Pickworth Hollister was nervous
and trying not to show it. Being afraid was bad enough, but letting Henry
see his fear, that would be far worse.
He could already hear his brother's
mocking tones. "Aww, look, Picky is scared!" It had shamed him when he
was a boy of eight; twenty years later, it would be unbearable. Especially
because there was really nothing to be afraid of. He was letting all those
movies get to him.
Everyone knew the ones he meant.
The ones in which all of a sudden the earth opens up and teeming hordes
of bugs come out, or someone steps around corner and is suddenly snatched
by a decaying, dried hand partially swathed in bandages.
But, as Henry so often said, this
was real life, not a movie. This was archeology. Or, more to the point,
it was treasure-hunting. Tomb robbing, not to put too fine a point on it.
Under daylight, the place might
not have looked so creepy. Sunlight would have lent a dusty, warm glow
to the ruins, perhaps picking out a few flecks of color on painted pillars,
perhaps gleaming on undiscovered gold. Even firelight, or lantern-light.
This eerie green, as viewed through the nightvision visors Henry insisted
they wear, made it seem like they were underwater. Or on another planet.
Or underwater on another planet. Like a moon of Neptune.
The trouble with torches or lanterns,
or even flashlights, was that it might have revealed them to the wrong
eyes. Light carried a long way over the desert sands at night. Normally,
this wouldn't have been a problem, because Akhetsu was remote, far from
anyplace inhabited or frequented by tourists. Henry had been counting on
that when he'd planned this trip.
He hadn't figured on the television
people. First the ones from Survivor VI: Valley of the Kings – a
misnomer if there ever was one; the Valley of the Kings was dozens of miles
from here. They'd set up a base camp for the production crew, complete
with a bar, while two groups of idiots starved and backstabbed each other
for forty-five days. Henry had hoped it would end early when one of the
contestants got mauled half to death by a croc, but apparently even a gory
maiming wasn't enough to make those ghouls and ratings-whores pack up and
Now that they were gone, another
bunch had set up in their place, even using the same camp. This one, according
to one of the locals that knew someone who delivered supplies, was a smaller
team, scouting locations for some other show. A comedy, a historical action
spoof, it seemed.
Pickworth didn't care. He never
watched television anyway. Not since they started televising executions
and running game shows like Torture Chamber, in which people earned
prizes by doing time on the rack, or in thumbscrews. They called this entertainment?
Henry did care, but only because
it interfered with his plans. He didn't want to be seen prowling the ruins,
because the moment word got out about his find, the place would be crawling
with legitimate Egyptologists. They'd want to catalog everything, analyze
it, and then shove it in a museum where no one would ever see it except
bored kids dragged on educational outings by their parents. Not much profit
to be made in that.
But after already waiting more
than three months, Henry's thin patience was wearing through. He'd gotten
in touch with one of his friends – if such was the right word for the nutcases
in the Reich 2000 – and obtained the nightvision visors. That way, they
could go in under cover of darkness with no chance of being spotted.
And so, here they were. Henry,
his thick-necked American buddy Joe to carry the tools, and Pickworth bringing
up the rear.
Akhetsu hadn't been discovered
before for a few reasons. One was its location, nestled in some inhospitable
cliffs. A tributary of the Nile had once flowed in a violent cataract nearby,
making access to the town difficult. The inhabitants would have used posts
and ropes to make it easier and safer to scale the narrow ledges. Now the
river was sluggish, little more than a brown rill, and the ledges were
weathered and all the more precarious.
Just the memory of that ascent
was enough to make Pickworth break out in a cold sweat. He'd been sure
he was going to lose his footing. In the olden days, he would have been
carried away by the churning river and smashed to bits, or drowned. He
wouldn't be so lucky now. The fall wouldn't be guaranteed far enough to
kill him, and the muddy ground beneath would cushion his landing. He'd
break some bones, and then die a slow, miserable death.
No … Henry wouldn't let that happen
… he'd put a bullet in Pickworth's brain and bury him fast, before his
agonized screams could draw the wrong sort of attention.
He hadn't fallen, though. He'd
made it to the opening in the cliffs that led into the town of Akhetsu,
or what was left of it. Another reason it had gone undiscovered for so
long was because it had been largely covered by sand. The capricious winds
that had buried it over hundreds of years had changed their minds and uncovered
There still wasn't much left.
There was no pyramid here, no pharaoh's palace. The only works of stone
that had lasted the eons, in varying degrees of intactness, were some pillars,
some statues, a few hieroglyph-covered walls, and the temple itself.
That last had more to do with
the fact that the temple was dug into the cliffside, like a tomb, rather
than be a free-standing structure on its own. A slanted stairwell of a
design familiar to any student of Egypt led down to a doorway, while above
it, a wall covered with carvings and a row of twenty-foot-tall statues
rose in a prominent façade. Those statues, being the most exposed
to the whim of the weather, had suffered greatly and were impossible to
identify without closer inspection. Whether pharaohs, queens, or gods,
Pickworth couldn't be sure.
With the temple, his goal, finally
in sight, Henry took a perverse pleasure in examining everything else first.
He pored, he lingered, over the double row of short pillars that had flanked
the main avenue heading through the town.
At one time, statues of a Whitman's
Sampler of the Egyptian gods would have looked down on passers-by. Now,
only a few remained complete. Pickworth identified hawk-headed Horus, motherly
Hathor, and sleek Bast among them. He was drawn to the inscriptions, wanting
nothing more than to linger … well, all right, he would have preferred
to examine them in the well-lighted security of his study, with a cup of
hot tea at his elbow and the trappings of civilization all around. He'd
never been much of a one for field work.
"Step lively, Picky!" Henry called
back. "Lag behind, and you'll be left behind, that's what I say."
"Don't call me that, you know
I hate it when you call me that!"
Henry and Joe laughed. In the
strange world of the nightvision visor, which took all available light
– nothing but starlight in this case – and magnified it and turned lighter
hues green, they looked like trolls.
He wished he could go back in
time and ask his mother, as she was getting ready to give birth, why
she had chosen to name him Pickworth. It wasn't as if there was some doddering
old squire of a great-uncle that would leave him a whopping big inheritance
because of it. Instead, all she'd accomplished was to tag him with a moniker
that would damn him for all of his life.
Thinking about that at least helped
to take his mind off his growing edginess. He would have expected to feel
more at ease now that they were protected from view on all sides by the
steep walls of the valley, but the sense of isolation only added to his
The temple was at the far end
(of course!) and they had to pass through the entire town to get there
(of course!). Pickworth hurried to catch up with Henry and Joe, who had
left off their dawdling and now inspected the short, wide flight of stairs.
At the top, almost as if set there to guard the descending steps, were
two more squat pillars.
The one on the left boasted a
somewhat malformed statue of a handmaiden of Isis, head turned to the side
and arms outstretched so that the feathered wings underneath were clearly
visible. The other one was empty, without even a stump of a foot, just
a scattering of gritty chunks on the ground nearby.
"Look!" All of the mocking was
gone from Henry's voice now, replaced by a greedy awe. He tore off his
visor and struck a match.
His actions distracted Pickworth
from his perturbed contemplation of that statue – if they were going to
make it in such exquisite detail as to show the individual strokes of each
feather, why had they made the other features so monstrous? The claws,
the tail? The distortion of the headdress so that it almost looked like
it had grown from the head?
But Henry was mounting the steps
toward the closed door, the flame in his hand a brilliant emerald blaze
that stung Pickworth's eyes. He removed his own visor, blinking until his
ocular equilibrium was restored.
The walls leading down to the
door were covered in hieroglyphs. That, Pickworth knew, was the reason
Henry had brought him. While Henry had spent most of the years of his schooling
in the pool halls, Pickworth had gained useless degrees in many dead languages
and more active ones. That knowledge would now and finally come in handy.
He dug a flashlight from his pocket, and began to play it across the symbols.
"It's a temple to Wadjet, as you
thought," he said.
"I know that," replied Henry imperiously.
He didn't even glance at the hieroglyphs, his interest fixed elsewhere.
"Joe, give us a chisel, would you?"
Pickworth moved to see past Joe's
blocky back, and his eyes widened. "Henry, I don't think --"
"Hush it, Picky."
Years of conditioning made him
shut his mouth, even though his brain knew better. He had to watch, stomach
sliding around like a loose egg fried in oil, as Henry brought the tip
of the chisel to the item embedded in the doors.
It was stuck across them like
a bar, as if to hold them closed, stuck into a channel that had been carved
into the stone. The circle of brightness from his flashlight danced over
gold and a green type of gemstone that Pickworth thought might be olivine,
The item was a staff, a golden
pole with the polished gem, shaped into a snake's head with flared hood,
at the top. More hieroglyphs were stamped into the metal.
"Oh, we've got a bit of a pretty
here," crooned Henry. "This alone's worth the price of the trip, even counting
the weeks we spent waiting for those buggers to bug out."
"Henry, I really think you oughtn't
"Save your mewling for Mum." He
applied the chisel even more diligently. "And hold that damned torch steady;
you're shaking like a schoolgirl."
Pickworth was suddenly seized
by a feeling he'd read about countless times but never expected to actually
feel. It was too trite, too corny. But he knew it was true – they weren't
alone here. They were being watched. Some deadly, malevolent presence was
coming closer … closer …
"Got it!" Henry cried, as the
staff popped out from its niche into his grasp. He turned, holding it over
his head like it was the prize in some athletic competition.
A sudden wind, when the night
had been still, gusted past Pickworth. He sensed something large racing
close overhead, the wind a downdraft of its terrible passage. He yelped
and jumped back, missing his step on the stairs and falling on his back.
The beam of his flashlight swept crazily up, catching the briefest glimpse
of dark, scaled skin and batlike wings. Then it was jarred from his hand
and rolled to illuminate nothing but a blank section of wall.
Joe and Henry shrieked in unison.
From his strange position, tilted with his head down and his feet on the
stairs, Pickworth saw the whatever-it-was land in front of them. It nearly
blended with the night, but he had an impression of a broad, muscular shape
standing upright like a man … yet it was no man.
It reached for them. They were
caught between it and the door. Henry swung the staff like a weapon, but
when the creature made to grab it, recoiled and clutched it to his chest.
Pickworth saw his eyes for just a split second, and they were bulging and
Gunfire broke out as Joe began
blasting away with the twin pistols he insisted on wearing through his
belt. Pickworth knew that there was more to America than New York, Los
Angeles, and Texas-everything-between, so the idea of all Americans as
cowboys was cliché. Cliché, but in Joe's case, true. Pickworth
was suddenly glad for the guns, although he normally abhorred all
The creature's large body jerked
from the impacts, and bled, proof that it was alive and not invulnerable.
But neither was it killed. It roared, a sound that froze Pickworth's blood
in his veins, and swept Joe aside with one powerful arm. Joe, a big man
who had once played professional football, sailed through the air like
a stick figure and smashed into a wall. He slid down, groaning, while Henry
screamed for help.
Pickworth somehow was standing,
not sure when or how that had happened. "Henry!"
A massive, clawed hand, like that
which an alligator's might have been had they evolved into men instead
of the apes, shot out. It covered Henry's face like a mask and drove his
head into the door with terrible force. There was a grisly cracking sound,
and Pickworth knew that when bone met stone, something had to give … and
it usually wasn't the stone.
In a desperate, dying action,
perhaps meaning to save his treasure or perhaps meaning to ensure that
his brother went out with him, Henry hurled the staff over the creature's
head. The creature snatched for it and missed, and it clattered beside
He grabbed it up without thinking.
"Run, Picky, run!" came his brother's
muffled, already fading cry.
Whirling, Pickworth took to his
heels. He plunged heedlessly back the way they'd come, although only moments
ago he had been making his way with the utmost caution and care. Now, he
would almost welcome the bugs, the mummified horror. Those, at least, were
This other thing, this monster, was beyond all comprehension.
He heard a wet tearing sound,
followed by a splattering rain, and did not look back. The images his own
imagination provided were perhaps worse than the reality, but he knew that
if he saw the reality, he would be blown headlong into the land
And then it was after him. He
heard the thudding as it galloped, no longer on two legs but loping along
on all fours.
Pickworth was aware that his hair,
beneath his safari helmet, was trying to stand on end. He also imagined
he could feel drifts of it falling out as the follicles loosened from sheer
fright. That was how hair appeared to go white overnight; the greyer strands
were thicker, and held their place.
He also became aware that he was
trying to scream but no sound was coming out, or was so high that only
dolphins or bats might hear.
Right on him, it was right on
Another gunshot split the night.
Joe was still alive, having risen like Lazarus and opened fire on the creature
again. But it did not break off its pursuit of Pickworth to go after Joe.
No, it wanted the staff, it was some sort of temple guardian and it wanted
Common sense begged him to fling
it away, but his hands were not receiving the message. They were clenched
so tight it might well have taken the chisel to pry the staff loose from
this hold as well.
More gunfire, and a bellow of
Dear God, it was less than a yard
And then, just as it lunged, just
as it struck Pickworth in the back and brought him down as neatly as football-Joe
had ever tackled an opponent, just as its hideous clawed hands settled
onto Pickworth's shoulders, a final shot rang out. The creature went rigid.
Pickworth felt what seemed like eight blunt daggers pierce his flesh.
