The tomb offered refuge from the burning heat of the desert day. The freezing chill of night, however, went equally unnoticed. Engrossed in the work, he sat for hours carefully cleaning and thoroughly documenting every fragment he came across. This was a life’s dream realized, and he savored every moment regardless if the moment was hot or cold.
To see hieroglyphs and the iconic art firsthand had left him in this state of rapture, but even since the first glance, something troubled him. He was only beginning to admit to himself that he had ordered his examination in a strange way. Typically, there would be a priority, where some things were placed before others. As he reviewed his mental list, he found it suggested that some things had been given a kind of negative priority, placed behind or after all others.
Why? He asked himself, What am I afraid of? Am I really… afraid?
Slowly, his eyes went to their corners, followed by a cautious turn of his head. Immediately, he wanted to turn away, to go back to the artifacts before him, back to his careful notes. But what kind of archaeologist would he be to fail to investigate something he knew or believed might be wrong? That very uniqueness would set a find apart from others and make it more valuable to the world…
Drawing in a deep breath, he rose from his seat, taking a lantern and a brush. Stepping to the wall where the funerary spells were inscribed, he gave one the first careful inspection it had known for thousands of years. He nearly cried out.
This can’t be, he argued with himself, a mistake like this is impossible, unthinkable. By the time this tomb had been built, the spells had long been formalized… In fact, it seemed like more than a mere error. Moving to the next spell, he found another, and yet another in the third. As the truth dawned on him, he whispered aloud.
“This was no accident.”
The echo of his voice hissed back from the shadowy corners and the hateful walls. His stomach twisted in a knot, his head throbbed with a pulse that ran faster and faster. The silence that engulfed him spoke as though with the voice of thunder. It grew thicker and heavier, as if to crush him in the grip of a giant, invisible fist. For a moment, he thought he would die and fall among the cursed dust.
But a sound called loudly from the night. A winding engine announced a rare visitor to the remote site. He took this chance and staggered from the tomb for what felt like the first time in eons. But his reprieve would be short-lived, as soon he and his guest stood once again in the heart of the tomb.
“Indeed,” observed the minister, “Your dig is going quite well. Such a splendid find! And such a pity that your work may all be in vain.” To the confused look this provoked, he went on.
“There was a terrible mistake made in allowing you to work here, an oversight. This region has been specially reserved by the council for generations of archaeologists to come. Native archaeologists.”
The words struck like a dagger into his heart. He could not contain the puerile outrage that warped his features.
“I’m afraid the excavation will have to cease. There is simply no channel by which your discoveries can reach the public. No official channels, at any rate.”
He didn’t have to ask what that meant. The black-market was always open, always available.
“Perhaps,” said his visitor, removing a bottle and two clinking glasses from his satchel, “you and I can make a special arrangement. Perhaps, if you help me, I can help you. Is it not better to salvage what you can rather than lose it all?”
He took the glass and downed it with a long, slow swallow. He needed it. More than for his contempt for this parasite, the tomb felt more unfriendly than before. Had he been a religious man, he might have noted that the painted figures on the walls seemed like devils or demons, things in the shape of men, but not men.
“Perhaps, if you’ve found something valuable, you were mistaken… Perhaps there was no such thing, eh?”
“I haven’t been through it all yet, but…” he gestured to a cabinet where processed items had been placed. He felt sick. But why shouldn’t he, for what he really offered was his integrity. With this, he threw away a lifetime’s work.
“Mostly junk, trinkets, bah!” spat the minister, “What did you find in the mummy’s wrappings?”
“I haven’t unwrapped it.”
The man’s eyes nearly popped from his head. Then his face softened and the hint of a hateful smile touched his lips. It was condescending pity, judgement that held more venom than a thousand insults could.
“Then, for the sake of your labors, I would say it is time we did.”
He watched with horror as the minister pryed and levered the sarcophagus open, doing irreparable harm. How the man could be so irreverent was a shock. He grunted and cursed and practically flung the lid across the chamber.
“Help me, you damned fool. Clear the table.” he commanded, and then took it upon himself to sweep the contents to the floor, “Help me get the mummy on the table. Here, have the bottle, finish it.”
He took another drink. He needed it, he felt awful.
“You had better hope we find something in here, or you will leave this country empty handed and will never return as a professional.” his laugh was deep, “I have seen it so many times, the western expert unapproachable in his legitimacy. How quickly it goes out the window when things become difficult. Not feeling so well?”
Pain doubled him over and his vision faded for a moment. He heard the sound of linen tearing and a triumphant laugh.
“Ha! Minister of antiquities! My name is Mustafa! And this is a gem. I’ve never seen a heart scarab like this one before. A unique find! I congratulate you. Too bad no one will ever know it was your discovery.”
He slumped to his knees and Mustafa’s arm lifted him with no effort.
“Perhaps there is some consolation,” he grunted after dumping him in the sarcophagus, “That you will get to be with your beloved history forever. Perhaps someday someone will discover you. Goodbye.”
The silhouette disappeared but a moment, returning with the lid. The shadow swelled until the light had died. To the mystical-seeing eyes of the ancients, this place would be unclean, unholy… obscene. He tried to scream, but a weak groan was all that escaped his lips. With the weakness of a newborn kitten, he batted at the lid and clawed helplessly.
But where he own screams had failed him, Mustafa’s rang loud. They were in his native tongue, terrified and pathetic wails of pain.
With a last effort, he struck again at the lid and saw a sliver of light. The screams had stopped. He faded into darkness.
When he finally awoke and crawled from the ancient coffin, neither Mustafa nor the mummy could be found. On the floor lay a priceless object, a unique heart-scarab just as the bandit had said.
Like the mangled spells which condemned the tomb and its occupants, the heart scarab was cursed to hold the dead in the tomb until such time as it had crumbled to dust.
story by Joe Stanley