From the Private Journal of Ric Havoc:
Sunrise over the vast, trackless wastes of the Egyptian desert was a time for goodbyes. Our new friend Caliph Ismail bid a fond and enthusiastic farewell to us, though I could not help but notice the lack of his charming, sloe-eyed daughter Fatima. Ah, sweet Fatima, the cruel desert gods did not gift us with enough time. Perhaps given a few more nights I could storm that citadel, but I guess it’s not meant to be. We two are not fated to sail Homer’s wine dark seas of the Mediterranean like that Howard fella’s swordsman and his warrior woman Bêlit. Ah well, not to be. With a new dawn comes a new day, and maybe new dames if luck is to be good to us.
Sadly, in terms of luck, it’s hard to make the argument it’s rolling in our favor. Instead of a dusky, smoldering princess of the desert we have brother Jusef to keep us company. He’s a damn sight uglier and his breath is about as bad as the back end of these godforsaken camels we’re forced to ride now. Come to think of it, their front end ain’t much better than the back. Still, we’re traveling in force now, with a good half dozen or more of Jusef’s best mates to help protect us against the dangers of the desert and the Germans. Which should be more reassuring that it is.
Two days of travel prove less than productive in the congeniality department. Jusef and his lads are largely keeping to themselves, despite my attempts to banter with them in their home tongue. Still, we are delivered safely to a small outcropping of ruins as night falls. It’s not exactly what we saw projected from the unusual marble currently under the protection of Miss Barnes, but Jusef assures us this is the place. At least there is some shelter from the sand and wind, and a place to make a fire before nightfall. Tracking can be tricky in the desert, as the wind and shifting sands conceal spoor and sign quite swiftly, but even so it is apparent we are the first men to tread in this area for many moons.
Never the best wake up call, when the camp scrambles to in the middle of the night, we discover one of our Bedouin friends has gone and set their tent aflame. Putting out a fire is a challenge even in the best of circumstances, but in the midst of a desert, with water at a premium, it is particularly beastly. We wind up losing a good share of the supplies, which is depressing. The fire also cooks up a fair bit of the lamb and goat we had set aside, which is less depressing, on account of being quite tasty when it comes down to it. I try to make small talk and buck up spirits with the tribesmen over some remnants of lamb shiskabob, but they are not much for banter and we start to settle down into a sullen sulk until morning.
The fire seems to have done more than just gut our supplies and planning. Like the beacon at Alexandria, it has alerted the desert to our presence, and another group of natives, looking rather unfriendly, bear down upon us in the night. As we note the approach of flashing blades and muskets held at the ready, Agent Alpha scrambles over to our Bedouin allies to enlist their aid in calming the new locals. The hail of musket fire drowns out the end of his words, and it appears attempts at a peaceful parlay will not be successful this morning.
I can feel the tug of a musket ball at the button on the epaulette of my right shoulder as I rise to my feet, filling my hand with the smooth, ivory handle of Nora. I can see Jusef and the Bedouins rising from their beds and clambering atop their camels to lead a charge in our defense.
Or at least, that’s what they would be doing if they were in fact staunch allies. Instead they flee faster than Babe Didrickson in the LA Coliseum. I catch bits of Jusef’s words as he rides out of sight, driving his camel furiously away from the fight, and it’s something to the effect of “Let us go! Our friends will be here soon enough!” Now, I can’t tell you what that means, but I don’t rightly have time to worry, because a swarm of angry, musket shooting, saber waving tribesmen are filling the courtyard and chaos is my top priority right now. It’s one of those moments when your blood is up and you’re about to find out if you have what it takes to be a legend. Bully! From behind me I hear the bark of a Smith and Wesson Model 10 and I realize Miss Barnes has joined the fight as I see one of the raiders jerk back at the shoulder.
Nora comes alive in my hands, my left hand fanning as fast as the eye can see three more raiders go down in clouds of smoke and thunder. Barnes misses a shot at another as many of them ditch their one shot muskets and bring the fight to us, sabers and scimitars waving and glinting in the firelight.
Two cruel, curved blades shred half of my shirt, but I can barely feel the scratches on my chest, so the cuts can’t be too deep. From the corner of my eye I see the familiar golden .45 sparking in Agent Alpha’s hand as I fan off the final three rounds in Nora’s cylinder. The desert savages are swift though, and two dive out of the incoming fire although one round takes the head clean off a third.
I can hear Dr. Durant’s gun chiming in, wounding another as they swarm into the courtyard and around the fires, their camels’ hooves thundering and churning up the blood and smoke-choked sand. Doc Totem now has twin Webley’s blazing away in his hands, adding to the chaos swirling around me. I can see Alpha chasing down a fleeing straggler and finishing him off silhouetted in the gateway.