Its flesh went heavy and slack,
dead weight, crushing him into the sand. Pickworth was pinned, still trying
to voice his ultrasonic scream. He was being flattened under a slab of
stone, that was what it was like, an enormous slab of stone.
A crackling, grinding noise filled
the world. He thought it was the sound of his own bones being ground to
powder. Bits of stone, pebbles, came bouncing down over his head, stinging
when they hit him. There came a great, coarse exhalation like a sigh. Dust
puffed around him.
It was over, and amazingly, he
was not dead. He could still move. His mind felt rather like a blimp that
had come free of its moorings and was drifting at the whimsy of the wind,
but he unsteadily rose and looked around.
A tittering, shrill laugh escaped
him. There was no sign of the creature, no sign at all. Just a heap of
gravel and dust … and amid it, a curve of shine just barely caught by the
backsplash from his flashlight. Pickworth bent and touched it, found it
to be some sort of a coin on a cord.
He picked it up and stuffed it
into his pocket. As he moved, the wounds in his shoulders prodded at him
with lances of white fire. He realized blood was making his khaki shirt
On jittery legs, he tottered over
to Joe and found that the shots that had saved Pickworth's life had been
the final act of Joe's. His head had slumped to the side, his eyes staring
at the stars as if they held answers that would never be told. The gun
had fallen from his grip.
His laughter was lunacy although
there was no moon in the sky. He did not go over to survey the remains
of his brother, did not try to take the gun. His eyes were vacant, starey.
His feet shuffled as he made his way back through the town, dragging the
staff with him.
Asim Khepri fell to her knees,
the backs of her knuckles pressed to her mouth. She could not believe what
she was seeing.
"Asim Badru?" she asked, hoping
against hope that it wasn't so, that what littered the earth before her
was not what it appeared to be.
But what else could it be? His
perch was empty, and already the flesh-cleansing scarabs were at work on
the bodies of the dead intruders. Tracks in the sand spoke to her of how
one had escaped, bearing the sacred Serpent Staff with him.
They had come … men had come.
After all this time, men had returned to Akhetsu, but not as promised.
Not to lift the onus upon them, end the evil, and make this a place of
life once more. They had come to plunder, come to kill.
Worst of all, they had taken the
staff. Which meant … which meant …
She could not bear to complete
the thought. It was too much to think that she must confront this, and
to be doing it alone …
Khepri raised her face to the
sun, and wailed her grief. Not only for Badru, but for herself, and for
all the world.
"Anything you need me to do?" Birdie
She was expecting to get turned
down, and that was just what happened. Dakota Jones half-turned toward
her, settling her battered fedora more securely on her wild chestnut hair.
"I think you'd better leave this part to us."
Brendan Vandermere looked up from
the digital camcorder he was fiddling with. "She means it, Birdie. We're
the first people in three thousand years to set foot anywhere near the
lost city of Akhetsu, and we have no way of knowing what we'll find. Or
how dangerous it could be."
Birdie Yale blew a lock of burgundy-streaked
black hair out of her eyes. "Hey, Uncle Brendan, I have seen every movie
Brendan Fraser's ever been in. I know the drill. No books of the dead,
no bug-shaped jewelry, nada. Trust me."
Unlike the two of them, in their
scuffed leather jackets and dust-colored clothes, Birdie was going for
comfort in loose linen. There were times when carrying around an extra
forty pounds of insulation was a drawback, no matter how much the local
guys liked the looks of a gal with some meat on her bones. Not that she
was interested. She had a steady guy, sort of. But it was nice to know.
Further, as they squatted over
their trays with their little picks and brushes, engaged in what looked
like about the most mind-numbingly boring work on the planet, she was parked
in the shade, the headphones of a Walkman slung around her neck emitting
good rock and roll, a Dean Koontz paperback tented open on one thigh, and
a nicely-chilled Pepsi at hand. All in all, it was far too cozy to move,
especially out there into the blinding yellow sun.
She found it a little hard to
believe that she was in Egypt at all, let alone off on some exploratory
deathwish with her erstwhile uncle and his girlfriend. Hard to believe,
also, that she was going to be in a TV show. Thanks to good ol' Uncle Brendan!
What a sweetie!
He and Dakota had been contacted
by Sam Raimi's people, who needed Egyptologist consultants for their new
historical action spoof starring Bruce Campbell. Brendan, who really owed
Birdie nothing now that he was no longer hitched to the nightmare that
was Aunt Margot, happened to mention that he had a niece who was a struggling
actress, and how great it would be if she could at least get an audition.
Now, here she was. With a fairly
major role as Pharaoh's daughter, and a vacation along the Nile to help
them scout locations and clear things with the Egyptian government. It
was a dream come true, even if she did have to put up with it being hot
and arid – and in March, no less; small wonder that all the explorers ran
for cooler climes when summer hit the desert – and these inevitable side-trips
to feed Dakota's archeological hunger.
Everything had gone well so far.
The production crew of Survivor VI: Valley of the Kings was willing
to let the All's Pharaoh team move right into the camp they'd used,
and the authentic-looking mural-covered walls and plaster ring of animal-headed
god statues that had served as Tribal Council would become part of the
She just hoped that the bad luck
– and accompanying trash-talk about curses – didn't plague their show as
well. Even with the public's lust for blood and guts and sex, there was
still an audience for silly action adventures. Good thing, too, or she
wouldn't have had this job. Might still be back in Manhattan, singing "Look
at Me, I'm Sandra Dee," in a very off-off-Broadway show.
Instead, she was here, fanning
herself and staying out of the way as Brendan and Dakota crawled eagerly
through the dirt, getting all worked up over some shards of pottery. They
sifted and dusted and poked and prodded, and Birdie was waiting for the
inevitable moment when one of them would trip some devious booby-trap and
open up a whirlpool in the sand that would suck them all to a suffocating
They were at a spot that was,
according to Dakota, the Oasis of Akhet. Once, the upwelling pool had been
the source of six rivers that flowed down a system of canyons to join the
Nile. Because of its remote location, Akhet had been used as a site of
exile, and there had never been much proper building done here. Those sent
to live out the remainder of their lives in this place would have been
stuck with tents, or the ever-popular mud hut.
But the most interesting thing,
again, according to Dakota, was that somewhere in the surrounding cliffs
was the town of Akhetsu, for which archeologists had been searching for
most of the century. She hoped to find some clues to its whereabouts starting
Birdie, kicking back in the moderately
cooler shadow cast by Dakota's all-terrain motor home, looked around at
the uninspiring dunes and tried to imagine what it must have once been
like. The oasis itself would have been far bigger; at the moment, it was
half the size of an Olympic swimming pool. The water was a drab browny-grey,
not the shimmering mirage-blue she would have thought to see. A few palm
trees leaned over it, when once there must have been a lush profusion of
The only structure of any note
was a broken obelisk that poked up out of the sand looking fairly phallicly
obscene. Time and wind had worn away most of the markings on it. It had
been sheared off to a flattish plane, and the upper half was mostly buried
at its base. Its pointy top would have originally been covered in gold,
so it had probably been broken on purpose by someone wanting to strip away
the precious metal.
"You guys are going to pass out,"
Birdie remarked, digging a fresh soda from the ice chest. "This is supposed
to be a vacation."
"A working vacation, for us,"
"Besides, this is fun," Brendan
added. "The thrill of discovery --"
"Ooh, half a clay pot," Birdie
He made a face at her. "The thrill,
then, of possibility."
"Uh-huh. The possibility
that you're going to dig up some mummy who'll mistake me for his girlfriend.
Though come to think, if he looks like the hunk from those movies, post-regeneration,
that is, I might not mind."
"I thought you had a boyfriend,"
Dakota said, gingerly lifting a piece of something from the dirt and blowing
on it. "If I can use the term for a man old enough to be your father."
"Old enough to be my father? Honey,
you don't know the half of it," snickered Birdie.
"Neither do your parents," Brendan
said dryly. "Are you ever going to tell them?"
"So you'll tell them your secret
when he tells them his, is that it?"
"What do you care, Uncle Brendan?
You don't have to put up with them anymore. Lucky you."
"Yes, but I have to put up with
She raspberried wetly at him.
"Save moisture," Dakota said,
grinning. "But while you're at it, you could get dinner going."
"I see … this is why you brought
me. To cook, and clean … I'm starring in Cinderella." She got up, dogearing
her place in Phantoms, and stretched. "I'll throw a couple of those
frozen French bread pizzas in the oven."
"That's hardly Egyptian," Brendan
said. "When in Rome, dear niece."
"We're not in Rome, or even Cairo,
and if we were, I could pop down the street to a McDonald's."
Dakota shuddered. "Don't remind
me. What's the world coming to? All the places are turning the same. The
camel drover in Abydos was wearing Reeboks."
"Progress, baby, progress," Birdie
said. "I liked Cairo in a smoggy, crowded, yucky sort of way. Reminded
me of L.A."
Now Dakota wasted moisture. "There's
something to be said for the old ways."
"So what are you saying? You want
me to make flatbread, layer it with mashed dates, and roast a goose stuffed
with figs and goose eggs? And put perfumed wax on my head so as it melts,
it gives off a nice scent?"
Brendan chuckled and nudged Dakota.
"And you thought she wasn't learning anything."
"Yeah, yeah." Birdie glanced at
the sun, which was slowly turning into a vast red-orange beach ball as
it lowered toward the hazy horizon.
She absently kicked the sand from
her shoes as she climbed the folding steps that led into the motor home.
It was quite a contraption, this rolling monster of Dakota's. As big as
a standard RV, it rested on huge pillowy tires but also had a tanklike
tread that could be lowered from the underside. The windows were treated
with a heat-defeating paint that was opaque from the outside and tinted
from within, keeping the interior cool.
It had a civilized bathroom that
they were only supposed to use in emergencies, connected to a tank of water
mounted on the roof. The kitchen was slightly larger than the galley of
a 767, with a dining nook that could seat four as long as all four were
as skinny as Calista Flockheart. There was a tiny bedroom that Brendan
and Dakota shared, a curtained-off bunkbed area that was all Birdie's,
and a front cockpit with four seats – fancy swivel jobbies, each with cupholders
and headphone plug-ins and side compartments for storing stuff.
The rest was taken up with junk.
Archeologist junk. Books, tools, crates of samples, a handheld X-ray device
that Birdie was sure would give them brain cancer, sonar imaging whosits,
carbon dating whatsits … and they liked living this way.
Birdie herself couldn't wait for
filming to start so she could have her own posh trailer. With no
archeologist junk anywhere to be found. A few souvenirs, okay. Autographed
8x10 of Bruce Campbell, you betcha. But it would be hers, she could unpack
instead of living out of her duffel bag, and if she wanted to have a guy
over, that would be her business.
She squeezed into the kitchen
– even with most of the vehicle's space devoted to it, there were piles
of books and notes on the counter, on top of the small fridge, everywhere.
Birdie couldn't take two steps without her ample backside running into
something, or her ample frontside running into something else, but she'd
had practice and got the pizzas from freezer to oven without bruising anything
When night came here, it didn't
screw around. Once the sun dropped, that was it, hasta la vista
baby. The hot air started rising up, up, and away, into the crystal-black
of the sky. With no cloud layer to trap it and hold it down, the cold could
be almost as deadly as the unrelenting heat of midday.
Not that any of this was going
to stop Brendan and Dakota. Birdie figured that, her griping about doing
the cooking aside, it was a good thing she was here. Otherwise, they might
just go on digging until they dropped from hunger. She had to go out there
and damn near pull them away from their work to get them to eat, and once
they'd scarfed a pizza apiece, Dakota threw the switch on the exterior-mounted
floodlights and they went straight back to it.
"Obsessed," Birdie muttered, taking
the dishes in. "You guys are seriously obsessed. I kinda hope you don't
find any clues to Akhetsu, or we'll never get back to Cairo."
If they heard her, they ignored
her. She did up the dishes – they only had four plates, four bowls, four
cups, etc., so there wasn't the luxury of letting them stack up, even if
there'd been the room. With that chore out of the way, she changed into
sweats and thought about the beach. Bonfires, weenie roasts, making out
with some hunk and not even caring that there was sand chafing unmentionable
She went back outside and picked
up her book. Better to be cold out here – only a few hours ago, she would've
sworn she'd never be cool again, and here she was already wishing for the
sun to come up – than claustrophobic in the dune-crawler.
The book was good, one of Koontz's
older ones (and one of the few that didn't have a dog as a main character)
that Birdie hadn't read. She was just getting to a creepy part in which
the spunky teen sister of the heroine was being menaced by the reanimated
naked body of a lecherous scumbag deputy when she heard a scream and just
about knocked her chair over jumping out of it.
Dakota and Brendan had both left
off their digging, and were looking at each other as if to ask, "Did you
hear something?" Birdie was about to chime in, when the scream came again.
It was ragged and hoarse and full of terror, desperation, and insanity.
Funny how you could tell that
much just from a scream.
"You did, didn't you?" Birdie
accused, only halfway joking. "You raised the dead or something."
"Shh!" they hissed in unison.
It was getting closer, and underlying
it was a rustling, whispery sound that unaccountably made Birdie's skin
tighten into goosebumps.
"Over there," Brendan said, pointing.
A shadow was rippling down the
side of a dune.
"Oh, jeez," Birdie said. It was
fine to make wisecracks about Brendan Fraser movies, but if that really
was a scuttling mass of scarab beetles bent on devouring her down to a
steaming skeleton, she was not going to be happy.
