Return of the Med-jai
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An apology is in order. It has been close to a year since I last updated this story, and that is just not cool. I don't know what's up with me, but I cannot get my head in the game. I'm sorry you guys. You've all been so great and so patient, and I've appreciated all the support. It's my intention to finish this story by any means, and I promise I will. Thank you again! You've all been great.
Chapter 15: The Ruins at Kerma
Madeline leaned on the side of the dirigible, watching her brother stroke the fire. He sat with one leg bent, an arm balanced on his knee, and a frown between his eyebrows as he vigorously raked through the ashes and poked viciously at the logs. The sun had long since set, and Evie was asleep, curled up in a blanket by the helm. Jonathan was leaning against the helm beside her, snoring. The Bays were isolated on the opposite end of the dirigible.
It had been gnawing at Madeline since Nasira had broached the subject two days ago, and now she seized the opportunity to pounce, to question her brother all about why Nasira and Ardeth knew so much about their tattoos.
She crossed the dirigible and flopped beside him. Rick didn't look up from stoking the fire. "What?" he demanded.
"I've been meaning to ask you something," Madeline announced. "Why do the Bays know about our tattoos?"
Rick shrugged one shoulder, eyes fixed on the fire. "Hard to explain, really."
He sighed. "I forgot my wristband. Ardeth saw the mark back in London, when I was pulling weapons out of the trunk of my car."
"Well, Ardeth didn't exactly keep quiet about it, and she was standing right there. He got all excited, you know? Rambling on about the mark of the Med-jai and destiny and all that bull." Rick snorted, waving a hand as though the whole idea was ridiculous.
Madeline looked at him hard. "Right, so… that explains you… but why do they know about me and my stupid tattoo?"
He sighed again. "Does it really matter? So I mentioned your tattoo. What's the big deal?"
"I don't… well, I guess that all depends on why the hell they're so interested."
"I have no idea."
"Nasira was asking me a million and one questions."
"Did you tell them?"
"Tell them what?" Rick snapped. "That a long time ago, some strange man inked us and then tried to adopt us?"
"No," he bit out. "I didn't tell them."
She sighed. "Me either."
"What do you think it all means?" she asked suddenly.
Rick sighed, abruptly tossing aside the stick he'd been using to stoke the fire. "I don't know, all right? And I don't really care at the moment. I've got a missing kid out here somewhere!"
More silence. Madeline stared at him, sorry she'd ever brought the thing up.
"You know, Alex saw our tattoos?" Rick asked suddenly. "Back at that temple in Thebes? He said there was a cartouche just like it."
Rick nodded, sighing harshly. "Ardeth keeps pestering me about it," he went on. "About my destiny, as if there is any such thing. And then you heard him, after Evie and her damn vision…"
"Yeah, that was pretty weird."
"I don't have time for any more weird. Alex is what's important right now. He could be anywhere. And when they get to that Ahm Shere place… well… they might…"
Madeline rested her hand on his arm. "We'll find him, Rick."
"He's smart. Tough. Resourceful. He'll be fine until we catch up."
"You don't know. You're worried out of your mind. So is your wife. And you're allowed. And I'm sorry I'm a lousy sister, because I really have not been that comforting, have I?"
He chuckled a little. "You're trying, Maddie. I'm used to you by now."
He poked at the fire again.
"Do you think we really have a destiny?" Madeline asked.
Rick snorted. "Please. You really believe that crap?"
"Well, everything else we didn't believe in turned out to be true, so… hey, maybe it's time to open our minds."
"We never talk about what happened that day, you know. It's this huge mystery that may have completely changed our lives, and yet we never tried to solve it. We just swept it under the rug and pretended it never happened."
"Which worked out fine, by the way. So, uh… how's about we sweep that mystery back under the rug, huh?"
Madeline stared at him.
She shook her head. "You're unbelievable."
He shrugged. They lapsed into silence again.
"Who do you think that guy was?" she asked suddenly. "Back in Cairo. The one who inked us?"
Rick shrugged. "No idea."
"And you're not the least bit curious?"
"Well," Madeline finally said. "All right then."
"You could find out," Rick observed. "If it's important to you."
She nodded. "Yeah, I suppose."
"Think you will?"
She snorted. "I think the answer to that question is contingent on whether I make it out of this latest O'Connell adventure alive."
He smiled. "You will."
"Because I'm your sister and you love me and you won't let anything happen to me?"
"Something like that."
She smirked. He smirked back. Then they fell quiet, leaning against the side of the dirigible.
"Alex will be fine, you know," Madeline told him.