The remainder of the raiders are wheeling their camels to flee, shouting curses upon us in their native tongue, swearing the vengeance of the desert will destroy us come sunrise. I realize none of us want them to betray anything about our position to the Germans, most likely still tracking the same ruins as we are.
Miss Barnes steps forward and snaps off a shot I swear would have gelded a hummingbird at a hundred paces. In this case though, it just happened to catch an unfortunate Bedouin, glancing back over his shoulder as he fled, square between his beady eyes. Well I can’t let a little lady outshoot me like that, so given that Nora is down to her last shotgun shell and buckshot ain’t worth spit at a rapidly retreating camel rider, I let the Le Mat drop and snap my Mauser up to my shoulder, rapidly acquiring the head of a fleeing tribesman with my front sight post as a squeeze the trigger. The familiar recoil tugs at my shoulder as he drops from the saddle like a marionette with the strings cut. Agent Alpha, framed in the firelight in the gaping wide gateway to the courtyard, lines up a last shot with his golden gun, and no stragglers will run to tell the tale of what transpired in the shadows of this ruined gatehouse.
The I can feel the rushing sound in my ears as the adrenaline washes away, and the sensation of a few scattered nicks and cuts make their presence known as stinging sweat trickles its way into the bloodstream. Another battle is over. Another time I’m still standing.
When the killing temper is up, you hold your breath. You don’t even realize you’re doing it half the time. I can feel the breath leaving. I can feel myself exhaling for the first time. That’s when I see Dr. Durant running around, goggles pushed back on her head keeping the hair out of her eyes, trying to wrangle up whatever camels we can still manage to keep together. Remembering that there’s probably a fair bit of water in canteens on the back of those beasts, I figger it’s a pretty good idea to set to and start rounding ‘em up with her.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love a mule. A mule will take you to Hell and back. A mule will never miss a step, never complain, and get you home safe every single time they step out of the corral. Hell, even a good quarter horse’ll have your back, keep you on the trail and get you where you need to get. Camels? Camels come from the deepest, darkest bowels of Satan’s worst Hell. If the Jesuits at St. Ignatius taught me anything about the suffering in Hell, you get your start off in the First Circle of Limbo with your unbaptized babies and pagans; you got everything on the way down from Lust in the Second Circle to the Gluttons in the Third Circle and so forth down to the Judas and the treacherous in the Ninth Circle. If there’s a Tenth Circle, that’s where they make camels. I hate the fornicatin’ things. More ornery than a Texas ranch hand with a burr under the saddle, more contrary than a dame who got herself some learning and filled her head with ideas. Camels are a bad business. But right now, given our supply situation, they’re the only business in town. I help Doc Kate out with getting them to heel and getting the hobbles on them to keep ‘em from rambling.
I hate camels.
Just another tally in the accounts book for the payback I’m going to owe Jusef when I see the sonofabitch.
By the time I get back to the others, Miss Barnes is rattling on about how “Fatima’s friends have run out on us.” Now, I can’t let a slight like that stand on a fine, upstanding…well, I can’t let that slight stand on a lovely desert jewel like the Caliph’s daughter, so I start heaping more blame at the feet of ol’ Jusef. Alpha comes out of sifting through the burning wreckage of the tents with Doc Totem and adds another piece to the puzzle. Seems our buddy Jusef has a German instruction manual for a portable radio. Now the pieces are falling into place. Looks like Jusef’s making a play against big brother with the Krauts for backing. I can’t see anybody educated at Oxford in England getting cozy with the German’s when they’re flexing like they want to start flying their flag over half of Europe and I say as much. Well Doc Kate and Agent Alpha seem to bowl over laughing at my grasp of politics and I swear I see a smirk out of Miss Barnes. There’s a reason I guess that I spend most of my time out in the wilds. I’m not so swift with reading the tell tales with the trade winds on dry land.
Leaving debates on the state of European politics to others, I head over to the open gates and I’m rewarded with a glorious sunrise, rosy Turner skies emerging in the east over the dusty, desert plains. Through the shimmering light I see the damnedest thing.
Rising up in the shimmering light, like a humpback cresting off the coast of Newfoundland, spires start to form, emerging from the desert. First towers, then crumbling walls arise, like a giant awaking and shaking the sleep detritus of hibernation from tired bones we see the ruins from Miss Barnes’ marble forming up in the first light of desert dawn. I turn back to the gang, starting slack-jawed in awe, except for Doc Kate, who is feverishly drawing in her Moleskine. This is why we all do what we do. There is nothing in the world like raw wonderment.
Once we get everyone on camelback, it’s still a good hour or so until we’re reaching the emerging ruins. This tends to underscore the cyclopean massiveness of the thing. It goes without saying tracking is useless here. How do you look for tracks among ruins that only an hour ago were rising out of the desert sands?