"Let me get the light." Dakota
scaled the ladder on the side of the motor home and turned on a spotlight.
She swept it in that direction, passing briefly over what looked like the
fast-moving figure of a man.
"Go back!" Brendan and Birdie
She did so, and caught him in
the brightness. He was charging along at an all-out run, but seemed to
be on the verge of collapsing, driven onward only by total panic. His arms
were over his head, holding some sort of long gold stick, and he screamed
again, spinning and beating at the ground and resuming his forward motion
all without slackening his pace.
"Good lord," Brendan said as they
saw what was behind him.
Birdie waited for Dakota to say
it, Dakota had to say it, given who she was, or there was something
wrong with the smartass sense of humor of the universe. But when it seemed
that Dakota wasn't going to say it, Birdie supplied the words herself.
"Snakes! Why does it always have
to be snakes?"
"That's not funny!" barked Dakota.
It might not have been funny,
but it was snakes. A lot of snakes. A veritable shitload
of snakes. A coursing sea of them, a green-black-brown-banded-speckled
undulating carpet of them. The leaders kept gaining on the running man,
whereupon he would whirl and smack at them with the stick.
He must have seen the lights,
because he was making a beeline right for their camp. Bringing a plague
of snakes like something out of Exodus. Birdie felt like she was in a dream,
a particularly horrific dream, her legs leaden and her feet stuck to the
ground, unable to move, staring at the approaching menace.
Dakota, with a stuntwoman agility
that Birdie would never be able to master, gripped the tubular rail at
the edge of the roof and swung down feet-first through the open door. She
emerged seconds later, jacking a shell into her pet shotgun.
"Inside!" she ordered.
Birdie and Brendan turned toward
her, toward the door that would offer some sanctuary, and here came another
wave of snakes, from the other side of the motor home, parting to go around
its wheels. They were headed for the man, but Birdie and Brendan were trapped
in the middle.
As the vanguard of this new ophidian
army appeared almost right beneath her feet, Dakota cried out in revulsion
and shot straight down into their midst. Sand and snakemeat exploded out.
"This way!" Brendan grabbed Birdie's
arm and started tugging her away from camp, toward the soupy, silty pond
of the oasis. But he had misjudged the speed of the running man, who was
only a dozen yards away and closing fast.
He was still screaming, like a
train whistle, like a police siren. As he drew abreast of Brendan, he tossed
the staff, frantic to be rid of it.
Brendan caught it. Birdie saw
the green snake-shaped gem on the end. And then the swarm converged on
Brendan. No slouch, he tipped to it right away and yelped, tossing the
staff back at the man. Who tossed it to Birdie. Who cussed and batted it
back at Brendan.
It was crazy. All three of them
were running now, playing a goddam game of Hot Potato with a gold staff
while they did.
Dakota's shotgun went off again
and again, but the snakes didn't seem to notice or care that big holes
were being blown in their number. As tightly packed as they were, she could
take out twenty or more at once, but when there were thousands, what was
the difference? The next ones in line simply filled in and flowed over.
The other bunch of snakes was
cutting off their escape, fixed on the damn staff. Birdie thought about
throwing it away, but they couldn't heave it far enough to get out of the
path of all the intent serpents.
She spotted the jutting stone
of the broken obelisk and had an idea. "Gimme it!"
The stranger, whose legs from
the knees down were bloodied and peppered with puncture wounds, obliged
immediately. Bites. Snakebites. She had no idea how much poison must be
galloping gaily through his bloodstream. It was a miracle he hadn't fallen
over dead already.
When the staff smacked into her
palms, she booked it for the obelisk. Brendan, seeing what she was doing,
made a token protest but was at the same time busy hauling ass for the
pond and dragging the stranger with him. They had to plow through a thin
river of snakes to do so, both of them crying out as fangs struck home.
That was okay … that was okay
… there was a first aid kit in the crawler, and Dakota would be right on
it. Birdie just had to worry about saving her own butt.
She reached the obelisk and didn't
stop to wonder how she was going to climb holding the staff. There was
no room for pondering. No room for remembering how she had always tried
to get out of crap like this in P.E. or flatly refused to take gymnastics,
not because she couldn't do it but because she was worried about looking
funny. Looking funny became a lot less important when the alternative was
being overrun by a nasty, slithery tidal wave of snakes.
Juggling the staff and clinging
to the rough stone sides of the obelisk, she went up it like a monkey on
a stick. Amazing what a system full of pure adrenaline could do. Like lifting
a car off a trapped child. She would never know later just how she'd done
it, and everybody else had been, understandably, too caught up in their
own pocket of scaly hell to take notes.
But she did it, and the next thing
she knew, was standing atop the crumbly, uneven top, eight feet off the
The snakes massed around the bottom,
wiggling over each other, coiling in frustration. Some reared up like they
were about to strike, but the biggest of them could still only get his
head three feet up, not enough to reach her. Unless they could spit … there
was a happy thought! She squinted and shielded her face with one hand,
recalling something about how the venom could only hurt if it got in the
eyes or open wounds – had that been from something legit like biology class,
or was she thinking of the spitty dinosaurs from Jurassic Park?
None of them spit, so she didn't
have to find out the hard way. But there were thousands of snakes, millions,
clustered around the base of this damn thing. Seething. The ones at the
back continuing to press forward. Like kids at a concert, the sort of concert
in which the formerly lucky ones who'd gotten front row sometimes wound
up crushed to death.
That was what was happening. The
nearest, bottommost snakes were being crushed, their bodies providing a
mat for the others. Layer by layer of legless corpses, they would pile
up until some of them could reach her. She didn't doubt that there were
more than enough to do the job. They'd overwhelm her and carry her down
into their midst, like some sort of Dantean torment that she'd rather die
of than survive, because to survive meant carrying a total phobic complex
Dakota, despite her own phobia
– one that had probably been handed down to her from her grandpa's knee
– was gamely trying to blow away enough snakes to clear a path to Birdie.
But she would run out of shells long before they ran out of snakes. Stragglers
were still coming in from all points of the compass, homing in on the staff
like some sort of twisted version of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.
Brendan and the man, no longer
of interest to the reptiles, were emerging wet and muddy from the oasis.
The man looked semi-conscious, maybe all that venom and exertion catching
up with him; Brendan was half-carrying him.
But here was something new and
bad … the obelisk was ancient, not all that secure. Now it had a hundred
and (cough-cough) pounds of Birdie standing on top, and a million snakes
surging against it, and it was developing a very distinct tilt.
Even if she threw the staff now,
she'd still plunge right into the thick of them. All those pairs of fangs
just waiting to pierce her skin and pump poison into her.
"This is not a vacation anymore!"
she shouted, and scrambled for balance as the obelisk shifted at a quickening
Always before on their jaunts,
Avalon had brought them to relatively solitary waters, if not necessarily
still ones. Thus, to have the mists part and be thrust into the midst of
noise, light, and chaos was a jolting experience for them.
The light, foremost the light
… it was so bright, harsh, and glaring that Corwin's first thought was
that it was day, the radiance of the never-before-seen sun. He was so shocked
by this that he froze in place, and was aware of his siblings doing likewise,
as if already turning to stone. His eyes watered copiously, and he had
to cover them with his hands before the light speared into his very brain
and ignited it like tinder.
When he did not immediately feel
the stiffening of his limbs and joints, or any other of the cues he acquainted
with morning, Corwin began attending to the other parts of the violent
barrage of stimuli.
The noise – here were great crashing
bangs of a gun, and voices raised in pain and fear. The chaos – as he squinted
and blinked, he began to make out blurry details of motion, of human forms
dashing hither and yon.
Then, with a squelching splat,
the Mists' Passage came to a halt so jarringly that Cassius, at
the prow, was catapulted over. He tumbled but got his wings open and glided
to a safer height before he could pile face-first into the muck.
"By the Dragon!" gasped Tourmaline,
on Corwin's left. Beside her, Ezekiel said nothing, gaping at the scene
Cassius got a better look as he
wheeled briefly and alit on the deck. Under the blinding but heatless white
light, his skin was deeply black with a reddish undertone, like ink that
had been mixed with a few drops of blood.
"Did you see?" he asked, incredulous.
"So many snakes …"
"Those humans need our help,"
Corwin said, but paused before fitting deed to word, and looked to Tourmaline
for either approval or denial.
"Come on, then," she said decisively,
and tugged the swordbelt that girded her admirably trim waist. The green
and red gems along the hilt caught and threw off sparkles of reflected
Their craft had run aground on
the sandy, wet shore of a pool barely large enough to contain it. Icarus
leaped over the side to bound on all fours, his wings as usual securely
strapped to his back. The other four of them took to the air.
Ahead of them, some sort of bulky
vehicle was the source of the eye-searing light. It was also the source
of the gunfire, as a woman in brown clothing and a hat fired and reloaded,
fired and reloaded, into the roiling tangle of snakes. A similarly-dressed
man was trying to help an injured fellow, and a second woman was perched
precariously atop a leaning square-sided pillar of stone. It was listing
further before their very eyes.
"Catch her!" Tourmaline cried.
Corwin was closest, and swooped
to obey. As he passed over the men, the injured one saw him and began to
shriek and flail at his companion. Gibbering, bleats of fright mingling
with senseless spates of words – "Don't let it get me! It's come back!
Don't let it get me again!" – he tried to fight free. As the other man
attempted to calm him, their struggles took them dangerously close to the
horde of snakes.
Tourmaline signaled to Ezekiel
and Cassius and they followed her down, pulling the two men apart. The
injured one was transported with terror, lending him the strength of ten.
It took both males to hold him while Tourmaline steadied the other.
The woman on the pillar, a voluptuous
if indifferently-clad brunette, slipped. Her cry as she fell was an unladylike
outburst of profanity, and cut off short as Corwin caught her in his arms.
Agog, she stared at him, but rather
than the shock and fear he was prepared for, a smile of relief and salvation
curved her full lips. "You gargoyles," she said, startling him beyond all
sense, "have the best timing, I swear, you really do!"
He was unsure how to answer this,
so looped about and started back toward the vehicle. But the woman thumped
him on the shoulder.
"No! It's this staff, this stupid
damn staff, they follow it! Look!"
Corwin looked, and surely enough,
the snakes were slithering after him as fast as their coils could propel
them across the terrain. Many lay motionless at the base of the pillar,
crushed to death by the weight of their companions, and more were twitching
the last of their lives away thanks to the woman with the gun, but enough
remained to blanket the ground in a wedge-shaped darkness coming after
"Then we must be rid of it!" he
"Sounds good to me!"
Banking sharply again, he lured
the serpents away from the others and out into the trackless desert. In
passing, he was stunned by the wide-openness of it, the apparently endless
sea of dunes and cliffs and muddy riverbeds. He could not take time to
admire the scenery just yet, though.
"They'll stay with the staff?"
She shrugged while he was holding
her, a sensation he supposed any of his rookery brothers might have found
fascinating even in a human, the flex and jiggle of so much sumptuous flesh
moving in so many tantalizing ways. "Hell if I know!"
"We'll just have to hope for the
Shifting her into the crook of
one arm, he took the staff with his other hand and threw it like a javelin.
It sailed off, a descending streak of gold, and stuck upright in a dune,
buried half its length. Backwinging, Corwin watched as the horde passed
under him, still mindlessly following the staff.
"Whew," the woman said.
He circled and glided back to
the camp, where Icarus was setting the limp form of a man on the ground.
The other was sitting, having yanked up his trouser cuffs to wince at several
pairs of holes peppering his legs. Ezekiel knelt by them, having some experience
at matters medical. Tourmaline and Cassius were near the other woman, and
Corwin was relieved to see she'd put the gun aside in favor of a white
box marked with a red cross.
Landing, he set the dark-haired
woman on her feet. She looked him up and down, and then again more lasciviously,
and said with a smile, "Do I still have two wishes coming, gorgeous, or
did it use up all three to bring you here?"
"I know naught of wishes," he
said, returning her grin rather ruefully, "but should warn you … I've seen
the look in your eye before, and am afraid I'm doomed to disappoint you."
"What, you don't go for humans?"
"I might …" Corwin said, "if he
was the right human."
"He? Oh, for pete's sake … doesn't
it just figure?" She laughed. "I guess I'll just be thankful for the rescue,
then. I'm Birdie. That's my uncle Brendan and his girlfriend, Dakota. Who
"Corwin." He gestured to include
his siblings. "These are Icarus, Tourmaline, Ezekiel, and Cassius."
"And who's this?" Ezekiel said,
prodding at the snakebit man.
"I wish I knew," Brendan said,
face taut with pain. "Is he going to live?"
"He's done for," Tourmaline said
in the brisk, brusque tones of a warrior. "That many bites would have filled
him with enough poison to kill him thrice over."
"I don't think they're all venomous,
not all of them." Brendan indicated his calves. "They hurt like the very
dickens, but I don't seem to be suffering any other effects."
"If anybody wants a sample, they're
over there," Birdie said, pointing. "But I'm not going back. No thanks."
At that moment, as if to give
lie to Brendan's words and confirm Tourmaline's, a hideous rattling breath
issued from the unconscious man and he convulsed, and died.
