Alex Manes stood on a ladder, careful of his weight as he nudged his glasses higher on his nose with the back of his wrist. The library was tucked off a long hallway in the Museum of Antiquities in Cairo, Egypt. It was well-ventilated, but the heat always sat low on his skin. He shed his jacket, cravat folded neatly and laid over top of the discarded jacket as the loose linen shirt shifted in the slight breeze. It was a weak movement of air circulating from the large fans that twirled in a syncopated rhythm from the long chain that threaded through the building. He kept his trousers tailored, respectable under the suspenders with the precise cut of ex-military. He left his cane at the bottom of the ladder when he hauled up the rungs.
He placed his right step with care, the prosthetic carved from wood and strapped to his thigh with a webbed rigging of buckles and ties. He’d lost the leg below the knee during the maneuver to recover the Gallipoli Peninsula. He’d woken up in a hospital, barely recognizing the wild-eyed surgeon holding him by the shoulders as his friend before finally succumbing to being drugged back into a haze. He’d left his military career in the Peninsula along with his leg. The ladder was an uncertain venture, but he had a purpose, the books stacked under his arm as he refiled them.
The library was a rounded room with thick wooden shelves that kept stacks of old volumes in a neat order. The filing cabinet was nearly as tall as he was, wide and redolent with the history of the world on little slips of paper. The room had a mild, domed ceiling and a patterned tile floor that felt cool on the hottest summer days.
“Sacred stones, sculpture and aesthetics,” he muttered, his own voice his only companion most days. He tucked each book into its place with a practiced surety. “Socrates, Seth... volume one, volume two,” he continued as he shifted his weight, careful to keep the heel of his shoes against the ladder rung for balance. “And three. Tut- Tuthmosis? What are you doing here?” He frowned darkly at the volume, looking around like he would berate whoever had been so negligent in the filing before blowing out a soft breath to refocus. The T’s were across the aisle, a safe five foot distance that he eyed speculatively. He paused, looking down and judging the angle of the ladder and then the swing of his arm that he’d need to reach the proper space on the shelf.
He hated to think he was limited in any fashion. He narrowed his eyes and made a decision, leaning out with a fluid gesture that pulled the ladder adroitly up onto its feet. He’d gotten good at balance, learning to gauge his steps with precision at first, before relaxing into a natural gait that seemed normal for him these days. Three years was a long time to learn to live with something. The ladder wobbled and he gritted his jaw, narrowing his eyes as he deliberately started to walk the ladder to the opposite shelf, each step methodical and sure as the ladder moved in slow easy clicks of wood against tile.
“You have to actually stand up, you know,” Dr. Valenti had told him when he’d come to do a check up on the amputation. The man was swarthy, with thick, black hair, dark eyes, and impossible cheekbones. He had a kind mouth, and Alex had frowned darkly at him from where he was propped on pillows in the hospital on the North African Coast he’d been evacuated to. “It’s important to begin the healing process as quickly as possible so that your body doesn’t be-
“You’ll have to forgive my manners. It would be so much easier if I hadn’t left my foot on the battlefield.” Alex had wet his lips, closing his eyes and tilting his head back so he didn’t have to look at the insufferable Doctor.
“You just did it for attention.”
“I would hurl the chamber pot at you, but I’m wondering if shooting you would simply be less dramatic.”
“I would be shocked if you passed an opportunity to be dramatic.”
“Go away, Kyle.”
“There you are. I was wondering if you’d left your entire self behind or just your sense of humor.”
Kyle Valenti had followed him from England to War. Kyle Valenti had saved his life and he forgave him that offense in breaths and months. He never left North Africa, finding comfort in the heat and the legends. He’d thrown himself into learning, moving from being a morse code intercept operator and communications tech for His Majesty’s Air Force to Egyptologist and future Bembridge scholar. Valenti had shipped back out with the movement of the war, coming to visit in whirlwind tours of different gambling halls and indifferent bars. Each time he left, he seemed to come back a little more diminished, a little more in need of distraction. He was stretched thin, haunted by the horrors of being a kind-hearted man in the middle of a senseless war. He’d helped Alex walk again. He’d helped Alex find a place, slotting back into the world instead of hidden away.
