Blood Linespart #3 of Vicki Nelson Series by Tanya Huff / Horror / Mystery & Detective
He had been almost aware for some time. Nothingness had shattered when they removed him from the chamber long concealed behind the centuries empty tomb of a forgotten priest. The final layer of the binding spell had been written on the rock wall smashed to gain access and, with that gone, the spell itself had begun to fray.
Every movement frayed it further. The surrounding ka, more souls than had been near him in millennia, called him to feed. Slowly, he reached for memory.
Then, just as he brushed against self and had only to reach out and grasp it and draw home the key to his freedom, the movement stopped and the lives went away. But the nothingness didn't quite return.
And that was the worst of all.
Sixteenth Dynasty, thought Dr. Rax running his finger lightly along the upper surface of the plain, unadorned rectangle of black basalt. Strange, when the rest of the collection was Eighteenth. He could now, however, understand why the British were willing to let the artifact go; although it was a splendid example of its type, it was neither going to bring new visitors flocking to the galleries nor was it likely to shed much light on the past.
Besides, thanks to the acquisitiveness of aristocracy with more money than brains, Great Britain has all the Egyptian antiquities it can hope to use. Dr. Rax was careful not to let that thought show on his face, as a member of said aristocracy, albeit of a more recent vintage, fidgeted at his shoulder.
Too well bred to actually ask, the fourteenth Baron Montclair leaned forward, hands shoved into the pockets of his crested blazer.
Dr. Rax, unsure if the younger man was looking worried or merely vacant, attempted to ignore him. And I thought Monty Python created the concept of the upper-class twit, he mused as he continued his inspection. How foolish of me.
Unlike most sarcophagi, the artifact Dr. Rax examined had no lid but rather a sliding stone panel in one narrow end. Briefly, he wondered why that feature alone hadn't been enough to interest the British museums. As far as he knew the design survived on only one other sarcophagus, an alabaster beauty found by Zakaria Goneim in the unfinished step pyramid of Sekhem-khet.
Behind him, the fourteenth baron cleared his throat.
Dr. Rax continued to ignore him.
Although one corner had been chipped, the sarcophagus was in very good condition. Tucked away in one of the lower cellars of the Monclairs' ancestral home for almost a hundred years, it seemed to have been ignored by everything including time.
And excluding spiders. He brushed aside a dusty curtain of webbing, frowned, and with fingers that wanted to tremble, pulled a penlight out of his suit pocket.
"I say, is something wrong?" The fourteenth baron had an excuse for sounding a little frantic. The very exclusive remodeling firm would be arriving in a little under a month to turn the ancestral pile into a very exclusive health club and that great bloody stone box was sitting right where he'd planned to put the women's sauna.
The thudding of Dr. Rax's heart almost drowned out the question. He managed to mutter, "Nothing. " Then he knelt and very carefully played the narrow beam of light over the lower edge of the sliding plate. Centered on the mortared seam, six inches above the base of the sarcophagus, was an oval of clay-a nearly perfect intact clay seal stamped with, as far as Dr. Rax could tell through the dust and the spider webs, the cartouche of Thoth, the ancient Egyptian god of wisdom.
Just for a moment, he forgot to breathe. An intact seal could mean only one thing. The sarcophagus wasn't-as everyone had assumed-empty.
For a dozen heartbeats, he stared at the seal and struggled with his conscience. The Brits had already said they didn't want the artifact. He was under no obligation to let them know what they were giving away. On the other hand? He sighed, switched off the penlight, and stood. "I need to make a call," he told the anxious peer. "If you could show me to a phone. "
'Dr. Rax, what a pleasant surprise. Still out at Haversted Hall are you? Get a look at his lordship's 'bloody-great-black-stone-box'?"
'As a matter of fact, yes. And that's why I've called. " He took a deep breath; best to get it over with quickly, the loss might hurt less. "Dr. Davis, did you actually send one of your people out here to look at the sarcophagus. "
'Why?" The British Egyptologist snorted. "Need some help identifying it?"