Seeing this, Brendan labored all
the more urgently with the first-aid kit that Dakota had fetched from the
vehicle, dosing himself with antivenin. The rest of them stood in an awkward
silence in the presence of death, until Dakota pushed the tangled, sparse
grey hair out of the man's face and frowned.
"Brendan, I think this was Pick
"The linguistics expert? What
in the world was he doing here? I thought he was a museum-man, not a field-man."
Her scowl deepened. "Where'd that
"Good riddance," Birdie said,
jerking a thumb over her shoulder. "We ditched it. All the snakes are out
there right now like natives brooding around some big stone idol."
"Jeez, Dakota, it's not like I
had time to catalog its features --"
"Describe it, Birdie!"
"Okay, okay, gold, about six feet
long, covered with marks, green jewel on the end that looked like a snake."
An incredible expression of excitement,
envy, and dread claimed Dakota's features. "The Staff of Wadjet. He found
the Staff of Wadjet … the Serpent Staff … that means he found Akhetsu!
We're close, Brendan, close, but Henry Hollister must've gotten there first!"
Blank looks greeted this from
every direction except Brendan's. "The lost temple!"
Dakota turned to the gargoyles.
"Can you tell us more?"
"Us?" Corwin asked skeptically.
Birdie frowned a little. "Yeah,
come to think of it, I would have expected you guys to look more … I dunno
… more Egyptian. Hawk-headed, jackal-headed like Anubis, maybe. The London
clan looked like they stepped right out of a heraldry book."
"Egyptian?" Tourmaline gazed around.
"So this is Egypt?"
"Perhaps, buxom lassie," Cassius
said genially, "that's because we're not from around here. We're … well,
Scottish, I'd say, by way of Avalon."
Once again, Corwin was startled,
when all three of the humans reacted with recognition, and pleasure. "Avalon!"
the man said. "So you're Elektra's clan?"
"You know Elektra?" Icarus, normally
reticent even among friends, was surprised into speaking to these strangers.
"Sure," Birdie said. "And Angela,
and Goliath, and Broadway, and everybody. We go way back."
"Some of us more than others,"
Brendan murmured in an aside. "My early experiences with gargoyles only
went as far as cowering in my car and then calling my insurance company."
"Then if you're not from around
here, what are you doing here?" Dakota, somewhat crestfallen, asked. "You
don't know anything about Akhetsu?"
"Avalon sent them," Brendan said.
"To where they were needed, lucky for us."
"I'll say!" said Birdie. "Cut
it a little close, though, didn't you? I could have been snakebait."
"What about that staff?" Ezekiel
asked. He wielded one himself, of stout ironwood, and reflexively felt
to see that it was still secured to his back. "What is it?"
"According to the myth," Dakota
said, "the staff was a gift from the cobra-goddess Wadjet to one of her
priests. It was supposed to have the power to summon and control reptiles.
He must have found it and activated it, but didn't know how to use it."
"Do you?" asked Tourmaline.
"Well, what good is it, then?"
"There should have been instructions
with it, hieroglyphs, detailing its function."
"Then why wouldn't he have known?"
wondered Brendan. "You said he was even better at hieratic and demotic
scripts than you are."
"If his brother Henry was with
him, he might not have had time," she said. "Henry would have grabbed it
"Who's this Henry dude?" Birdie
"A treasure-seeker," Brendan said.
"Never bothers with the niceties like, oh, the law, international customs
"What happened to this man?" Tourmaline
asked, looking down at the corpse with a noticeable lack of empathy. "Why
did he panic so when he saw us?"
"Hate to break it to you," Birdie
said, "but sometimes you can be pretty scary-looking. He freaked, that's
Brendan fingered the torn cloth
of Pickworth Hollister's shirt. "No, I don't think so. Look at this."
"Those are not snakebites," Ezekiel
said. "Those are made by claws. See?" He positioned his own hands, and
the marks matched neatly to give the impression that a gargoyle had seized
this man by the shoulders from behind. "But they're closed, crusted, at
least a day old."
"Then …" Tourmaline couldn't finish.
Cassius could. "There must be
other gargoyles here! That's why we've been sent, to find them. And perhaps
…" he trailed off, with a wistful look.
"The love of your life is among
them," Ezekiel and Corwin said, while Icarus scoffed and Tourmaline rolled
"Wait, wait," Dakota said. "Let
me think about this."
"About what?" Birdie asked.
"The legend of Akhetsu. What was
that …?" She pinched her temples between forefinger and thumb and bowed
her head into her hand. "Something about … drat, I can't remember …"
"Hey, what's this?" Brendan held
up a coin on a cord he'd found in the man's shirt pocket.
Birdie examined it. "This is an
ankh. That's the symbol for life, right? And I don't know what this is
on the other side. Some long skinny naked lady bent over on her toes and
"That's Nut." Dakota snapped her
fingers. "Right! The Sons of Nut and the Daughters of Ra! The nomarch
– that's a governor, appointed by Pharaoh – the nomarch of Akhetsu
and the priest of Wadjet were deadly enemies. There was some sort of a
curse, some danger bad enough to make everyone abandon the town. The nomarch
made a pact with the Sons of Nut and the Daughters of Ra to watch over
the place until it was safe for the people to return."
"Nut is the goddess of night,"
Brendan said for the benefit of those who weren't following. "Ra is of
course the main incarnation of the sun god."
"The Sons of Nut," Corwin said.
"You don't think … gargoyles?"
"To protect the town from the
minions of the snake goddess. Cool!" said Birdie. "It adds up. Except who
are the Daughters of Ra?"
"We have to find Akhetsu!"
Dakota said. "The gargoyles – if there are gargoyles, not to get
anyone's hopes up too much – must have tried to stop the Hollisters from
looting the temple. But somehow Pickworth got away, with the amulet and
"Is the amulet magic?" Birdie
suddenly looked a little more wary about holding it.
"It has that flavor to it," Corwin
said. "According to the Magus, being raised on Avalon gave us something
of a sensitivity."
Brendan nodded. "Yes, I remember,
Elektra could do that."
"She was the most gifted at it,"
Tourmaline grudgingly acknowledged. "She was the Magus' pupil."
"We will help you find this hidden
city," Cassius said, and failed utterly to disguise his willingness to
get started this very minute.
Corwin laughed. "Patience, brother,
"What's this 'love of his life'
thing?" Birdie asked.
"If she's not on Avalon, that
means she must be on Earth," Cassius explained. "All I need to do is find
"You haven't the foggiest idea
how big this world is, have you?" sneered Tourmaline. "And you think that
you'll find the female of your dreams just like that?"
"It worked for me," Brendan said,
smiling warmly at Dakota. "Avalon brought us together … why not
unite Cassius and his mate?"
"If it's gonna get mushy around
here, I'm going inside," Birdie warned. "It's hard enough just standing
here kibitzing around a dead guy."
"Time for mush later," Corwin
said. "I agree with Cassius … we will help. Isn't it part of our goal and
hope to find other clans? If there are gargoyles here, we must make the
effort. From whence did this Pickworth come?"
"Screaming down the hill from
thataway," Birdie said. "Before that, who knows?"
"Akhetsu is supposed to be on
a river that springs from this oasis," Dakota said. "There used to be six
of them, but they've mostly dried up. Still, tracing the watercourses would
be a good place to start. You can do it from the air, so that's even better."
"Corwin, Cassius, and I shall
begin the search," Tourmaline said. "Ezekiel, Icarus, you'll remain to
secure our vessel and look after things here. But for this first pass,
we are looking only, looking for signs of this city. I do not want
to risk any of us --"
"But if they're gargoyles --"
"Looking only, Cassius," she said
sternly. "We can't know if these gargoyles are friendly or hostile, nor
can we know if this human's companions escaped. I won't have you getting
shot out of the sky."
"No," said Corwin, rubbing at
the spot on his chest where he could still keenly remember the bullet he'd
taken outside of Ron Jessec's home. "We none of us wish that."
"And do not glide too far," she
went on. "A few hours at the most, to give yourselves time to be back here
well before dawn."
He followed no particular set course,
letting luck and instinct guide him over the strangely barren landscape.
So this was Egypt … the land from whence hailed Anubis and a host of other
What little Cassius knew of the
culture that had sprung up around them was that it centered rather strongly
on death, with their rulers going to tremendous pains to make sure that
their time in the next world was spent as sumptuously, if not moreso, than
their living years.
He recalled other tidbits of information,
mostly having to do with the inherent contradiction of the land. Along
the great river, the Nile, the soil was bountiful and the harvests considerable.
But only a few miles from that artery of life, it was unforgiving desert.
Yet the marks of those ancient
people were still holding fast. He spied the distant triangular bulk of
pyramids against the stars, felt their mystic pull even from here.
Cassius was brimming with hope
and anticipation as he saw an artificial irregularity in the cliffs ahead
and knew himself to be in the presence of stone that had been worked by
the hands and minds of men. This had to be the lost town of which Dakota
had spoken, from which the wounded man had come. It was situated so as
to be nearly impossible to find except by seeing it from above.
He glanced over his shoulder,
picking out the glow from the humans' camp. The proper thing to do would
be to go back, tell them of his discovery. They would want to do whatever
it was that they did to such sites, and would be assuredly cross if he
disturbed something …
But the siren song of possibilities
was too strong for Cassius to withstand. He promised himself he would only
take a quick look around, touch nothing, damage nothing, and then wing
back to report his findings. Just a quick look. And, if there were
other gargoyles here, wouldn't it best to approach them as a solitary envoy
rather than come at them en masse?
If Tourmaline could have heard
that line of reasoning, she would have unleashed the acidic sharpness of
her tongue and temper on him, telling him he was a fool to go blithely
in, expecting other gargoyles to be friendly. In this world, in this hostile
outside world, they could trust no one. He'd have to be a lackwit to rush
right in …
Well, was that not what love did?
If this was the place where he would meet the destined love of his heart
and soul – and he was sure it must be, even though he saw no signs of habitation
or movement as he began his wide, spiraling descent – he could not bear
to wait while everyone else debated the best ways to approach.
A closer look at Akhetsu would
have dimmed the optimism of anyone but Cassius. As he landed, legs flexing
smoothly to absorb the impact, he was tingling with excitement. Part of
his mind spoke up and told him that he was working himself up too much,
and the greater the expectation, the farther the fall. He was able to shunt
aside that inner voice with no great effort.
He looked curiously at the rows
of statues, noting the resemblance to some denizens of Avalon. It gave
him a chill, in all honesty, to see the broken ones on the ground. Even
knowing that they had always been stone, sculpted by careful skill, wasn't
enough to get rid of that unpleasant shiver.
A hush, but an expectant hush,
lay over the town. Cassius cleared his throat.
"Ahem … hello? Hello, is anyone
No answer came. He listened and
heard only the breath of the wind and a faint, scabrous rustling. He moved
toward it, noting the walls with their vestiges of paint and the figures
they depicted – all seen in profile, humans long of nose and dramatically
outlined of eye, holding their arms at awkward-looking angles.
Something was at the base
of one of these walls, and now he glimpsed motion. Like that of cloth rippling.
He stepped closer, and caught himself a bare moment before his talon came
down on the picked-clean bones of an outflung, five-fingered hand. A weapon,
a gun, was only inches from the thin ivory twigs of the fingers.
Cassius grimaced and backed up,
tracing the spindly arm-bones into the heart of the darkly-rippling mass
that was not cloth at all.
Moonlight traced eldritch runes of green and blue in the shiny, glossy
carapaces of the insects. They crept busily over the corpse, mandibles
plucking away scraps of flesh.
Oh, human death was so messy!
What horror, to be at the mercy of carrion-eaters and wet, rancid decay!
Far better the clean oblivion of return to the stones and dust!
He found another skeleton, scoured
of everything edible. Even the clothing was gone but for that which could
not be cut up or devoured – a zipper, some buttons, eyelets that might
have come from boots, the buckle of a belt, and so on. This one was sprawled
face-down, skull turned to the side and sockets gaping in perpetual, dying
Unthinkingly backing away from
these gruesome remains, Cassius bumped into something solid. He turned,
raised his head, and caught his breath in amazement.
She was so lifelike, so beautiful,
that for a moment he was sure she was real. But then he saw that she was
stone, only a statue, not a live gargoyle at all but a monument to one,
perhaps set up in tribute by the same ones that had crafted the images
of the gods.
But this one was so much more
detailed, so much more lifelike … it was hard for him to believe that any
sculptor, no matter how gifted, could so perfectly, flawlessly capture
the very essence of a gargoyle.
She was posed not unlike one of
the painted human figures from the wall, arms outstretched and head to
the side in sharp profile. Yet her form was anything but human.
Cassius' wistful eyes traveled
up from splayed talons to high arches, over strongly rounded calves, knee-spurs
rayed like the upper half of the sun, pleasingly firm thighs, flared hips,
a curve of tail ending in another sunburst spur, the indent of her waist,
the rise of a bosom beneath the depiction of a pectoral necklace like a
The statue was shown in a gown
perhaps meant to be linen, sleeveless and slit high on the sides of the
skirt. The wings were of a style unfamiliar to Cassius, extending from
the undersides of the statue's slim arms and being made of feathers. Such
small wings would never be able to support a gargoyle in flight, he knew,
but they were exotically enticing all the same.