Now, balanced and steady, Alex edged the volume into the correct slot and grinned to himself. Mission accomplished, he set a hand on the edge of the shelf and exhaled.
Alex Manes was a calm man; he was capable and intelligent, but like anyone, he startled when surprised, jumping at the sound of his name. The ladder wobbled, the wooden foot skidding slightly on the tile, and he grabbed for the shelf under his hand as the whole thing slipped and fell sideways, crashing into the shelf next to him. He managed to get a foot down on the shelf beneath him, and watched in horror as the shelf he’d just meticulously filed went teetering and careened into the shelf next to it. It seemed like slow motion, one shelf crashing into the next, then next, the next, until it became obvious that the whole library was going to collapse. He set his good foot, dropped a hand, and eased himself down in an ungainly scramble, managing to step back and out of the way as the last shelf slammed into the one he’d been clinging to and it all came down in a last and final-sounding crash. A loose paper fluttered in the space, the carnage unexpected and complete.
“Oh. That’s... not good.” Kyle Valenti was standing in the doorway, mouth open as he stared at where Alex was standing in a circle of destruction. He managed a loose-fingered wave and a cocky smile as Alex turned shocked and angry eyes on him. “You should be more careful.”
“Don’t you dare tal-”
“What! How?” Alex closed his eyes at the sound of the Curator moving behind him. He clenched his jaw, flicking his eyebrows at his friend in warning as the Curator walked over the fallen bookshelves to stand agape in the center of the room. “Look at this! Son of the Pharaohs!
Alex managed to not stumble as he whirled, mouth open to explain but shutting again at the incensed rage on the man’s face. “It was an accident.”
“Accident?” The man was his height but gone paunchy and gray at the temples. He had a long face with tired eyes and a mouth that leaned into a frown easier than a smile. “Sir, when Ramses destroyed Syria, that was an accident.” He gestured in a quick punctuation, pointing at the piles of papers and books littered around the room. “You! You are a catastrophe!” Alex could feel Kyle bristling behind him and held a hand out, signalling the other man to silence. “Give me locusts! Boils! Look at my library! Why do I put up with you?”
“Because I am fluent in seven languages. I can read and write Ancient Egyptian. I can decipher hieroglyphics and hieratic.” Alex pulled himself up straight, lifting his chin and squaring his shoulders in the face of the puffed pastry of rage that was huffing in front of him. “I am also,” he reminded, voice low and mild under the steel in his tone. “The only person within 1000 miles who can properly code and catalogue your collection. Would you like me to continue to list my qualifications or-”
“I put up with you because his father was our finest patron.” The Curator pointed at where Kyle stood behind him and hopefully had the grace to look surprised to be remembered in the chaos. “I don’t care how you do it. I don’t care how long it takes. Straighten up this meshiver.” The Curator deflated, frowning darkly around the room before throwing both hands up, turning an adroit heel, and storming back out the way he’d come in.
“I love what you’ve done with the place,” Kyle drawled as the sound of the man’s shoes faded.
Alex bit his bottom lip, closing his eyes and exhaled a slow ten count like he’d been taught. “Hello, Kyle. One of these days we need to discuss your need for making an entrance.” He turned, opening his eyes and glaring at his oldest friend. “What are you doing here?”
“Can’t a guy simply visit hi-”
“No.” Alex bent, picking his cane up from where it had been half-buried in the rubble of the library, moving forward at a quick pace and passing where Kyle stood at the entrance to the antiquities hall. The foyer had a large statue leaned against the wall, the sandstone face smoothed by ages in the elements. The hall itself was cavernous, glittering with onyx and gold, the blue and green of azurite and malachite gemstones polished into the layered history. The room had statues and sarcophagi laid in neat rows that hauld close to each other, waiting to be catalogued for display in museums around the world. It was scholarly grave robbing kept in neat records. He kept his pace slow as he walked away from the mess, needing a moment away from his anger to listen to whatever scheme his friend had found.
He heard Kyle follow behind him, the footsteps even before simply halting. He turned, scanning the room for where Kyle had gone, eyes narrowing at the sudden silence. “Kyle?”