Abruptly, Dr. Rax remembered why, and how much, he disliked the other man. "I think I can manage to classify it, thank you. I was just wondering if any of your people had seen the artifact. "
'No need. We saw the rest of the junk Montclair dragged out of his nooks and crannies. You'd think that with all the precious bits and pieces leaving Egypt at the time, his Lordship's ancestor could have brought home something worthwhile, even by accident, wouldn't you?"
Professional ethics warred with desire. Ethics won. "About the sarcophagus?"
'Look, Dr. Rax?" On the other end of the line, Dr. Davis sighed explosively. "? this sarcophagus might be a big thing for you, but trust me, we've got all we need. We have storerooms of important, historically significant artifacts we may never have time to study. " And you don't, was the not too subtly implied message. "I think we can allow one unadorned hunk of basalt to go to the colonies. "
'So I can send for my preparators and start packing it up?" Dr. Rax asked quietly, his tone in severe contrast to the white-knuckled grip that twisted the phone cord.
'If you're sure you don't want to use a couple of my people?"
Not if my only other option was to carry the sarcophagus on my lap all the way home. "No, thank you. I'm sure all your people have plenty of historically significant things to do. "
'Well, if that's the way you want it, be my guest. I'll have the paperwork done up and sent down to you at the Hall. You'll be able to get your artifact out of the country as easily as if it were a plaster statue of Big Ben. " Which, his tone said clearly, is about its equivalent value.
'Thank you, Dr. Davis. " You pompous, egocentric asshole. Dr. Rax added silently as he hung up. Oh, well, he soothed his lacerated conscience, no one can say I didn't try.
He straightened his jacket and turned to face the hovering baron, smiling reassuringly. "I believe you said that 50,000 pounds was your asking price??"
'Uh, Dr. Rax?" Karen Lahey stood and dusted off her knees. "Are you sure the Brits don't want this?"
'Positive. " Dr. Rax touched his breast and listened for a second to the comforting rustle of papers in his suit pocket. Dr. Davis had been as good as his word. The sarcophagus could leave England as soon as it was packed and insurance had been arranged.
Karen glanced down at the seal. That it held the cartouche of Thoth and not one of the necropolis symbols was rare enough. What the seal implied was rarer still. "They knew about?" She waved a hand at the clay disk.
'I called Dr. Davis right after I discovered it. " Which was true, as far as it went.
She frowned and glanced over at the other preparator. His expression matched hers. Something was wrong. No one in his right mind would give up a sealed sarcophagus and the promise that represented. "And Dr. Davis said??" she prodded.
'Dr. Davis said, and I quote, 'This sarcophagus might be a big thing for you, but we've got all we need. We have storerooms of important, historically significant artifacts we may never have time to study. ' " Dr. Rax hid a smile at the developing scowls. "And then he added, 'I think we can let one unadorned hunk of basalt go to the colonies. '"
'You didn't tell him about the seal, did you, Doctor?"
He shrugged. "After that, would you?"
Karen's scowl deepened. "I wouldn't tell that patronizing son of a bitch, excuse my French, the time of day. You leave this with us, Dr. Rax, and we'll pack it up so that even the spiderwebs arrive intact. "
Her companion nodded. "Colonies," he snorted. "Just who the hell does he think he is?"
Dr. Rax had to stop himself from skipping as he left the room. The Curator of Egyptology, Royal Ontario Museum, did not skip. It wasn't dignified. But no one mortared, then sealed, an empty coffin.
'Yes!" He allowed himself one jubilant punch at the air in the privacy of the deserted upper cellar. "We've got ourselves a mummy!"
The movement had begun again and the memories strengthened. Sand and sun. Heat. Light. He had no need to remember darkness; darkness had been his companion for too long.
As the weight of the sarcophagus made flying out of the question, a leisurely trip back across the Atlantic on the grand old lady of luxury ocean liners, the QE II, would have been nice. Unfortunately, the acquisitions budget had been stretched almost to the breaking point with the purchase and the packing and the insurance and the best the museum could afford was a Danish freighter heading out of Liverpool for Halifax. The ship left England on October 2nd. God and the North Atlantic willing, she'd reach Canada in ten days.