At last, his gaze found her face
again and lingered there. Like the paintings, her eyes were dramatic and
her features proud. Her brow ridge curved down and flattened out to frame
her face in the manner of a queenly headdress, even rising above the bridge
of her nose into a cute little horn like a cobra, except instead of an
extended hood, the pattern was that seen in her knee and tail spurs – a
Her hair was shown hanging to
her shoulders in a thick, ridged pattern suggestive of masses of many tiny
braids. He could not see ears, just the crescents of earrings sticking
from beneath the hair. She was muchly adorned in jewelry – the earrings,
the pectoral necklace, anklets, bracelets.
"Would that you were real," he
whispered. "I've never seen a female so lovely! You could be she, the one
for whom I've sought, were you but real!"
He imagined that her hair would
be black, as in the paintings. But what would her skin be? Coppery-brown?
No … a glorious bronze-gold like that of poor, dear, lost Hippolyta. And
against it, the thin, almost sheer, linen of her garment would be like
a gauzy cloud crossing the sun. The gold and bands of precious stones on
her jewelry would be insignificant compared to her beauty.
By the Dragon … he was in love!
No, that couldn't be. She wasn't
real, only an image made from stone. She wasn't about to waken and cast
off the shell of her skin and part her lips and breathe.
And yet, looking upon her, he
felt a lightening warmth in his heart that he'd never known before. Was
this what many of his brothers had felt when the time for youthful rompings
had begun to give way to more serious thoughts of taking mates? The sudden
surge of longing that did more than embody sensuality, but fostered thoughts
of oaths, and eggs, and being bonded one to the other, as one, now and
Or was he experiencing now what
poor Carnelian did, pining in hopeless love for the fair Lady of the Lake?
She who was just as unattainable to Carnelian as this maiden in stone was
unattainable to Cassius? That would account for the underlying twinge of
sorrow, for down deep where he dared not look too closely, part of him
knew just how doomed this infatuation must be.
Cassius reached up, and because
of the pillar – the pedestal, not inapt – he could only just touch the
downsweep of her brow ridge. He ran a fingertip along the fine-grained
stone feathers of her wings and wondered if they would be swan-white, eagle-gold,
or banded in many colors.
Where would such a female be sensitive?
Her wings did not join her back. Would a mate or lover stroke along the
place where feathers merged with skin? Might that correspond? Would the
area between her shoulderblades be sensitive all the same?
"You're disturbed," he told himself,
removing his hand from the cool, lifeless statue. "Stroking a statue as
if it was a living thing."
Disturbed, yes, he admitted it
freely. That did not stop him from walking slowly around her, surveying
her from every angle. The detail was marvelous, nothing missed. There was
even a counterweight on a chain hanging down her back – her supple line
of back that segued so enticingly into the base of her tail – to balance
the heavy necklace. Her mass of hair had an adornment in the back, a disk
clipped to some of the braids. Upon the disk was an emblem of the sun.
What a peculiar symbol to be found
on a gargoyle. And yet, somehow, it suited her.
"What is your name?" he asked.
"Who are you?"
The statue stood impassive, of
course. He would have just as much luck questioning the stone likeness
of Horus. This was ludicrous.
Remembering what the human girl,
Birdie, had said, he supposed this was what she'd had in mind. Egyptian-looking
… certainly, this female was that, even if she did not have the head of
a crocodile or cat or jackal. He could easily see gargoyles just such as
her, clans of them, guarding the tombs of the pharaohs and alighting on
the massive Sphinx. This would be a good place for gargoyles, why not?
Thinking that reminded him of
why he'd come here. All this time spend sighing over a false gargoyle when
there could well be real ones about … perhaps in hiding, perhaps – and
this brought a flush that would not show up against his night-dark complexion
– watching him. They'd think he had taken leave of his senses, carrying
on as if trying to court a female.
The line of ivory quills that
formed his brow ridge contracted in his embarrassment. Cassius forced himself
to divert his attention from the statue, and look more diligently for any
indications that his kind did live here.
After all, those claw marks had
not made themselves. And given the presence of two freshly-denuded skeletons,
the companions of the man called Pickworth had died suddenly, possibly
Where, then, were these mysterious
Turning reluctantly away, he began
a more purposeful search. Here was another pillar, this one empty … but
what were these pieces of stone? Kneeling, Cassius scooped up a handful
and confirmed, with a thrill of excitement, that it was nearly identical
to the shed skin he and his rookery siblings left behind them each evening.
It was their habit to scuff and sweep away the bits, so as not so clutter
their roosting sites, but apparently, whoever had been sleeping here hadn't
been so bothered.
Moving on, he found some telling
marks on the earth. Talon-prints. A trough that might have been dug by
a tail sinking into loose dirt for balance.
There were gargoyles here!
Cassius took two steps more before
treading on a gritty spill of gravel and realizing with plummeting heart
that were, in the past tense, was the operative word in that sentence.
He knelt again and raked his fingers
gently through the loose rubble that told him, not through personal prior
experience but by what he'd grown up hearing, of the death-spot of a gargoyle.
Grief stabbed him like a knife.
He had not even known this gargoyle, and now he never would, and so he
grieved for the friendship that might have been.
In his mind, that section of it
which was not taken up by emotion, he added up what he'd seen. The wounds
on Pickworth's shoulders, wounds from a large spread of fingers. The large
tracks. Mixed in with the pebbles and dust, some nuggets of metal. Bullets.
A story began to play out in his
mind, and he understood how Pickworth had come to escape. He also understood,
with an almost crushing weight of despair, that there hadn't been a clan
here at all. Only one, a male, who had died as a gargoyle should. Protecting
Died, but a little too late to
prevent one of the invaders from getting away, and stealing the treasure
Cassius wanted to promise this
dead brother that he would be avenged, that the treasure would be returned,
that the home he had died to defend would be left unmolested. He ached
to make the vow, but could not, because he knew that it would not be solely
up to him. Their new human friends would not take kindly to the slaying
of one of their own, and if he grasped their nature correctly, would be
most eager to see this place, explore it.
And, when all was said and done,
it didn't really matter now, did it? With the last gargoyle dead, what
difference did it make if the humans came and did their digging and their
analysis and their work? It might even, in the long run, prove beneficial
to both their races. If it could be proven that gargoyles had dwelt alongside
humans, dating back thousands of years into a respected era of history,
might not that help their cause? Their welcome in this modern world?
Without realizing it, he found
he had come back to the statue of the female to stare dreamily, adoringly,
at her. Idle dreams and fancies entertained his thoughts – gliding with
her, hand in hand, beneath a serene denim-blue sky, the land a dusty golden
haze below them, the sun an encompassing paternal embrace …
Blue sky? Daylight?
Cassius shook himself, and with
a start saw that he'd been standing here for over an hour. By now, Tourmaline
and Corwin would be worried, searching for him. If they found him here,
having disobeyed the dictates of the leader, he'd be in trouble for certain.
What in the world had happened
to him? For a moment, there, it had seemed so real, as if he truly had
been soaring with Khepri and seeing the sands beneath give way to the patchwork
green of the Nile farmlands, her skin so warm and alive against his, her
laughter like birdsong, the feathers of her wings all in white and red
and blue and yellow …
He jumped again, having almost
lost himself in that vision. He was breathing fast, and found that his
wings with their frame of dark, ivory-studded strut around the membrane
of deepest maroon were extended as if to glide.
"Khepri," he said, speaking the
name that had come to him, rising surely in his mind.
It wasn't as if he had invented
a name for her, more that he had simply discovered the name that had been
hers all along. It felt right in his mouth; more, it felt right to his
heart. Which was lost. Which was Khepri's now.
"This isn't good, old boy," he
said to himself. "This isn't good at all. You mustn't go and become like
that fellow the Magus used to tell us of, the Greek who carved a woman
out of marble and then fell in love with her. Mayhap Aphrodite granted
his plea, but it's not as if there's some gargoyle love-goddess to beseech
on this behalf."
But if there had been, oh, if
there had been, Cassius would have tried it in a heartbeat. He even thought,
for one wild moment, of returning to Avalon to beg for just such a boon.
But then he imagined the mirthful, mocking reception his plea might receive,
and dismissed the idea.
The stars had continued to wheel
in the heavens and he was now dangerously overdue … by now, who knew what
Tourmaline might be thinking? She'd expressly forbidden him to do anything
besides look, for fear that he'd run afoul of gun-toting humans (which
he had, in a way, not that the poor chap was going to be shooting anyone
ever again) or unfriendly gargoyles.
She would not be amused to learn
that he'd apparently spent hours here like a moonstruck calf, and it was
the prospect of her wrath that got Cassius moving when he was sore tempted
to go back and look, just one more time, at Khepri.
Instead of giving in, he resolutely
set his face away from her and the temple entrance she guarded, and left
lost Akhetsu to the custody of the dead.
At the considerably-more-crowded
camp, all was not peace and harmony. What with Tourmaline's increasingly
heated fuming, Birdie Yale did not know how Dakota was able to concentrate
on her reading.
Distractions or no, Dakota was
managing. She was hunched over a stack of books running her finger along
tiny lines of print and muttering to herself, seeming to be reading four
at once, flicking through them with eerie speed as she searched for references
to the Staff of Wadjet, the Sons of Nut, and the Daughters of Ra.
It had been several hours since
three of the gargoyles had gone off to scout around, leaving Ezekiel –
plodding and unimaginative, in Birdie's opinion, but shaping up into a
fairly decent field medic judging by the way he patched up Uncle Brendan
– and Icarus – way too serious and brooding, made Goliath look like
a party animal – to take care of their boat and generally get settled in.
Taking care of the boat was pretty incredible in itself. At the appropriate
command, the whole thing sank into the oasis although the water there couldn't
have been more than five feet at the deepest.
Hunky Corwin and pretty-but-bitchy
Tourmaline had come back a little while later with zilch to report, but
the scary-looking, friendly one, Cassius, was nowhere to be seen.
Birdie hadn't been doing nothing
in the meantime. She had been up since dawn, and should have crashed long
since, but there was nothing like being attacked by a million snakes to
perk a body up. Better than a triple espresso. Birdie didn't even want
to sleep, knowing that the second she shut her eyes, she'd be having nightmares.
To keep busy, she helped bury
Hollister and took steps to hopefully deter the snakes from coming into
camp. It was creepy as could be to see them all out there, sometimes rearing
up and swaying like a charmer was playing music only they could hear. And
still, the power of that damn thing was kicked to its highest notch, because
new slithery arrivals kept coming.
"Like St. Patrick in reverse,"
"Like an Old Testament plague,"
They had, with the help of Icarus,
scraped out a trench all the way around the dig site and the motor home,
and coaxed water from the oasis to flow into it like a half-assed moat.
That in and of itself wouldn't have made any difference, since snakes could
swim and were fairly intent on taking the shortest possible path to the
object of their fascination. But when a concoction of palm oil and cobra-grass
was sprinkled on top, it created enough of an aversion to convince them
to go around rather than plunge straight through.
"It will be dawn soon," Tourmaline
said. "I told him to be back well before, did I not? Did I not say such,
"You did, you did."
She paced, digging up divots of
sand and flinging a spray of it every time she turned. Birdie noticed in
passing that the female, whose skin was a neat varicolor that could look
green, blue, or even violet depending on how the light hit her, wore a
familiar logo pinned to the front of her halter. The eye in the pyramid,
which, given the locale, Birdie found particularly apropos.
Before she could really work up
into a righteous lather, a dark shape came cruising in for a landing. He
fielded all Tourmaline's tirade with a dreamy expression, and if Birdie
didn't know better, she would have sworn he'd been off necking in the dunes
with some sexy she-garg.
"If you're quite done, sister
dear?" he asked when Tourmaline paused for a breath before unloading with
another round of 'irresponsible' and 'willful,' "I found it."
Given the way she had ignored
all other distractions, it was amazing how fast Dakota got her nose out
of the books. She nearly bowled Birdie over in her rush to get to Cassius,
and everyone gathered around to listen.
He spilled his story, and then
Dakota and Tourmaline started in on him again. The first was demanding
directions and information, the second was reading Cassius the riot act,
ripping him a new one, going up one side and down the other, pick your
metaphor, and they were both doing it at the same time, trying to overtop
Through it all, Cassius endured
with that same goofy little grin that looked to Birdie like an absolutely
lovesick smile. She glanced around to see if anyone else had noticed this
and thought that Corwin did.
"What about other gargoyles?"
Corwin said pointedly, confirming her suspicion by the tilt of his brow
ridge. "Any luck, brother?"
Cassius sighed such a happy sigh
that you almost expected tiny heart shapes to go spinning out in an aura
around his head. Then he seemed to visibly catch himself, and sobered.
"I found the remains of one, a sizeable male by the tracks, but nothing
"Are you quite certain?" pressed
"Quite … but for Khepri."
"Khepri?" Tourmaline asked. "Who's
He coughed into his curled fist
and wouldn't meet any of their eyes. "There's a statue, the most remarkable
Ezekiel groaned. "Are you that
"She was so lifelike, I could
have believed she was real." His sigh this time was that of the forlorn
lover whose objet d'amour had no idea he existed.
"And you named her Khepri." Tourmaline's
tone was cool and cutting.
"Odd choice," remarked Dakota.
"It means 'morning light.' Hardly fitting for a gargoyle. Also the name
of the golden beetle that guided Ra's boat through the underworld each
night. But I want to hear more about this town. You say it's high in the
cliffs? Can you lead us there?"