"I mean it. He's got you, and Evie, and all the rest of us. We've saved the world a few times in our day. We'll do it again, and we'll save Alex in the bargain."
"Hey," Rick murmured. "You know anything about some sacred Med-jai saying?"
Madeline frowned. "What do you mean?"
"You know… if I were to say that I'm a stranger traveling from the east searching for that which is lost…"
"Then I would reply that I'm a stranger traveling from the west, it is I that you seek," Madeline finished. "Who told you about that?"
"Who told you?"
"Ardeth. He taught me that saying like four years ago… why? Where did you hear that?"
Rick shrugged. "It was just… it was just something Dad used to say."
She looked at him. He focused on the stars.
"Dad used to say that?"
"Yeah… sometimes… I don't know, I barely remember it."
"I don't remember him at all," Madeline commented.
More silence. Madeline eyed the night sky, sighing.
They couldn't get to Kerma fast enough.
The dirigible touched down in the dust outside the crumbling stone ruins of Kerma. Madeline squinted against the bright sunlight, scanning the landscape for signs of anyone or anything.
The ruins were deserted. The only sound was the wind, blowing sand across the crumbling stone and mud-brick. Madeline watched her older brother and sister-in-law clamber out of the dirigible, landing heavily in the sand.
Izzy took a seat by the helm, whipping out a magazine. She could see Jonathan's gold stick poking out of Izzy's coat.
Nasira and Ardeth were climbing out of the dirigible after Rick and Evie. Madeline sighed and glanced at Jonathan, who was furrowing his brow in Izzy's direction.
"Jonathan," she said.
He didn't even look at her. "What?"
"We're looking for clues, remember? The stick can wait."
He pouted. "But I like that stick."
"All right, all right, don't get your bloomers in a twist. I'm coming."
He shuffled after her to the side of the dirigible. Madeline hopped down, stumbling slightly in the dust.
Jonathan landed on his rear.
"Oh, bloody hell," he grumbled.
She laughed at him.
She gave him a hand up off the ground. He brushed off his pants, and then the two of them headed towards the ruins, several feet behind the O'Connells and the Bays.
"So what do you think it'll be this time around?" Jonathan asked. "Frogs? Rivers of blood? Death to all the firstborn sons of Egypt?"
Madeline snorted. "It's a good question. Probably none of those, though, seeing as the plague actually has to slow us down."
"The frogs might all jump into the dirigible. That would slow us down."
"Are you bloody kidding me? I'm not flying in a dirigible jam-packed with slimy, disgusting frogs!"
"Yeah, well… in that case, I suppose we'll just leave you behind."
"Vixen. Change frogs to snakes and you know bloody well it'd be you refusing to step foot on Izzy's tub."
The two of them fell silent after that. They made their way into the ruins, splitting directions inside and searching for clues.
She sighed, eyes on the ground, looking for sand castles as she picked her way through the stones. Sand, stones, sand, stones, more sand and more stones…
Evie cried out from the other end of the ruins. Madeline started and turned, seeking out her sister-in-law.
She saw her in the distance, kneeling in the sand, Rick rushing towards her. Madeline jogged in their direction.
The screech rang in her ears. There was a loud boom! The ground shook with an impact tremor. Madeline toppled sideways with the force of the crash, hitting the ground and rolling over to blink up at the sky.
The heavens were suddenly on fire, flaming hail soaring across the once perfect blue sky and plummeting to the earth.
On the other side of the ruins, moments before the fiery hail began to fall, Evie dropped on her knees in the dust, her heart fluttering with excitement. The strange mound of sand she'd spotted had turned out to be another of Alex's little sculptures.
It was a raised mound with a flat top. Cut down the middle was a long, twisting canal. Little arrows pointed the way along the ravine.
"What is it?" Rick asked from beside her.
"The Nile," Evie returned certainly. "We're to follow the Nile."
"That's it? Follow the Nile? Until what?"
Evie shook her head. "Until we find Alex… or Ahm Shere."
Silence. Slowly, Evie's joy began to fade. She stared sadly at the little sculpture.
She jumped. Rick leapt to his feet, eyes on the sky. Evie looked up too, and saw the first flames drop.
Imhotep had struck again.
Nasira heard the hail before she saw it.
Her companions hit the ground, ducking into what little shelter their corners of the ruins offered.
She glanced at Jonathan beside her. He was staring open-mouthed at the sky above them, backing towards the dirigible.
Unfortunately, the dirigible was about a hundred feet from where they were standing, so retreat wasn't all that attractive an option. Nasira reached up and grabbed his arm, yanking him down into the dirt.