Dr. Rax sent the two preparators back by plane and he himself traveled with the artifact. It was foolish, he knew, but he didn't want to be parted from it. Although the ship occasionally carried passengers, the accommodations were spartan and the meals, while nourishing, were plain. Dr. Rax didn't notice. Refused access to the cargo hold where he could be near the sarcophagus and the mummy he was sure it contained, he stayed as close as he could, caught up on paperwork, and at night lay in his narrow bunk and visualized the opening of the coffin.
Sometimes, he removed the seal and slid the end panel up in the full glare of the media; the find of the century, on every news program and front page in the world. There'd be book contracts, and speaking tours, and years of research as the contents were studied, then removed to be studied further.
Sometimes, it was just him and his staff, working slowly and meticulously. Pure science. Pure discovery. And still the years of research.
He imagined the contents in every possible form or combination of forms. Some nights expanding on the descriptions, some nights simplifying. It wouldn't be a royal mummy-more likely a priest or an official of the court- and so hopefully would have missed the anointing with aromatic oils that had partially destroyed the mummy of Tutankhamen.
He grew so aware of it that he felt he could go into the hold and pick its container out of hundreds of identical containers. His thoughts became filled with it to the exclusion of all else; of the sea, of the ship, of the sailors. One of the Portuguese sailors began making the sign against the evil eye whenever he approached.
He started to speak to it each night before he slept.
'Soon," he told it. "Soon. "
He remembered a face, thin and worried, bending over him and constantly muttering. He remembered a hand, the soft skin damp with sweat as it brushed his eyes closed. He remembered terror as he felt the fabric laid across his face. He remembered pain as the strip of linen that held the spell was wrapped around him and secured.
But he couldn't remember self.
He could sense only one ka, and that at such a distance he knew it must be reaching for him as he reached for it.
"Soon," it told him. "Soon. "
He could wait.
The air at the museum loading dock was so charged with suppressed excitement that even the driver of the van, a man laconic to the point of legend, became infected. He pulled the keys out of his pocket like he was pulling a rabbit out of a hat and opened the van doors with a flourish that added a silent Tah dah to the proceedings.
The plywood packing crate, reinforced with two by twos and strapping, looked no different from any number of other crates that the Royal Ontario Museum had received over the years, but the entire Egyptology Department-none of whom had a reason to be down in Receiving-surged forward and Dr. Rax beamed like the Madonna must have beamed into the manger.
Preparators did not usually unload trucks. They unloaded this one. And as much as he single-handedly wanted to carry the crate up to the workroom, Dr. Rax stood aside and let them get on with it. His mummy deserved the best.
'Hail the conquering hero comes. " Dr. Rachel Shane, the assistant curator, walked over to stand beside him. "Welcome back, Elias. You look a little tired. "
'I haven't been sleeping well," Dr. Rax admitted, rubbing eyes already rimmed with red. "Guilty conscience?"
He snorted, recognizing she was teasing. "Strange dreams about being tied down and slowly suffocating. "
'Maybe you're being possessed. " She nodded at the crate.
He snorted again. "Maybe the Board of Directors has been trying to contact me. " Glancing around, he scowled at the rest of his staff. "Don't you lot have anything better to do than stand around watching a wooden box come off a truck?"
Only the newest grad student looked nervous, the others merely grinned and collectively shook their heads.
Dr. Rax grinned as well; he couldn't help himself. He was exhausted and badly in need of something more sustaining than the coffee and fast food they'd consumed at every stop between Halifax and Toronto, but he'd also never felt this elated. This artifact had the potential to put the Royal Ontario Museum, already an internationally respected institution, on the scientific map and everyone in the room knew it. "As much as I'd like to believe that all this excitement is directed at my return, I know damned well it isn't. " No one bothered to protest. "And as you can now see there's nothing to see, why don't the lot of you head back up to the workroom where we can all jump about and enthuse in the privacy of our own department?"
Behind him, Dr. Shane added her own silent but emphatic endorsement to that suggestion.
It took more than a few last, lingering looks at the crate, but, finally, Receiving emptied.
'I suppose the whole building knows what we've got?" Dr. Rax asked as he and Dr. Shane followed the crate and the preparators onto the freight elevator.