Egypt was a land of wonder and magic. It felt rich and the history of it pulled tight in this room. The statues watched him with glittering polished eyes in the faces of Jackals turned half man. The gold was a low glow that rippled and undulated from tomb to casket to vault to riches piled high. He moved back the way he’d come, squinting slightly in the dark that flickered from the torches. The modern age hadn’t made it this deep into the museum yet, the electric lights kept to the front halls and the library. Back here in the dark there was only the sound of insects scuttling and the slow age of mummification and time. He plucked a torch from the front, walking warily, his cane a light tap on the tile before his feet followed. “Kyle? This isn’t funny.”
There was no noise, no breath, and Alex felt his skin prickle. Awareness pulled tight to him, a memory of fog on the fields of Turkey and the silence that stretched across the battlefield like a held breath before the bombs. He shivered, a cold dread spreading from the muscle that jumped in his jaw down his spine and into his fingertips as he followed the shifting dark deeper into the room. “Hello?”
His voice sounded low and commanding, calling out as the dark lapped at the edges of his torch light. There was a face here, a glimmer of riches there. He could hear his heartbeat pounding in his ears as he turned, searching for the reason his friend had simply disappeared. A thump caused him to turn, creeping to the edge of a newly arrived sarcophagus pulled from a dig outside the city. “Kyle?”
The box was richly carved with prayers and warnings, the body dessicated where it lay. He’d been translating it earlier, avoiding the gaping holes of the corpse. He tilted the torch, leaning over the edge to catch a hint of wax-coated wrappings and the unmistakable scent of a mummified corpse - a little bit musty meat and honeyed herbs. He could feel the dread settle into his bones.
The scream shattered the silence. It shocked through him as the body sat up, flailing a dead hand towards him. Alex screamed in return, reacting in fear even as Kyle’s laughter caught up to the race of adrenalin that thrummed in his veins in time with his heart. His friend was laughing, rich and warm as he sat up.
“Damn it, Kyle!” He yelled, turning to set the torch into a holder, ever aware of the flammable dressing on the body. “Have you no respect for the dead?”
Kyle draped his arm around the body’s shoulders amicably, grin wide as he caught his breath. “Of course I do! But sometimes,” he leaned, grabbing the body’s wrist and dropping it against the edge of the crate. “I’d rather like to join them.” He tipped his chin up, winking once before relaxing.
“You’re going to ruin my career the way you ruined your own,” Alex told him, smelling the sharp pine scent of gin on his friend’s breath and tucking the frown away before straightening to watch him closely. He’d been on track to be a successful and well-respected surgeon. He’d been steady-handed and impossibly smart. Alex wasn’t the only one who lost things in the war. “Now get out,” he muttered, slapping at his friend to wake him up. Kyle mumbled something, letting the body drop back into the straw that it had been shipped in. He was trying to clamber out of the crate, Alex watching him as he managed to unhook from the body, the crate, and his dignity.
“I’ll have you know,” he started, frowning at where he’d almost caught on the edge. He started overas he finally stumbled to a stand on the tiled floor. “I’ll have you know, my career is on a high note, precisely at this moment.”
“You can’t even get out of a crate, Kyle. I think our definitions of high note differ.” Alex arched an eyebrow at him before reaching to pluck a bit of straw from his hair.
“I have proof.”
Alex wet his lips, tipping his head back before exhaling at the ceiling. “Of course you do.” He sighed. “I’m really not in the mood for another one of your baubles, Kyle. We’ve already destroyed the library-”
“I only said hello,” Kyle interrupted, hopping half into the crate again, and lifted a skeletal arm that trailed a bit of wrapping as he dug one-handed through the straw. “That’s polite.”
“And,” Alex continued, choosing to ignore the interruption. “I was just rejected by the Bembridge Scholars again. Not enough field experience.” He thinned his mouth as Kyle yelped in triumph and turned to shove a small box into his line of sight. He went silent with awe for a moment, looking around and moving to where he could sit in the light and study the box thoughtfully. It was heavy, delicately carved, and inscribed in vivid warnings. It looked like it could have a shine if polished, battered and old with the clever mechanics the Egyptians preferred. He couldn’t help but admire the engineering even as he felt for the catch. He tilted the box, only half listening to Kyle as he told the story of finding it on a dig somewhere outside Thebes, which was immediately an impossibility; the carvings contradicted the story Kyle was telling. “You stole it.”