"Not tonight," Corwin said, jerking
his head toward the east where the sky was distinctly brighter.
"No, not tonight," Brendan said.
"We've been up for almost twenty-four hours, and I don't know about you,
but I need some sleep. And we need to figure out what to do about the staff.
It doesn't seem right to leave it stuck in the dunes out there."
"You're welcome to wade through
the snakes to get it, Uncle Brendan," Birdie said sweetly. "Me, I'm sleeping
on the top bunk tonight in case they come in through the vents."
"The crawler's seals are tight,"
Dakota said. She looked eager to be off, but there were bags of weariness
under her eyes and she knew it. "All right, we'll get some rest and set
out after sundown."
"We'll perch up there for the
day," Tourmaline said, pointing to a rocky outcrop. "That should be far
enough to put what passes for his mind at ease."
Birdie still didn't like it much,
going to sleep knowing there were all those snakes just a few hundred yards
away, but there didn't seem to be much choice. She watched as the gargoyles
climbed up to the outcrop, and there was something oddly comforting in
seeing them ranged out up there. Even if they'd be stone all day, it made
her feel like someone was looking out for her.
Khepri woke from a dream of gliding
on a wind like dark water, beneath an infinite, black sky pierced with
diamond-points of white. It was the sky as she'd never seen it, not a confining
blue lid over the world but fathomless depths rising forever. The moon,
more brilliantly aglow than she ever would have believed, painted the sands
In the dream, she hadn't been
alone, but holding the hand of a male whose face was indistinct. All she
knew was that he was a shadow-shape, but that his gaze caressed her adoringly.
Her mind named him, oddly not an Egyptian name but a Greek-sounding one,
and she knew that although the night was new to her, she need fear nothing
so long as he was by her side.
Shards of stone fell away from
her as she stretched and yawned. After yesterday, and the ominous discoveries
of Badru's death and the missing staff, she should have dreamt dire visions.
Not this oddly romantic strangeness.
She stepped down from her pillar
and out of habit bent to clean up the detritus of her skin. Badru had not
been so neat, so conscientious, and would never have the opportunity to
improve upon his slovenly ways …
Khepri froze with outstretched
hand, staring at the marks in the earth. Tracks, gargoyle tracks, and she
would swear by Ra and all the gods that they had not been there yesterday
evening when she'd taken her usual place. Nor were they Badru's prints,
and definitely not her own.
Her voice rang in the dawn stillness,
disturbing nothing but a few beetles still optimistically going over the
skeletons for any tidbits they might have missed. No answering call came.
Forgetting about her cleanup duty,
she scoured the ground for more tracks and found a few, found a distinctive
pair pressed deeply as if absorbing the weight of a landing.
Could it be?
Another gargoyle? Another Son
of Nut, having visited during the night?
It was the only explanation that
made any sense, and a wild hope filled her. But where had he gone? Why
had he left?
She turned, seeking a new statue
in Akhetsu, a statue that would be the shadow-shape from her dreams. But
only the images of the gods, the same as ever, were there. Forgetting for
a moment about the staff, the star, and the curse that was racing toward
fulfillment, she found the crack in the cliff wall that gave onto a narrow,
How long had it been since she'd
visited the rookery? Not since she was a hatchling, assuredly … it had
not been a good place. The adults had never spoken of it much, but in their
sorrow-laden silences, Khepri came to understand that instead of a place
of joy, the rookery to them had become a symbol of hopes unfulfilled.
She went down anyway, even though
the walls of the tunnel felt like they were pressing in on her. When it
widened out into the cave, she felt the presence of death everywhere, because
this was no longer birth and renewal … this was a tomb.
Ten eggs lay undisturbed, where
they had been for the fifty years of her life. Their shells looked frailer
than ever, brittle husks that would probably crumble if touched.
It made her shiver, it made her
tense with a vague guilt. Why had she and Badru been the only ones to hatch?
Was it because their mother had been the leader's mate, and therefore was
allowed the most food while the rest went hungry?
She knew about the famine that
had carried off most of the clan, leaving only a handful of survivors to
wait and watch and hope that the next generation would replenish their
numbers, give a chance to their dying clan. Instead, they'd spent ten long
years and at the end of it, only two small, weak hatchlings had broken
The rookery was undisturbed, with
no indication that the mysterious other gargoyle had visited it. Satisfied
of that, Khepri could not bear to linger. She was glad to feel sunlight
on her face as she emerged.
Akhetsu stood silent around her,
the entire town now feeling as much like a tomb as the rookery had done.
It would be worse than a tomb if she could not find the staff. Whether
or not the staff alone would be sufficient to hold back the Nagai, she
didn't know, but she did know that without the staff, there would be no
She had spent the previous day
in a state akin to shock, continually turning to look at Badru's pillar
in hopes that her brother would be standing there, hunched fearsomely with
his jaws agape in a threatening snarl. But he never was, and the dull pain
of her loneliness had finally sunk in.
The last. She was the last of
her clan. It had been hard enough when the last other of her kind had died
and she had the day to herself, but at least then she'd had the comfort
of knowing that the rest were here, sleeping but here. Just as it must
have been hard for Badru when the last of his kind had died a few years
later, leaving him to the solitude of the night.
The staff was no longer in the
cradled valley of Akhetsu. She would have to leave to find it, something
that she'd only rarely done in all her years.
Khepri scaled the cliff and looked
out over the land. The canyon ran away toward the Nile, and the jumble
of rocks in the other direction did not seem particularly promising either.
As she was deliberating, she spotted
movement below by the riverbed. A long, undulating ribbon of movement,
headed against the sluggish current of the muddy water. She knew its type
and shuddered – it was an Apep-snake, sacred to the great chaos-serpent
whose goal was to devour Ra. Its appearance here and now was no good sign.
No good sign, but a sign all the
same. Khepri stretched out her arms, the wind ruffling through the feathers
– as she did this, a half-remembered bit of her dream came back to her,
in which the male gargoyle had touched her intimately along that sensitive
skin. The golden light of power filled her and she leapt from the edge,
gliding along the river in pursuit of the giant Apep-snake.
Her hunch soon proved correct.
She saw the dark pall upon the land from quite a distance, never mistaking
it for a growth of plant life. It was a circle of snakes, so many that
it seemed as if every one of them in all the world had convened here in
a mass around the staff, which was stuck upright like the post of a sundial.
The Apep-snake joined them, pushing
his way through. Thirty feet long and as thick through the middle as a
man's thigh, he was king of all these lesser reptiles and they gave way
She understood what must have
happened. The one who'd stolen the staff had activated it, summoning snakes
to him, but must not have known that he could control them as well. It
was a mistake that had probably cost him his life, and she felt no sympathy
At any rate, here was the staff.
She dove, the speed of her descent blowing the multitude of long braids
back from her face and the flaps of her linen skirt pasting to her legs.
As she skimmed just over it, one hand closed neatly around the olivine
cobra and she pulled it from its resting place.
A flurry of hisses rose around
her, and with a sort of convulsive heave the mass of serpents began to
move after her. Hovering over them, holding the staff aloft in both hands
so hard that the hieroglyphs along its shaft impressed themselves into
her palms, she silently invoked its magic to end the spell of summoning.
For a moment, nothing happened,
and then the snakes began to disperse. It was not peaceful, some striking
at each other, age-old enmities and competitions coming to the forefront
once more, but most simply streaked away as fast as their coils could propel
Still bearing the staff aloft,
Khepri wheeled and was about to return to Akhetsu when she saw a strange
object near the murky puddle of the oasis. It was a long box on wheels,
a 'car' or 'truck' if she was correctly recalling the adults' tales – she
and Badru had lived in relative isolation for decades now. But she still
remembered the stories, and suspected that the tools and areas of excavation
cordoned off with string and stakes were the marks of the archeologists,
those humans who had so forgotten their past that they had to come and
dig it up anew to rediscover it.
There were no hints of life around
the 'truck,' so she surmised that it had belonged to the ones who had come
to Akhetsu. All of them were dead, and a sudden overriding urge to explore
their artifacts seized her. She didn't have time for such explorations,
but she couldn't resist.
She glided down and landed upon
the roof, hissing at the heat of the metal beneath her bare talons. She
forgot the discomfort, though, as she saw the profusion of tracks in the
sand. All over the place. Human and gargoyle, crisscrossing each other.
He had been here? And not alone
… by the disparity of claw marks, she suspected there were at least three
others, possibly four.
Were they within?
Khepri reached for the door handle
and was about to open it when she heard noises from within, and a sleepy,
irritated human voice in a language she couldn't understand. A bright spark
of fear bloomed in her heart. They weren't all dead, they had killed
Soundlessly on the loose sand,
she bounded away and sprang into the air, still carrying the staff.
A helluva thump on the roof brought
Birdie out of an uneasy, nightmare-filled doze. Or daymare-filled. Take
She was soaked in sweat despite
the steady hum of the dune-crawler's air conditioning because she was up
too high to benefit from the way cool air sank and hot air rose, and the
noise had been right over her head.
Birdie rolled from the bunk, seeing
that the door to Dakota and Brendan's bedroom was still closed. Her hair
was a sticky black mop, the t-shirt she slept in was stuck to her in damp
wrinkles, and she was dying for a cold drink.
At the sink, she also liberally
splashed her face and rubbed a wet washcloth behind her neck, grumbling
over everything in general and nothing in particular. On bare feet, she
padded to the door and opened it, wincing as a gust of wind kicked up fine
granules into her face.
Only when she'd unthinkingly pulled
the door wide open did she remember the snakes, and stifled a yelp, calling
herself a hundred kinds of idiot.
"Would have served you right if
they'd all been piled up against the door and avalanched in," she scolded.
But, as she leaned out to see
that the snakes were all where they were supposed to be, she got a shock
– they were gone! The huge hissing carpet of them was gone, and all she
saw were a few individual ones slithering aimlessly.
The staff was gone, too.
"Uh-oh," murmured Birdie, already
anticipating Dakota's reaction upon getting that piece of news.
She shut the door and pulled on
a pair of blousy pants and some shoes, and then ventured out into the mid-morning
Khepri watched from on high, so
high that she knew she'd look like little more than a bird against the
sky, as a human came out from under the canvas strung up like a half-tent.
Her far-vision was excellent, so she was able to determine that this was
a female, trudging out toward where the staff had been, and looking around
edgily as if afraid of something.
She considered swooping to the
attack, avenging her brother, but hesitated. If there was one human, there
might be more, and they could be armed. Besides, she had to get the staff
back to the temple. She resolved to do that, and then return to observe
this camp a while more before making her decision.
Yep, it was gone. So were the snakes,
leaving only the rippled, wavy trails of their passage like a sinuous design
in the sand. Birdie found the spot where it had been embedded, a hole with
the sides already so caved in that she knew it would soon be gone. But
there was no clue what had happened to it, no footprints, no nothing.
Okay … what was up?
Pickworth Hollister's shallow
grave was undisturbed, so evidently he hadn't gotten his bad self up and
gone back for the treasure … not that he would have anyway, given how eager
he'd been to toss it away.
The gargoyles were still perched
on their outcrop, their granite-grey camouflage not serving them quite
as well here in this yellow-brown environment as it would have on a castle
Nothing else was moving, except
for a couple of stray snakes and a bird way on high. Frowning and not liking
the feeling of being sure she was missing something, Birdie returned to
the crawler and got out of the sun.
But sleep had given up on her,
despite how totally tired she was. Fetching herself a can of pop and a
bag of pretzels – Dakota said it was important to keep up the salt intake
– Birdie relaxed in her sling-chair and resumed reading.
The temple was still as it should
be, the appointed hour not yet upon her.
Khepri didn't need to read the
legend inscribed in symbols upon the closed doors because she had been
raised on the story of how the last priests of Wadjet had misused the power
of the goddess and been struck down by a terrible curse, locked away in
their hideous deformity.
The purpose of the staff was to
seal the doors, but she had no way of knowing whether it would be effective.
Just because it had been every other time over the centuries didn't mean
it would continue to be so, especially when now there was only her to stand
She replaced the staff all the
same, fitting it neatly into the carved niche that crossed the doors. When
that was done, she released a sigh of relief of a tension she hadn't even
been fully aware of having.
How was she to keep it there?
If the humans knew where to find it, they'd be back. What if they came
by night again, when she slept? Who would protect it then?
Fretful and perilously close to
tears brought on by grief and loneliness and nervous agitation, Khepri
paced through silent Akhetsu and tried to busy herself by disposing of
the skeletons, stirring Badru's remains back into the earth, and finishing
tidying up around her pillar. When that was done, she decided it was time
to glide back to spy on the humans.
Before she did, she had an idea,
and spent several hours on the ledge that led to the only landbound entrance
to the valley. She tore and kicked at the ledge, sending great chunks of
it tumbling away into the riverbed, and brought down piles of rubble to
block the way.
It took longer than she expected,
and when she finally stopped she saw that she'd gotten so carried away
that she had nearly demolished the entire pathway. Satisfied that it would
be next to impossible for even the most determined human to pick his or
her way over that mess, she paused only long enough to wash off the dust
and some dried blood from scrapes on her hands and one skinned knee.
She glided back to the camp, circling
around to come in from the other side in case they happened to see her.
It wouldn't do to have them be able to figure out where she'd come from.
