then continue on straight for a while before tilting down again. Reflecting on the layout of the temple courtyard, Oliver decided that the chamber which housed the staff must have originally been located below the waterline of the lake that had once surrounded the island. He wondered if this had been done for ceremonial purposes, keeping the staff lower than the water to restrict its power, or as an act of religious politicking, placing it lower than the chambers dedicated to the gods of Egypt. There was no way to be sure now, unless they found an engraving or scroll that explained the purpose of the temple’s layout, but judging from the damage seemingly wrought by the staff, its power had been in no way diminished by its location within the temple.
Oliver was just allowing himself to relax when a chilling scream filled the passage. It seemed to seep through the very stone surrounding them, then echo down the passage from the opening behind them. The scream was followed by distant shouts and the noise of automatic weapons firing.
“They’ve encountered the guardians!” Diana hissed.
“Whatever they might be. Keep moving!”
They continued down the passage, moving more slowly now, flinching whenever another scream of burst of gunfire sounded around them. Oliver knew that sound moved in deceptive ways in ancient temples, or any place that consisted of a maze of corridors separated by stone of varying thickness. A noise that seemed to come from far away might be just on the other side of a thin stone wall, while a seemingly close noise could have echoed from one twisted corridor to another, up through a hole in the floor, and into one’s ears from a distant source.
“There was a warning inscribed above the gates,” Diana whispered when no more shots sounded for some time. “It spoke of the eternal guardians of the temple, sworn to protect the people of Egypt from the wrath of a foreign god.”
“Did it describe them?”
“No. Do you think any of them are still alive?”
“The mercenaries? Probably. The French soldiers got in deep enough to break whatever wards kept the staff under control and they didn’t have machine guns. Of course... ” He paused, thinking of the bloody water, darkness, and countless dead frogs. “Who knows what happened when the two powers clashed.”
“We might be about to find out. This is the end.”
They had come to a solid wall of slate. A narrow, uneven line of gray mortar ran along the edge where the gray slate met the quarried stone. Diana knocked on the slate and it echoed hollowly. She put her ear to the cool stone and listened while Oliver waited anxiously, wishing that he had been at the front.
Diana twisted around and said, “I don’t hear anything from the other side. Maybe they’re all dead, or we’ve gotten ahead of them by running straight down the length of the temple.”
“Get your gun ready and try to knock out the stone. See if you can just chip away a section of it with the butt of the flashlight and peek though.”
Diana nodded and was about to jab the light at the stone when it dawned on Oliver that they might be about to break into a chamber guarded by the supernatural guardians of at least two pantheons. He called out and Diana froze, arm poised awkwardly in the air beside her.
“Take this. It may keep the guardians at bay,” Oliver whispered. He passed her the engraved brass pyramid that Layla had called the key. It had already caused the guardians of the gate to welcome him into the temple with the sound of trumpets and swing wide the gates, or what remained of them after Kyle and his men had blasted their way in, so perhaps it would give Diana a measure of protection against whatever lay beyond the cap of slate.
Maybe that’s how the French soldiers passed into the temple, he thought. If the key granted access to the temple, perhaps they had passed through unharmed until the moment that they touched the relic itself.
“What about you?”
“I’ve got something as well, though I don’t know if it will protect me. Even if my relic doesn’t work, I have more experience dealing with, well, this sort of thing.”
She nodded and tucked the brass pyramid into the pocket of her khakis. It bulged awkwardly against her hip, but appeared secure against falling out.
Oliver nodded and Diana flipped the flashlight over and stabbed the rugged metal end cap into the slate. The thin stone shattered where the flashlight struck it, sending a spray of shards into the space beyond and spidering cracks across the surface of the slate. Diana lowered the flashlight to the floor in front of her and Oliver saw, through the random speckling of yellow dots still clouding his vision, a pale blue light pouring into the tunnel through the crack.
Diana put her eye to the hole and Oliver heard her breath catch in her throat.
“What is it?” he whispered.
Diana’s voice, when she finally replied, was barely audible. Her eye remained fixed to the crack as she said, “I can see the staff.”