Dr. Shane shook her head. "Surprisingly enough, considering the way gossip usually travels in this rabbit warren, no. All of our people have been very closemouthed. " Dark brows drew down. "Just in case. " Just in case it does turn out to be empty, the less people know, the less our professional reputations will suffer. There hasn't been a new mummy uncovered in decades.
Dr. Rax chose to ignore the subtext. "So Von Thorne doesn't know?" While the Department of Egyptology didn't really resent the Far East's beautiful new temple wing, they did resent its curator's more-antiquarian-than-thou attitude concerning it.
'If he does," Dr. Shane said emphatically, "he hasn't heard about it from us. "
As one, the two Egyptologists turned to the preparators who worked, not just for them, but for the museum at large.
One hand resting lightly on the top of the crate, Karen Lahey drew herself up to her full height. "Well he hasn't heard about it from us. Not after accusing us of creating a nonexistent crack in that porcelain Buddha. "
Her companion grunted agreement.
The freight elevator stopped on five, the doors opened, and Dr. Van Thorne beamed genially in at them.
'So, you're back from your shopping trip, Elias. Pick up anything interesting?"
Dr. Rax managed a not very polite smile. "Just the usual sorts of things, Alex. "
Stepping nimbly out of the way as the preparators rolled the crate from the elevator, Dr. Von Thorne patted the wood as it passed; a kind of careless benediction. "Ah," he said. "More broken bits of pottery, eh?"
'Something like that. " Dr. Rax's smile had begun to show more teeth. Dr. Shane grabbed his arm and propelled him down the hall.
'We've just received a new Buddha," the curator of the Far East Department called after them. "Second century
BC. A beautiful little thing in alabaster and jade without a mark on it. You must come and see it soon. "
'Soon," Dr. Shane agreed, her hand still firmly holding her superior's arm. Not until they were almost at the workroom did she let go.
'A new Buddha," he muttered, flexing his arm and watching the preparators maneuver the crate through the double doors of the workroom. "Of what historical significance is that? People are still worshiping Buddha. Just wait, just wait until we get this sarcophagus open and we'll wipe that smug temple-dog smile off his face. "
As the doors of the workroom swung closed behind him, the weight of responsibility for the sarcophagus lifted off his shoulders. There was still a lot to do, and any number of things that could yet go wrong, but the journey at least had been safely completed. He felt like a modern day Anubis, escorting the dead to eternal life in the Underworld, and wondered how the ancient god had managed to bear such an exhausting burden.
He rested both hands on the crate, aware through the wood and the packing and the stone and whatever interior coffin the stone concealed, of the body that lay at its heart. "We're here," he told it softly. "Welcome home. "
The ka that had been so constant was now joined by others. He could feel them outside the binding, calling, being, driving him into a frenzy with their nearness and their inaccessibility. If he could only remember?
And then, suddenly, the surrounding ka began to fade. Near panic, he reached for the one he knew and felt it moving away. He hung onto it as long as he could, then he hung onto the sense of it, then the memory.
Not alone. Please, not alone again.
When it returned, he would have wept if he'd remembered how.
Refreshed by a shower and a good night's sleep plagued by nothing more than a vague sense of loss, Dr. Rax stared down at the sarcophagus. It had been cataloged-measured, described, given the card number 991. 862. 1-and now existed as an official possession of the Royal Ontario Museum. The time had come.
'Is the video camera ready?" he asked pulling on a pair of new cotton gloves.
'Ready, Doctor. " Doris Bercarich, who took care of most of the departmental photography, squinted through the view finder. She'd already taken two films of still photography-one black and white, one color-and her camera now hung around the neck of the more mechanically competent of the two grad students. He'd continue to take photographs while she shot tape. If she had anything to say about it, and she did, this was going to be one well documented mummy.
'Ready, Dr. Shane?"
'Ready, Dr. Rax. " She tugged at the cuffs of her gloves, then picked up the sterile cotton pad that would catch the removed seal. "You can start any time. "
He nodded, took a deep breath, and knelt. With the sterile pad in place, he slid the flexible blade of the palette knife behind the seal and carefully worked at the centuries old clay. Although his hands were sure, his stomach tied itself in knots, tighter and tighter as the seconds passed and his fear grew that the seal, in spite of the preservatives, could be removed only as a featureless handful of red clay. While he worked, he kept up a low-voiced commentary of the physical sensations he was receiving through the handle of the knife.