She came in low over a rocky outcrop …
And nearly fell from the sky when
she saw the row of stone forms perched atop it. Fluttering like a moth
in a crosswind, she managed to regain control and landed in front of one
It had been so long since she'd
seen another gargoyle face besides Badru's that she was dumbstruck. There
were five of them, four males and a female, and she could tell right away
that they were different … they looked nothing like anyone in her clan.
In utter wonder, she moved from
one to the next, peering into their faces, scrutinizing their wings and
their strange clothing, and the weapons some of them wore, and their relative
lack of jewelry. Too, none wore medallions of Nut, at least not anywhere
she could find, and at that she was truly perplexed.
When she came to the last one,
she felt a chill that had nothing to do with the sinking sun, but was the
memory of the night wind, the star-strewn sky. The male, the shadowy, unseen
male whose hand had clasped so rightly with hers …
He was taller than she was, and
admirably broad of shoulder. A row of horns sprouted from his brow, smaller
ones jutting back in a curve from the hinge of his jaw.
Fascinated, she lost herself in
contemplation of his features, unknowing that the day was turning to auburn
Birdie had snagged a nap later
on, but was back in her chair when she saw something moving around up by
the gargoyles. It looked like …
Jumping up, she grabbed Dakota's
binoculars and trained it on the outcrop.
"Well, this is a new one,"
she said, incredulous. She ran to the crawler and surprised Uncle Brendan
in a towel; Dakota already immersed in her books again. "You guys are not
gonna believe this …"
He was dreaming again, dreaming
warm and golden dreams of gliding along the slow-moving river, passing
over boats upon which humans, hunting waterfowl with bent throwing sticks,
looked up to wave and call welcomes.
She was with him in his dream,
beautiful Khepri, and it was with great reluctance that Cassius felt the
pleasant images begin to fracture and fall away just as his stone skin
was doing. Dusk. Nightfall. Time to wake up.
His eyes blazed white as they
opened, and the reflexive roar that had been about to burst from his throat
wedged there and he strangled on it, because she was right there,
in front of him, alive and moving and the exact shade of bronze-gold that
he had envisioned, right there looking at him in absolute amazement.
"Khepri?" he said wonderingly.
"Cassius?" she replied in the
Her hand came up as if of its
own volition and extended toward him. He raised his own, peripherally aware
of the astounded expressions of his siblings, of the russet curve of the
last bit of the sun slipping below the horizon.
An instant before they touched,
something happened to Khepri. She stiffened in place, the colors bleeding
from her flesh and clothing and jewelry to become light brownish-grey stone.
"No!" Cassius cried, but the hand
he seized was solid, immobile.
She was poised before him, that
one arm outstretched, the other down at her side and held slightly back
at an angle. The rest of his clan crowded around, gaping and speechless.
"Khepri!" he called, pleadingly.
"What the blazes?" Corwin managed
"We did not see that, did we?"
Ezekiel turned to Tourmaline, as if hoping their leader had the answers,
but she only opened her mouth, shook her head, and closed it again.
Just then, their new human friends
came blundering up the escarpment, Birdie puffing in the lead.
"See? I told you. See?" she panted.
"She was real," Cassius insisted.
"She was alive. I saw her. You all saw her!"
"It makes sense now," Dakota said.
"What does?" rumbled Icarus.
"Is she one of us? A gargoyle?"
"She's a gargoyle," Dakota confirmed.
"But not quite like you. I've figured it out now. I thought I was reading
it wrong, but I wasn't."
"Out with it, human, if you know
what this is about!" snapped Tourmaline.
"The legend of Akhetsu says that
the nomarch made a pledge with the Sons of Nut and the Daughters
of Ra to protect the town from the evil imprisoned in the temple," she
said. "We assumed, correctly, that the Sons of Nut were gargoyles. But
so are the Daughters of Ra, the sun-god. A breed of gargoyle that stays
flesh by day, and sleeps in stone by night."
"That's impossible!" Ezekiel protested.
"I saw her," Birdie said. "She
was up here checking you all out, like she'd never seen gargoyles before,
and I guess sunset must've snuck up on her. And I bet she took the
staff. It's gone, and so are all the snakes. Good riddance."
"She knew me, she knew my name,"
"Well," Corwin shrugged, "you
"What are you saying?" Tourmaline
glared at them both. "He made that up."
"Then explain how she called him
Cassius," Corwin said. "Coincidence?"
"It's not that." Cassius gently
touched the plane of her cheek. "I dreamed of her … what if she dreamed
of me as well? She is the one. I told you."
Ezekiel snorted. "Oh, very good,
how's that going to work? She's stone by night, mutton-head."
"That is kind of an insurmountable
obstacle," Birdie said.
"It's ridiculous," said Tourmaline.
"It's love." Cassius shot her
a look. "I wouldn't expect you to understand, sister."
She bristled. "What is that supposed
"They do have a point, Cassius,"
Corwin said. "Now, I'm hardly the one to dispute anyone's choice of mate,
but this does pose certain difficulties. How can you be mates when you
have only that split-second of time at dusk and at dawn?"
"Like in that old movie," Birdie
said. "Maybe there's a way to --"
"Someday, you've got to come to
grips with the fact that not everything you see in the movies is real,"
"Oh, that's rich, coming from
someone of your family background."
"In time, I fear," Corwin went
on, sensibly but Cassius hated him for it, "your love would turn to dissatisfaction,
"I cannot believe that," he said.
"Open your eyes," Tourmaline said.
"You're not …" she searched, and found a word they'd heard Michelle Jessec
"There must be a way." He traced
her brow ridge. "I love her."
"You don't even know her!" Tourmaline
erupted, flinging her arms in the air. "She's just the first female of
our species – if she even truly is of our species – that we've seen
since leaving Avalon, apart from Aiden, and she was not only spoken for,
but not truly of our species either."
"Hey," cut in Birdie. "Fergs is
one of my best pals. Watch it."
Dakota, meanwhile, had been walking
around Khepri to study her from all angles. "Look at this."
They all did. It was the disk
adorning the back of her hair that she directed their attention to.
"What of it?" Ezekiel asked.
"It's like the one Pickworth Hollister
was carrying," Brendan said. "Except that is Ra, not Nut."
"Yeah," Birdie said, "but it's
that necklace of hers that's really worth a fortune."
"No, no," he said. "The other
coin was magical, wasn't it? I remember Broadway once telling me something
about a clan in South America who had amulets that let them stay flesh
during the day. Maybe this is similar."
"Yes!" Cassius said. "Two of them
brought a raft to Avalon, and we helped them plant the trees and flowers.
They took root remarkably well. But I remember them saying that their protectorate
was a pyramid in the rain forest."
"Hmm," said Dakota, tapping her
chin. "There are those who believe that both pyramid-building peoples were
inspired by the same older culture …"
"And both regions have native
clans of gargoyles," Brendan continued.
"So it might be that they have
the same kind of magic, too!" Birdie finished. "Okay, so now what? How
do we break the spell? Take the thing off?"
She reached, and Cassius seized
her wrist. "No … I'll not risk hurting her. By day, you can tell her what
you've told us, and see what she knows about it."
"Fair enough," Dakota said. "But
that's probably something that would be better done in Akhetsu."
"You just want to go there," Ezekiel
"And leave her here?" Cassius
scowled, and because normally his perpetual smile was the only thing keeping
his appearance from being wholly vicious and evil-looking, all three humans
and even a couple of his clan drew back from him apprehensively.
Corwin took it in stride. "Not
at all, brother dear. We'll take her home. We'll carry her."
So it was that, an hour or so
later after they'd dined and Dakota had gotten together a kit of equipment,
they made ready to set out. In stone, Khepri was too heavy for Cassius
to carry alone, so he bore her in a hammock slung between himself and Corwin.
Icarus stayed landbound with the humans while the rest of them glided above,
at least until they reached the cliffs around Akhetsu and saw the damage
to the ledge-path.
The only thing to be done then
was return Khepri carefully to her perch, and then for the four who could
glide with ease help the four who couldn't. Icarus did well enough with
an arm over Tourmaline's shoulder, and soon all of them were standing in
the middle of the town.
Dakota and Brendan were ecstatic
with the find, even while Dakota groused at Cassius for tromping with his
big talons all over the place. He mentioned that there had been a few humans
here just the other night, not to mention gargoyles for who-knew how long,
so she couldn't blame it all on him.
They found the staff set into
the temple doors, and left the two archeologists there to puzzle out the
inscriptions while Birdie joined the rest of them in poking around the
corners and crannies. It was Birdie that found and squeezed into the crevice
that led to the old rookery.
Tourmaline, her own stomach still
perfectly flat despite her condition, was rendered pale and ill by the
sad sight of the ten unhatched eggs. She fled almost as soon as it had
registered on her consciousness, but the others remained to investigate.
"Why didn't they hatch?" Birdie
"It must have been the wrong time
to breed," Corwin said. "According to the Magus, our rookery parents had
quite a ritual in which the leader of the clan would come before the elders
and beg permission for the females to be allowed to breed."
"Sure," she said. "I was there
when Goliath asked Hudson. With the humming and stuff."
Corwin nodded. "Only if hunting
had been good and all the females had sworn mates to provide for them would
the elders agree. If the food wasn't plentiful enough, you see, the females
would be too weak to lay healthy eggs. That could be what happened here,
why there aren't more of Khepri's clan."
"But if all the females sleep
by night and all the males are normal," Ezekiel said, "how'd they manage
to breed in the first place?"
Cassius knelt and fingered some
broken pieces of shell. "Mayhap she can tell us, when she wakes. Look,
brothers … by this, it seems two eggs did hatch. I'd wager Khepri, and
the one whose remains I found, were those two. The rest of their clan must
have died off long since."
"It's magic, I'm telling you,
FM," Birdie said.
"FM?" Corwin asked.
"Fu … uh … never mind." She grinned.
"Something a guy I knew in school used to say."
"I believe I grasp the general
reference." He winked at her.
Brendan wormed his way in and
glanced around without seeming to really see his surroundings. "We've deciphered
some of the hieroglyphs on the door."
"That bad, huh?" Birdie asked.
"Well, Dakota's not inclined to
believe in it because she can still be hard-headed sometimes, despite all
we've seen. She doesn't believe in curses."
"Isn't that suicide for someone
in her line of work? You were the one whose grandfather or whoever was
on the Carter expedition in 1922. Didn't they see it first-hand?"
He looked abashed. "I didn't say
didn't believe in curses."
"Pardon me," Cassius said, "but
what's the matter? What curse?"
"Well," said Brendan, "the inscription
says that the door must remained sealed and guarded, to prevent the transformed
high priest of Wadjet from escaping."
"Transformed," Icarus said. "Into
Brendan spread his hands. "I wish
I knew. But from what we've been able to determine, it looks like Khepri's
clan has been protecting this town for over three thousand years, even
after the last of the humans died or fled."
"And in all that time," Corwin
said, "the doors have never been opened?"
"It doesn't seem so."
"Lemme see if I'm clear on this,"
Birdie said. "Khepri's job, along with her clan, is to protect this place
and make sure the giant grody monster doesn't get out and lay waste to
"Sounds like." Brendan groaned.
"And after Innsbrook, I think I've had enough of giant grody monsters."
"But she's the only one left,
and how much do you want to bet that it takes at least one each of the
Sons of Nut and the Daughters of Ra to hold that thing back?"
"No bet," he said uneasily.
"I'm not much caring for the way
this is headed," Ezekiel said.
"That must be why we were sent,"
Cassius said. "To stop it."
"And save the world?" Corwin inquired
with a rakish lift of brow ridge. "Again?"
Cassius chuckled. "You've had
your turn. This time, I believe the honor is mine." He turned to Brendan
and held out a hand. "Please give me the amulet."
"The coin, the token."
"Oh." He brought it out and looked
uncertainly at Cassius. "We still don't know what it does."
"Here, what do you think you're
doing?" Corwin asked.
"If Birdie is correct and it takes
both kinds of gargoyles to guard that door, then one of us must do it.
One of us must become a Son of Nut. If any are to do so, it should be me."
"Wait, wait! Let's not be hasty
"Don't fuss, Corwin. It's what
I'm meant to do."
"What?" Ezekiel scoffed. "Spend
the rest of your life in this ruin, alone?"
"With Khepri," he corrected.
"Same thing! Except for those
tiny moments at sunrise and sunset."
"That's enough for me. The rest
of the time, I'll have my dreams." Cassius slipped the cord over his head,
where it snagged briefly on his horns. At last he got it straight, and
the coin rested at the top of his breastbone. He felt no prickle of sorcery,
felt no different at all.
"Now, I'm normally one all in
favor of noble self-sacrifice," Corwin said, "but do let's think this through,
"The time for thinking is done."
"When did it begin?" Ezekiel shot
"Settle down, guys," Birdie said.
"Cass, pal, what say you let the rest of us at least talk to your new sweetie,
huh? I mean, ten out of ten to see a guy who's not afraid of commitment,
hip-hip-hooray, but let's find out if she's even on the market before you
buy a ring."
The four male gargoyles looked
at her in varying degrees of blankness, trying to pick their way through
her words to get at the meaning. Brendan was nodding sagely, but by the
way he was shifting from foot to foot, he was plainly eager to get back
out and sift through the ruins.