Kyle frowned, looking around the room before pointing at the box. “I won it.”
“Mhmm, that’s what I... thought.” He pushed a button that was not where it was supposed to be, eyes going wide with wonder as the little box flipped eight points open and a glow burst to life, lavender and gold with a ripple of rainbows that rolled across a little scrap of glass tucked beside a papyrus page that was soft and folded under the stunning and impossible beauty of the reactive glass. Alex plucked the page and unfolded an ancient map as Kyle focused on the small shard. It shimmered when he touched it, a concentric circle of gold that lit up a new writing that shivered dark again. “Who did you steal it from?” Alex murmured, entranced.
“He won’t miss it.”
“I... I think this is a map to Hamunaptra.” Alex could barely breathe, excitement clutching him tight. “I need to ask him where he found thi-”
“Well, in that case,” Kyle said, still staring at the shimmering glass. “We’d better hurry.”
Alex glanced over sharply. “Why?”
The prison was a five-walled building with an open courtyard that contained the dregs of society. The building was a lacework of cells and metal bars, an interlocking pattern of hallways and walls that turned in on itself before dumping its contents into the packed-earth field in the center. The prisoners labored there, turning a large water wheel and breaking the rocks to use for gravel roads. Industry made cheap with the back-breaking labor of penance. Alex wanted to cover his nose, the smell nearly intolerable - a harsh ammonia mixture of stale piss and shit with the press of unwashed bodies. “I can’t believe you,” he muttered at Kyle. “You said you won it.”
“I consider successfully picking the pocket of a drunk in a casbah winning,” Kyle retorted, stung as he kept marching forward, chin stubborn against the press of the smell.
“What is he in prison for?”
“I have no idea,” Kyle replied as their guard stopped outside a line of cages. It reminded Alex absently of the big game cages at the zoo. The door closed and all the wild things pacing inside, waiting for their chance to loll in the sun and study the prey that pretended to study them. The cage they’d stopped in front of had a layer of barbed wire curled over the top of the bars like an added layer of protection against whatever it contained. There were two small windows on either side of the metal door and a ring set into the wall with a chain meant to keep whatever - whoever - was caught on a tight leash.
“I asked him,” came the jailor’s nasal voice, higher than expected and heavily accented. Alex had almost switched to Arabic, but the man continued. “He said he was just looking for a good time.” The man shrugged as the door slammed open and three guards wrangled the prisoner out the door and into the cage. It was a blur of motion, just impressions of anger, insolence, and the contained power radiating off of the man who was flung bodily against the bars.
Alex nearly took a step back at the snarl, instead, he dropped his chin, flicking both eyebrows at the man like he was questioning the posturing before tilting his head. “This is him?” he asked, keeping his voice quiet and curious.
The prisoner stilled, staring at him quietly for a moment and it felt like recognition, like remembering. Alex stared back, noting absently that the three jailors continued to hold him still, the chain inching back and forth on the ground in time with his breath. It felt warm, weighted and rich, the man’s eyes wide and flecked gold under thick lashes and a cut in his brow. He opened his mouth, hands lifting only to be jarred to the ground with a swift kick to the back of his knees. He hit the ground, snarl curling his lips back from his teeth as he yanked at the chain hooked into his manacles.
“You stole from this man?” Alex asked from the corner of his mouth, the spell broken slightly when the other man looked away.
“Yes, we should go-”
“Who are you?” Alex turned back, blinking in surprise. The man was American, with a richly burred tenor that slipped over his skin like the touch of velvet. He cleared his throat, forcing the curl of interest back into the box it belonged and wet his lips. The prisoner’s eyes flicked down, watching his tongue before flicking back up and arching a brow in a silent heated question. “And who’s the cake-eater?”
“Cake-eater?” Alex heard the way his voice went shocked and angry, glaring at the sly smirk that twirled easily over the man’s mouth at the implication.