Clearly, the Docs are in their element here. Totem and Kate are like kids in front of the Woolworth’s window at Christmas. It’s too faint to see much of anything with the hieroglyphs, but Doc Kate starts shouting when she spies a large engraving of the twin knights or horseback. Doc Totem storms over there with a gleam in his eye like a sailor coming down the gangway to the red light district in Manila. He hollers that the stone is loose and I whip out my kukri and head over and set to start prying at the rock. A bit of work from the team and the stone gives way, opening onto a dark stairway leading down a twisting spiral into the darkness below. We gather up the gang, I chamber a round in the old Mauser, and it’s down into the darkness for us.
After what seems like an eternity, spiraling downward further and further into the darkness below, the stairs open onto a massive chamber like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Even the slightest bit of light from the torches is magnified a hundredfold by polished silver niches on the wall and a great golden dome of a ceiling. Elaborate carved columns, thicker than a man, stretch floor to ceiling to hold up the enormous vaulted expanse. A river of dark, fast rushing water gurgles noisily through the room, weaving among towering stone shelves like bookcases, but devoid of texts or any other impediment. Graven stone sarcophagi line the walls, and across the room, lording over a small golden box, stands an ibis headed statue. It’s Thoth, if I remember my Book of the Dead, Egyptian god of knowledge. (The anthropology mumbo jumbo was great for fascinating coeds back in the day… have I ever told you that you have the eyes of Astarte, The Akkadian warrior goddess? More wine?)
Sand and dust across the floor partly covers a mosaic bearing a Latin inscription, but I can make out enough of it to vocalize “Let the Returned Eye be your passage to safety…” as I translate in my head, and say a silent prayer of thanks to Father Martin for cracking my knuckles so often in 9th grade Latin. It’s nice to be rewarded with appreciative looks from the eggheads when they forget for a moment that I’m pretty much just here to tame the wilderness and crack skulls.
Miss Barnes digs the marble out of her pocket as I watch her lips mouth the words “Returned Eye” and start searching the room for something. I figure we’re going to need to get across the rushing waters and leap across a narrow spot with a running leap. With a rope tossed to me, I lash it to a pillar with one of the biggest clove hitches I can recall tying and folks start to work on fording the stream. That’s when the water starts churning. I’ve been to every corner of the globe, from Alaska to Zagreb, and never in that time has water that starts churning of its own volition been a good thing.
As if in answer to a question I never wanted to ask, out of the roiling mess rises a massive serpent, with wicked spines sprouting from its flanks, skeletons pinioned to its body in aged and rusted mail, each scale gleaming in the reflected light with an oily sheen of articulated metal. It makes a horrible hissings noise as it rears back, and that’s when I see the gleam from a single eye, the other socket looking dark and hollow. Dark, hollow, and suspiciously similar in size to the orb Miss Barnes clutches in her right palm.
Tossing the Mauser aside I spring onto the back of the best, leaving both hands free to find purchase on the spiny, scaly carapace. “Throw me the marble!” I shout at the top of my lungs as the metal mass starts to shift under my feet. I hear the horrible, hypnotic clacking and mechanical clicking inside the beast as it shifts and shimmies through the dark water stream.
Brave Doc Totem strides out into the middle of the stream like Wyatt Earp on the western plains and snaps off a shot from the booming Webley .455 hand cannon that pings uselessly off the metal hide of the serpent. The huge head lunges forward, snapping at Doc, and I figure him for a goner, but there’s an odd spring sound and an oily black liquid shoots out the side of a fang rather than into the Doc and he seems okay for now.
I see Miss Barnes, in her tweed trousers and vest, clambering up one of the bookcase structures and wonder what she’s on about, until she leaps from the top of the stone case onto the head of the snake. I let out a low whistle. I’ll say one thing for the dame, she’s got some guts that’s for sure.
The snake bites Agent Alpha, but he’s got some kind of armoring under his coat, and the fangs won’t penetrate. He scrambles up with me on the back of the thing. It shudders and shakes like a Voodoo queen in a Louisiana swamp show but we all manage to hang on for now. I see Doc Totem in the middle of the stream hollering his mumbo jumbo and calling down the strength of Gilgamesh. Damned if he don’t start vibrating in the water and I’m pretty sure he puffed up like one of them tropical fish with the spines.
I find what hand and foot holds I can to get up on the head with Miss Barnes, but it’s the nick of time when the snake goes into shake mode again and we’re whipping around like a ride on the carnival midway. I see Alpha spilling off into the drink and Barnes looks like she’s doing the same, but I clamp one hand on a flap of scale behind the horns of the snake and shoot the other hand out to grab her. Between me and the recently buffed up Doc Totem below, we manage to steady her back on the snake’s head.
Miss Barnes jams that glass orb in the eye socket and the whole thing starts grinding and clacking but slowly and surely, shutting down. We clamber for sure as it slips beneath the slowly calming waters and finally remember to breathe.
Still, one can’t help but wonder what surprises the Treasure of the Templars still has in store for us.