Cassius grudgingly let the matter
drop, although he did not remove the medallion and dared the others with
a silent stare to make something of it. None of them were so foolhardy.
They left the melancholy rookery
cave single file, rejoining Tourmaline and Dakota above. For Birdie and
the gargoyles, the rest of the night passed with agonizing slowness, especially
for Cassius. For Brendan and Dakota, it was, he believed the term was,
hog heaven. They bandied about terms like 'find of the century' and 'expedition
grants,' and talked Tourmaline into taking Ezekiel and Corwin back on a
few trips to ferry more of their equipment and camping gear up from the
After the long hours had dragged
by, it was almost dawn. Pulse thundering in anticipation, Cassius went
to the pillar where he had so carefully placed Khepri. Their curiosity
getting the better of them, his brothers and sisters grouped behind him
to watch something they had personally experienced countless times over
the years of their lives, but never actually seen.
It was miraculous … the way the
growing pale light made stone seem alive, the way a web of tiny cracks
raced across the surface, widening. Cassius felt the sleepy lethargy fill
his limbs and fought it, tried to resist, just a moment longer, just a
moment more …
Khepri's eyes flared, not red
like the females of his clan but with a brilliant golden flash like the
sun caught in mirrors. Her stony coating fell away in pieces and she gasped,
blinking, seeing. Her gaze found him, hesitantly returned his smile.
Once again, they reached out,
but this time it was he that turned to stone just before they could touch.
"Whoa, hey, take it easy!" Birdie
shouted as Khepri came at them like vengeance made flesh. "We're not the
droids you're looking for!"
Should have foreseen that … she
thought they were with Hollister's bunch, the ones that Cassius thought
had killed the last of her clan. She wasn't taking it well, understandably.
Dakota called, "Khepri!" and followed
it with a slew of gabble in what Birdie figured was Egyptian. Whatever
she said was enough to get the bronze female to simmer down and not immediately
rip out their internal organs.
While they conversed, Birdie soaked
up Khepri with her eyes. She could see why Cassius was totally-gonzo-smitten;
Khepri was a babe. What really intrigued Birdie, though, was the outfit
and the jewelry and the hairdo.
"Just like that," she said. "For
my character. I want a wicked-bitchin' necklace just like that."
Uncle Brendan was trying to follow
the conversation but his written Egyptian was always going to be better
than his spoken Egyptian, and he took the time out to say, "I doubt they'll
have the budget for real gold."
"Real, schmeal, so long as it
looks that cool."
The sun had climbed more than
halfway to noon by the time Dakota and Khepri had worked things out. Evidently,
her full name was Asim Khepri, the 'Asim' part a title, meaning 'protector.'
Her brother had been Asim Badru, and they'd been siblings in the most literal
sense of the word, having the same parents.
The gargoyle, looking both stunned
and near tears, hunkered down at the base of her pillar and wrapped her
arms around her knees. She looked so forlorn that Birdie thought about
going over and giving her a hug, but first she had to hear what Dakota
had to say.
"Between what she told me, and
what I got from the hieroglyphs, sometimes I'm ashamed to be a human."
"That bad?" Brendan asked.
Dakota took a deep breath. "Her
clan's been protecting this town for thousands of years. Dozens of generations.
Dozens of generations, all suckered into the same stupid, selfish trap.
The story has it that after the priest was cursed and sealed away, the
told the gargoyles that he was taking the rest of the humans away for their
own safety until they'd found a way to dispose of the priest once and for
all. Until then, the gargoyles were to stay here and guard the temple,
and make sure he didn't get out. But the humans had no intention of coming
"What?" blurted Birdie. "Are you
saying they abandoned the gargoyles? On purpose?"
"That's what I'm saying. It was
a big clan back then, a hundred or more. Probably took a lot of effort
to keep them fed. The humans were tired of it and seized the first excuse
that came along to get away from the responsibility."
"Abandoned them," Birdie said
again. "Like summer people in New England who buy a puppy and then decide
they can't take it back to Boston or New York, and ditch it by the side
of the road. Goddammit, that sucks."
"And they've waited. Three thousand
years, they've waited?" Brendan whistled. "That is faithfulness."
"All the while expecting that
the humans would come back any day now," Dakota said. "Meanwhile, their
clan dwindled and died off, until Khepri and her brother were the only
"Jeez," Birdie said. "That sucks
"I bet there wasn't ever even
any real danger from the priest," Dakota said. "The story goes that he
was turned into some sort of --"
"Giant grody monster," said Birdie
and Brendan together.
"But I wouldn't be surprised if
that was just something the nomarch made up to give the gargoyles
a good reason to stay, a reason they could feel proud of."
"What a bastardly thing to do!"
"So here's the gargoyles, the
faithful, dutiful gargoyles, waiting and waiting for the humans to return,
while those humans were probably off in some other town making a nice prosperous
life, congratulating themselves on how nicely they'd solved the problem."
Dakota shook her head in disgust.
"I hope they were eaten by crocodiles,"
Birdie grumbled. "Did you tell Khepri all that? No … look at her … dumb
question. How do you come to terms with the idea that your whole life,
and all your ancestors', was wasted on some bogus promise? That your clan's
sacred duty was a pile of sacred doody?"
"Shut up, Birdie, we get the picture,"
Brendan said. "What's she going to do?"
"Well," said Dakota, "the introduction
of new gargoyles makes for a twist. It turns out she'd been dreaming about
Cassius, too. If you believe in such things, I guess you could argue that
it means they're meant to be together."
"Even though they're on opposite
schedules?" asked Birdie.
"Somehow, her clan made it work.
It does have something to do with the amulets; we were right about that.
She said she isn't sure how, but she remembers her mother being able to
switch back and forth."
Brendan glanced sympathetically
at Khepri, who had lowered her brow onto her knees. "Poor thing … will
she go with them, do you think?"
"There's nothing for her here,"
"But it is still her home," Dakota
said. "She's never known anyplace else, and might not feel right about
up and leaving when she's the last of her clan. Besides, humans have
come back. Us."
"Yeah, but, like, we're not staying."
Seeing the firm, resolute expression that firmed Dakota's jaw, Birdie groaned.
"You're not serious!"
"It's a hell of a find," Brendan
said. "We could spend thirty years on this site. It's the sort of thing
"Every archeologist dreams of,
yadda-yadda, tenure, grant money, documentaries, the lecture circuit, et
cetera, I get it. You just cannot pass up the chance to poke around in
that temple, even if there does turn out to be a giant grody monster in
there, can you?"
"Nope," said Dakota. "And it's
not like we had anything else planned."
"Excuse me … back to L.A., Bruce
Campbell, television show, maybe they will be able to get Hugh Jackman
as the sinister vizier, I am not giving that up."
"No, you'd go back, of course.
But they only need us for the occasional consultation," Brendan said. "We
can do that from here just as easily as we can from the States. Believe
me, we would never stand between you and stardom."
"Well, okay," Birdie said, mollified.
"But what does Khepri have to say about it? She's dedicated her life to
guarding that temple. Is she just going to let you waltz in there and start
tagging and bagging?"
"I think she will," Dakota said.
"After all, her clan was supposed to wait until someone came to dispose
of the priest, and that's one way to do it."
"Most of all," said Brendan with
a smile, "she wouldn't be alone anymore, especially if Cassius has any
say in the matter."
Dusk was approaching, the shadows
lengthening over Akhetsu.
Khepri looked at the three humans
as she raised her hands behind her head and felt the hard disk of gold
in her hair. Her fingertips traced the emblem of Ra and the enormity of
what she was about to attempt made her tremble in uncertainty.
The sheltered valley was already
so different, with their campsite set up and their tools scattered about.
She wanted very much to believe that they could, by their explorations
and discoveries, make Akhetsu live again.
For the first time in millennia,
the doors to the temple had been opened. Khepri had regarded this with
a good deal of alarm, but contrary to everything she'd been told since
hatchlinghood on, no bloodthirsty, ravening beast came lunging out of the
darkness below. Only stale air, puffing harmlessly against the breathing-masks
the humans wore.
"Places like this," Brendan had
explained, "sealed off, with no ventilation, can be a hotbed of spores
and anaerobic bacteria. Early explorers would breathe that stuff in and
it'd kill them, for no apparent reason as far as their friends could see,
and that lent itself pretty well to talk of curses."
They elected, despite temptation,
to wait until the next day to venture inside. But the strong beams of their
flashlights, shining across the floor, found the skeletons of three men
in ornate priestly robes and golden and olivine headdresses in the shape
of a cobra's hood.
But, giving some proof to the
old legends, another set of bones was visible. These were not human, not
entirely. The enlarged skull was that of a man except for the elongated
fangs, but the body lacked arms and legs, having only the stacked vertebrae
and ribs of a serpent that must have been upwards of fifty feet in length.
The priest had been transformed,
into a man-headed snake of enormous size. But he had died, died thousands
of years ago.
Seeing that was all the confirmation
Khepri needed to believe everything Dakota said. A hollow ache engulfed
her heart as she thought of her clan, ancestors stretching back beyond
memory, standing by their oath when all along, there had been no need.
"I was kinda braced for a big
battle with the giant grody monster," Birdie said. "Glad to be wrong, though."
Their speech was still strange
to her, but Khepri was beginning to make sense of it. From time to time
in her youth, some of the clan had ventured out from Akhetsu to hunt, gather
food, or seek other supplies. They'd come back with news of things such
as the 'truck' and the way the languages had changed. But if one could
just learn how to listen, one could understand.
So she had listened, as these
three humans chattered throughout the long afternoon, and now it was almost
as easy as gliding.
The bottom rim of the sun touched
the curve of the earth. Khepri tightened her grasp on the amulet in her
hair. As she felt the process begin, she pulled the disk loose and held
it out to Dakota.
The sun set, turning the sky to
purple and deep blue. With crackling sounds and a sudden explosion of grit
and stone dust, the five gargoyles standing in a group around Khepri's
pillar came to life. Their eyes blazed, they roared and growled …
And she was witnessing it. She
A weak cry escaped her, enough
to instantly draw Cassius' attention. He came toward her, holding out a
hand as if he expected her to slip away into sleep before his very eyes.
She reached out. Touched him.
Warm, leathery skin against hers, the contrast of his red-tinted black
with her bronze-gold striking a powerful chord in her. Night and day, even
in appearance they were as different as night and day … but defining each
other by that contrast. He was wearing Badru's amulet, the image of Nut.
"You're awake," he said. "Khepri
… you're awake?"
"Cassius." Her voice shook with
unshed tears, these ones of amazement and delight. "I am."
"We have a lot to tell you," Dakota
said to the rest of them. "But I think the most important thing is readily
She went on to explain the rest,
the truth of the past and the plans for the future, while Khepri and Cassius
stood gazing raptly at each other.
"So," said a male whose hair was
pure white and whose skin was even more warmly gold than her own, "I have
the feeling that our little clan is about to decrease by one."
"You're going to stay, Cassius?"
asked a mottled-green male, as if he could not imagine a more horrible
fate. "Give up our travels, give up going home to Avalon? For her?"
"Avalon sent me here," Cassius
said, never looking away from Khepri. "If I'm wanted, I'll stay, gladly."
"I don't know as we got the best
deal in this trade," Tourmaline said, glowering as Corwin landed on the
deck of the Mists' Passage. "In fact, I'm sure we didn't."
"It wasn't a trade, sister dear.
We're just doing a favor."
"By getting her out of their hair."
"By seeing a young lady home."
He deposited the last of Birdie Yale's luggage and grinned brightly. "She'll
be entertaining company."
"I worry for you, Corwin, I truly
do. We only just got rid of the last batch of humans you collected."
"Come now, Tourmaline, they're
not all bad. As I recall, you were quite taken with at least one in particular."
He tapped the hilt of the sword she wore.
Tourmaline flushed, remembering
her uncharacteristic reaction to the Grandmaster. Or perhaps not that
uncharacteristic; he had been status and power incarnate, something she'd
always craved and sought in a male. But it was hardly the same thing. Hardly
Birdie appeared from belowdecks,
beaming. "This is a nice boat, you guys. Much better than the little skiff
Uncle Brendan was stuck with. But tell me you do have control over it,
right? We're not going to be jaunting around for months and months, right?
Because I have to be back in L.A. in six weeks."
"I assure you," Tourmaline said
with heartfelt sincerity, "we'll see that you make it well before that."
"I've been meaning to ask, anyway,"
she said, "why you're all out here anyway. Away from Avalon. From what
I've heard, it sounds like a pretty soft and cushy place."
"That's precisely the problem,"
Corwin said. "We're rebels. Outcasts. Troublemakers. A few too many fights
with the clan, and they were glad to see the tail end of us."
"Well, not all of us. Cassius
was only interested in finding love, and me? I'm … why am I here,
"I ask myself that every night,"
she replied coldly, and walked away, knowing, just knowing that
he and his new human pet were exchanging smirks and giggles behind her
She came to the stern, where Icarus
was waiting, as solid and dour as ever. The muddy pool of the oasis was
barely big enough to hold the craft, but when she gave the command, he
leaned on the pole and they began to move.
Cassius, Khepri, Brendan, and
Dakota waved to them from the dunes. Tourmaline raised a hand in farewell
as tendrils of streaming mist formed out of nowhere and blotted them from
Once more, the Mists' Passage
resumed its journey, carrying four gargoyles and one human on to meet their