“We’re local missionaries,” Kyle interrupted smoothly, speaking the words at Alex like he was reminding him of their cover story. “Here to spread the good word before your ex-”
“Bored,” the man drawled, rolling his eyes and sighing once. “You try.” He looked directly at Alex. He was a mess, hair gone ragged in a mane that brushed his shoulders, three days or more growth of a beard, and a heavily stained shirt with dirt ground into the skin of his knuckles. He hadn’t showered in nearly a week if his smell was any indication - a swollen musk that reminded Alex of the sluggish retreat of the Nile after the rains.
“We found your puzzle box.”
“Found,” the prisoner drawled, voice dripping disdain as he quirked a look at Kyle.
“Appropriated,” Kyle corrected.
Alex cut a hand through their bickering, cutting the angry glares they were shooting each other and drawing the man’s focus back to him. It felt like stepping into a warm sunbeam and he cleared his throat, wetting his lips and pushing his voice heavy with sarcasm to hide the way he was reacting. “Your puzzle box. We wanted to know more about it.”
“Did you open it?”
“No.” Alex rolled his eyes and glared at where Kyle had attempted to answer over him. “Yes.”
“Then you aren’t here to ask me about the box.” The man curled his hands around the bars and Alex found himself moving a half- step closer as his voice quieted. “You’re here to ask about Hamunaptra.”
Alex blinked once at the name, shocked. “What do you know of Hamunaptra?”
“Wait, the Hamunaptra? The lost-”
“Yes.” The man managed to sink back on his heels, holding the cell bars with a long- fingered grip as he shifted to rest his forehead against the metal. “I know about Hamunaptra because that’s where I was when I found the box.”
Kyle snorted his disbelief. “We’re supposed to believe you stumbled onto the lost city of Hamunaptra? How do we know this isn’t a load of pig’ swallow?” He bent forward, peering into the cage. “Wait. Don’t I know you?” The prisoner’s eyes narrowed before flaring in recognition.
“No. No we’ve nev-”
Kyle reared back from the quick blow even as the guards snapped into action, clubbing the man with the end of a nightstick. He bowed back, hissing before growling and grabbing the bars again, a rattle running through the metal chains that seemed to rumble across the courtyard, kicking dust from a crack in the prison walls. Alex glanced over, checking that Kyle was fine - the other man had his head tilted back, stemming the blood from his nose with practiced fingers - and moved closer. “You were there?”
Alex ducked closer, pitching his voice to carry. “You were there, in Hamunaptra?”
The man curled both hands around the bar, giving Alex an appraising look that matched the smirk. “I was.”
“Every damn day.”
Alex rolled his eyes, mouth thinning in frustration. “I didn’t mean th-”
“I know what you meant. Seti’s place. City of the Dead? Yeah, I was there.” The man sighed, lifting both eyebrows like Alex was being particularly dense.
“Could you tell me how to get there?” Alex heard himself ask, the prisoner’s face blanking for a moment in surprise. There was a second of silence and Alex wet his lips, looking around and leaning closer. “I could help you.” “People don’t do favors for no reason.”
“People don’t always have an ulterior motive.”
“Not in my experience.”
“You’d have to trust me.” Alex found himself mesmerized, holding the other man’s gaze as he was sized up.
“You really want to know?” This close Alex could see the slight scar over the bridge of his nose where it had been broken and the chap of his full lips, the way the sun bleached some of his curls a light caramel color that shivered in the breeze. Alex nodded, entranced.
The man didn’t seem to move, just a breath, and Alex was pulled close, mouths crashing together as his whole body lit up with a bright hot moment of incandescent need before the prison yard erupted with yelling. Alex startled back, catching an impression of a wry smirk.
“Get me out of here and I’ll show you the way,” the man managed as the guards wrestled him bodily back into his cell, the door slamming shut behind him.
Alex could still feel the rough burn- scratch of the prisoner’s stubble, staring at where he had been kneeling in the dirt with wide eyes. It had been a moment. It had been only seconds, but Alex could still see the wild mess of curls atop his shoulders, that cocksure smile, and a wicked gleam in his eyes like it had been flashburned into his mind. He almost forgot the way he smelled. Alex didn’t have time to be judgemental, this man had what he needed. He wet his lips, unconsciously remembering the prisoner’s mouth - plush and a little chapped in the desert air. “Where are they taking him?”