He landed with a muffled yelp. There was another loud boom as another piece of the flaming hail hit the ground nearby. Nasira ducked. Cautiously, she poked her head back up again, frowning at the ruins around her.
The smell of smoldering rock and mud was nauseating, and it filled the air above the ruined city. Nasira crawled up on her knees, choking on the smoke, looking around for the rest of the search party.
She couldn't see her brother, or the O'Connells. Jonathan was still flat on his stomach in the dirt, staring wide-eyed at the falling fire. Allah only knows how she'd gotten stuck with him. He'd been in Madeline's company mere minutes ago, appearing in her part of the ruins just before the hail had started. Now she felt responsible for him. Nasira glanced back at the dirigible. She straightened her shoulders, suddenly determined.
"Get up," Nasira ordered, taking Jonathan by the arm and hauling him back on his knees.
"Get up?" he repeated incredulously. "Has the firestorm completely escaped your notice then, or have you gone completely daft?"
"We have to return to the dirigible," she returned calmly. "At least, we have to try. With our luck, the damn balloon has caught on fire by now. One piece of this mess landing in just the right place, and we will have a gasoline explosion on our hands."
"Oh, swell," Jonathan retorted. "Because I wasn't already on the verge of panic!"
Nasira tuned him out and assessed their options. The dirigible was still floating above its ballasts, and as far as she could tell, still in one piece. There was little cover between their spot behind the rocks and the place they needed to be. She sighed. Their only option seemed to be run, fast, and hope nothing hit them.
"I know what you're thinking," Jonathan announced. Nasira turned to him with a frown. "You're thinking that we're going to run blind for the dirigible and pray to one of your kooky gods that nothing hits us! Well, I for one am not having it! It's irrational! Why the bloody hell can't we just stay here until the hail stops? After all, it has to stop eventually!"
The hail streaked across the sky and landed nearby. The explosion knocked Nasira flat on her back. Jonathan hit the dirt face first.
The smell of smoldering mud intensified. Nasira looked up. The wall they'd taken cover behind had been hit. The flames were eating up the mud-bricks, coming up the line directly for them.
"You were saying?" she asked Jonathan, gesturing towards the flames.
Jonathan looked up at the fire, eyes wide. "You know, maybe I was too hasty," he said. "Your idea could work too."
Nasira looked up at the sky, checking for any hail that might be falling their way. "On the count of three," she announced. "One, two, three, run!"
She leapt to her feet and ran, keeping her head down. Jonathan chased after her, hollering all the way.
Madeline struggled to her feet, choking on the smoke from a nearby fire. The air smelled like sulfur and burning mud, and the fire was flaming too close for comfort. She squinted at the land around her.
She could still hear the loud screech of the falling hail. There was nowhere to run, because the hail was falling everywhere, but one thing was for sure; she had to get away from the fire. Madeline stumbled away from the flames, wiping soot from her eyes as she started jogging back towards the dirigible.
Bam! She heard the impact directly next to her. The smell of smoldering mud intensified as the wall beside her burst into flames. The mud bricks crumbled and Madeline toppled sideways, ducking the tumbling rocks. Choking, she rolled onto her back, squinting at the flaming mess in front of her. The fire loomed over her, flames licking at the sky. Madeline scrambled away, trying not to breathe in the smoke. She coughed loudly, spitting ash into the dirt. Drunkenly, she got to her feet.
The flames were everywhere. Madeline's eyes traveled over her surroundings, her vision blurring from the smoke, seeing nothing but orange. She staggered forward, her head getting light.
"Oh, shit," she spat, her hand going to her head. She could not pass out in the middle of a fire. She had to keep going – her life literally depended on it.
Madeline made it only a few more steps before she collapsed face first into the dust. She dragged herself a few more feet, but her vision was going dark, and her limbs were weak. Cursing to herself, Madeline made one more attempt to get back up on her feet, but only collapsed again.
Her eyes fluttered shut, her lungs burning with the lack of oxygen. Madeline twitched, trying to force herself back up, but it was pointless. Her head swam, and then she lost consciousness.
The sky had darkened, and the flaming hail was falling fast now, hitting the ground like the bombs during the Great War. Ardeth ducked his head, running from cover to cover, trying to dodge the hail and steer clear of the resulting fires. Even dodging death, he still managed to look around for his comrades. A good chieftain did not leave soldiers behind.
He found Rick and Evelyn, untouched by the fires roaring around them, seeking shelter by a wall. Jonathan and Nasira had made it back to the dirigible, and the two of them were on board with Izzy, all three of them doing their best to protect the craft from the danger. For the life of him, no matter where he looked, he could not see Madeline.