Then he felt something give and a hairline crack appeared diagonally across the outer surface of the seal.
For a heartbeat the only sound in the room was the soft whir of the video camera.
A heartbeat later, the seal, broken cleanly in two, halves held in place by the preservative, lay on the cotton pad.
As one, the Department of Egyptology remembered how to breathe.
He felt the seal break, heard the fracture resonate throughout the ages.
He remembered who he was. What he was. What they had done to him.
He remembered anger.
He drew on the anger for strength, then he threw himself against his bonds. Too much of the spell remained; he was now aware but still as bound as he had been. His ka howled in silent frustration.
I will be free!
'Soon," came the quiet answer. "Soon. "
It took the rest of the day to clear the mortar. In spite of mounting paperwork, Dr. Rax remained in the workroom.
'Well, whatever they sealed up in here, they certainly didn't make it easy to get to. " Dr. Shane straightened, one hand rubbing the small of her back. "You're sure that his lordship had no idea of where the venerable ancestor picked this up?"
Dr. Rax ran one finger along the joint. "No, none. " He had expected to be elated once work finally began but he found he was only impatient. Everything moved so slowly- a fact he was well aware of and shouldn't even be considering as a problem. He scrubbed at his eyes and tried to banish the disquieting vision of taking a sledge to the stone.
Dr. Shane sighed and bent back to the mortar. "What I wouldn't give for some contextual information. "
'We'll know everything we need to when we get the sarcophagus open. "
She glanced up at him, one raised brow disappearing under a curl of dark hair. "You seem very sure of that. "
'I am. " And he was, very sure. In fact he knew that they would have all the answers they needed when the sarcophagus was finally opened although he had no idea where that knowledge came from. He wiped suddenly sweaty palms on his trousers. No idea?
By the time they finished removing the mortar, it was too late to do any further work that day-or more exactly, that night. They would see what their stone box contained in the morning.
That night, Dr. Rax dreamed of a griffinlike animal with the body of an antelope and the head of a bird. It peered down at him with too-bright eyes and laughed. He got up, barely rested, at dawn and was at the museum hours before the rest of the department arrived. He intended to avoid the workroom, to use the extra time for the administrative paperwork that threatened to bury his desk, but his key was in the lock and his hand was pushing open the door before his conscious mind registered the action.
'I almost did it," he said as Dr. Shane came in some time later. He was sitting in an orange plastic chair, hands clasped so tightly that the knuckles were white.
She didn't have to ask what he meant. "Good thing you're too much of a scientist to give way to impulse," she told him lightly, privately thinking that he looked like shit. "As soon as the others get here, we'll get this over with. "
'Over with," he echoed.
Dr. Shane frowned, then shook her head, deciding not to speak. After all, what could she say? That just for a moment the Curator of the Department of Egyptology had neither sounded nor looked like himself? Maybe he wasn't the only one not getting enough sleep.
Five hours and seven rolls of film later, the inner coffin lay on padded wooden supports, free of its encasing stone for the first time in millennia.
'Well," Dr. Shane frowned down at the painted wood, "that's the damnedest thing I've ever seen. "
The rest of the department nodded in agreement; except for Dr. Rax who fought not to step forward and throw off the lid.
The coffin was anthropomorphic but only vaguely. There were no features either carved into or painted on the wood, nor any symbols of Anubis or Osiris as might be expected. Instead, a mighty serpent coiled its length around the coffin, its head, marked with the cartouche of Thoth, resting above the breast of the mummy. At the head of the coffin was a representation of Setu, a minor god who stood guard in the tenth hour of Tuat, the underworld, and used a javelin to help Ra slay his enemies. At the foot of the coffin was a representation of Shemerthi, identical in all ways to the other guardian save that he used a bow. Small snakes, coiled and watchful, filled in the spaces that the great serpent left bare.