It shook him. He felt nauseous. His heart was fluttering too fast. For all the arguments and misunderstandings between them, Ardeth would never say he did not still love her. He could not deny it to anyone, least of all himself. Not being able to locate the woman he loved in the midst of a flaming hailstorm was one of his worst nightmares.
He took off in the direction he'd last seen her, still dodging the hail. The smoke stung at his eyes, and he tied his scarf around his nose and mouth, trying to keep the acrid fumes out of his lungs. The fire was raging in this part of the ruins, the flames leaping higher than his head. He hit the ground, trying to stay under the smoke.
It wasn't long before he saw the dark figure huddled on the ground, shadowy in the smoke. The fire was roaring all around her, pressing in on all sides. Ardeth swallowed the lump in his throat and grabbed Madeline's arms, pulling her towards him, away from the fire.
He crawled back the way he came, his arm around her chest, dragging her with him. Long, agonizing minutes passed as he crept away from the fire. Eventually, he was far enough away from the flames to stop crawling. Choking and coughing, he slumped to the ground, the fresh air burning his lungs. Ardeth bent over Madeline, tapping her face.
"Madeline?" he asked, shaking her. "Madeline!"
She coughed suddenly and violently. Ardeth jumped back in surprise, and then leaned back over her, stroking her hair. "Madeline," he murmured.
Her eyes fluttered open. She coughed harder, her eyes flitting all around her. "Are you all right?" he demanded.
She nodded, coughing still, and tried to sit up. He grabbed her shoulders in support, and she perched herself on her elbows, still half lying in the dirt. "Damn it," she rasped. "I think I just had déjà vu."
A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. She coughed again. "Hail stopped," she observed roughly.
He looked up at the sky. The black clouds and red streaks had cleared, and the sky was blue again, save the smoke billowing into the air. She was right; it had stopped hailing.
"We should return to the dirigible," he announced.
She nodded. "Thank you," she murmured. "You saved my life."
Ardeth looked away from her. "Do not thank me."
Madeline snorted. "Well, fine. After all, it's not like it's anything new. You used to save my life all the time."
The reminder of the past stung, and Ardeth cleared his throat, quickly getting to his feet. "We should go," he said again.
She struggled to sit up all the way. He extended his hand to help her off the ground. She glared at it for a moment, and then took it. Ardeth pulled her to her feet and she stumbled into his chest.
For a moment, he held her there. She stood frozen against him. Ardeth swallowed, closing his eyes, trying to regain his composure. Slowly, she straightened herself out and took a step back from him.
Ardeth opened his eyes and studied her. She looked away, eyes on the dirigible. He breathed deeply. "You are all right to walk?" he asked.
She nodded. "Perfectly."
Walk they did. She was slow and unsteady, but managed just fine. In another time, Ardeth would have hefted her off the ground and carried her, but this was not another time. It was now, and he couldn't touch her. The thought of touching her was painful.
She wouldn't look at him. They made their way back to the dirigible in silence, where everyone else was waiting for them. "Maddie, are you all right?" Jonathan asked, extending his hand to pull her onboard.
She nodded, accepting his help and climbing into the craft. "Just fine, Jonathan."
Ardeth climbed up behind her. Rick was shaking his hand, and he could hear the man thanking him for saving his sister, but he couldn't focus on the words. With a nod and a tight smile, he walked away from all of them and joined his sister at the back of the dirigible.
"I hope you're all right," Nasira said to him. Her concern was evident, but she was trying not to smother him. He appreciated the gesture.
"I am fine," he replied.
She nodded and turned away.
Ardeth watched as Rick and Jonathan pulled in the ballasts. Izzy gave his dirigible a burst of the gas, and it rose off the ground again.
The memory of her against his chest was haunting him. Ardeth closed his eyes, leaning against the rail and swallowing hard. He thought he could do this; he thought it would be easy to ignore her and forget. He had accepted his fate; he would marry Sameya Al Tufyal. He would forget Madeline O'Connell forever.
One small touch was all it had taken. He knew now that it was an impossible task. He could not forget her. Some small part of him had known that all along. Still, he'd thought he could deny the memories and move on. That eventually, he'd fall in love with Sameya, and Madeline would be nothing more than a distant ache, easy to ignore.
Now, he was no longer sure of that. The distant ache was not so distant, and it was much sharper than he'd expected. For the first time since the council had announced their intentions to arrange a marriage for him, Ardeth began to think he really could not marry Sameya Al Tufayl.