In Egyptian mythology, serpents were the guardians of the underworld.
As a work of art, it was beautiful; the colors so rich and vibrant that the artist might have finished work three hours instead of three millennia ago. As a window on history, the glass was cloudy at best.
'If I have to hazard a guess," Dr. Shane said thoughtfully, "I'd say, based on the cartouche and the workmanship, that this is Eighteenth Dynasty, not Sixteenth. In spite of the sarcophagus. "
Dr. Rax had to agree with her even though he seemed incapable of forming a coherent observation of his own.
It took them the rest of the day to photograph it, catalog it, and remove the seal of cedar gum that held the lid tightly in place.
'Why this stuff hasn't dried to a nice, easily removable powder, I have no idea. " Dr. Shane shook the kinks out of one stiff leg, and then the other. This had been the second day she'd spent mostly on her knees and, while it was a favored position of archaeologists, she'd never been a great believer in crippling herself for science.
'It looks," she added slowly, her hand stretching out but not quite touching one of the small serpents, "like something interred in this coffin was not supposed to get out. "
One of the graduate students laughed, a high-pitched giggle quickly cut off.
'Open it," Dr. Rax commanded, through lips suddenly dry.
In the silence that followed, the soft whir of the video camera sounded intrusively loud.
Dr. Rax was not completely unaware of his subordinates' shocked glances, both at each other and at him. He spread his hands and managed a smile. "Will any of us sleep tonight if we don't?"
Will any of us sleep tonight if we do? Dr. Shane found herself thinking, and wondered where the thought came from. "It's late. We've all been working hard and now we've got a whole weekend ahead of us; why don't we start fresh on Monday. "
'We'll only lift the lid. " He was using the voice he used to get funds out of the museum board, guaranteed to charm. Dr. Shane didn't appreciate it being used on her. "And I think all that hard work deserves a look inside. "
'What about X-rays?"
'Later. " He pulled on a clean pair of gloves as he spoke, the action serving to hide the trembling of his hands. "As the handles that were used to lower the lid into place appear to have been removed, I will take the head. Ray," he motioned to the largest of the researchers, "you will take the feet. "
It could have stopped there, but when it came down to it, they were all anxious to see what the artifact held. As the assistant curator offered no further objections, Ray shrugged, pulled on a pair of gloves, and went to his place.
'On three. One, two, three!"
The lid lifted cleanly, heavier than it looked.
'Ahhh. " The sound came involuntarily from half a dozen throats. Placing the lid carefully on another padded trestle, Dr. Rax, heart slamming painfully against his ribs, turned to see what might lie revealed.
The mummy lay thickly swathed in ancient linen and the smell of cedar was almost overpowering-the inside of the casket had been lined with the aromatic wood. Someone sneezed although no one noticed who. A long strip of fabric, closely covered in scarlet hieroglyphs was wrapped around the body following the path the serpent had taken around the coffin. The mummy wore no death mask, but features were visible in relief through the cloth.
The dry air of Egypt was good to the dead, preserving them for the future to study by leeching all the moisture from even protected tissue. Embalming was only the first step and, as sites that predated the pharaohs proved, not even the most necessary one.
Desiccated was the only word to describe the face beneath the linen, although other, more flattering words might have been used once, for the cheekbones were high and sharp, the chin determined, and the overall impression one of strength.
Dr. Rax let out a long breath he hadn't been aware of holding and the tension visibly left his shoulders.
'You were expecting maybe Bela Lugosi?" Dr. Shane asked dryly, pitched for his ears alone. The look he turned on her-half horror, half exhaustion-made her regret the words almost instantly. "Can we go home now?" she asked in a tone deliberately light. "Or did you want to cram another two years of research into this evening?"
He did. He saw his hand reach out and hover over the strip of hieroglyphs. He snatched it back.
'Pack it up," he said, straightening, forcing his voice to show no sign of how he had to fight to form the words. "We'll deal with it Monday. " Then he turned and, before he could change his mind, strode from the workroom.
He would have laughed aloud had it been possible, unable to contain the rush of exaltation. His body might still be bound, but with the opening of his prison his ka was free.
Free? freed? feed.