“To be hanged.” The jailor crossed back to where Alex stood. “Apparently, he had a very good time.”
The port of Giza was redolent with the smell of coal, horse manure, and the thicker, warm scent of the Nile estuary as it poured sluggish into the delta. The trunk rattled behind him on small wheels, bumping over the walkway that followed the straight banks of the river. The steamer was a double stack with three decks and a promenade that wrapped around the front of the ship to lazily drowse over the back, the large paddlewheel paused. The gangway was canvas-sided, the rope catching a mild, golden tone in the afternoon light. Cairo was alive, the pyramids across the water hazing in the desert heat. A flock of birds wheeled around the point, skimming near the ancient surface before turning on a neat wing back the way they had come. Somewhere to their right, a donkey brayed angrily in counterpoint to the soft, low blare of a sea horn. The babble of languages made his head spin, shifting and trying to translate automatically. Luckily, Kyle was walking at his side, chattering companionably as they moved through the crowds of passengers and sailors.
“Do you think he’ll come?” Alex interrupted, unsure of the current topic, but taking a moment to pause and look around.
“For my sake? I hope not, but knowing my luck,” Kyle shrugged. “He may be a cowboy, but I know the breed. His word is his word.”
He’d managed to negotiate a sum that released the prisoner - one Michael Guerin - from the noose. The timing could have been better, he’d admit, but the rope snapped at just the right time and the man had simply tumbled into the dirt, glaring up at where Alex was standing. Alex couldn’t help the smug smirk and tilt of superior eyebrow he’d tossed Mr. Guerin while he was down; what mattered was his freedom and his guidance to the lost city of Hamunaptra.
“Well, personally,” Alex drawled, blowing out a breath and holding Kyle’s gaze steadily. “I think he’s filthy, rude, and a complete scoundrel.” He nodded once, muscle in his jaw working at the disbelieving look Kyle was leveling him. “I don’t like him one bit.”
“Anyone I know?” drawled a familiar, velvety voice and Alex turned, startling at the closeness of a warm, brown gaze. He could feel the way he stilled, shocked at the transformation. Guerin had gotten a haircut, curls breezing around his face and drawing attention to the golden tones in his large eyes. He had an impossibly perfect jaw under the cleaned up stubble, full mouth slowly twisting into a knowing insolent smirk as he tucked a tongue in front of a canine. Alex tore his eyes up, blinking once and stopping himself bodily from swallowing at the way his mouth went dry.
“Oh.” Alex was fumbling, jaw working as he bit back the urge to gape. Michael Guerin was showered, shaved, and slipped into a slim cut suit that clung to his broad shoulders. There was a hint of chest hair where he’d managed to forget the buttons of his shirt, bag slung casually over his shoulder as he waited patiently for Alex to collect himself. He seemed to lounge into the way Alex was forcing his eyes to stay up. “Hello.”
Michael winked. “Hello.”
Kyle cleared his throat, reaching to pat Michael on the shoulder. “Smashing day for an adventure, isn’t it Guerin?”
“Right. This guy.” Michael sniffed, wetting his lips and Alex found himself wetting his in return before startling into motion.
“Mr. Guerin,” Alex started.
“Guerin,” he compromised, wetting his lips again and tilting his chin up. “Can you guarantee me that this isn’t some sort of elaborate... hoax?” He blew out a slow breath, curling his hands over the arch of his cane, and tipped his eyes to hold the other man’s gaze like a dare. “Because if it is, I’m warning yo-”
“You’re warning me?” Guerin pushed forward, wetting his lips and narrowing his eyes. “Let me explain something to you. My family believed in this so much that I left my home and my life behind in New Mexico to join the French Foreign Legion and march all the way across Libya into Egypt to find that city.” He paused, eyes flicking up as he pushed the point home. “When we got there? All we found was sand and blood. I don’t have much in this world, some scrap metal back home and my word. I wouldn’t be headed back to that damned place if I didn’t have to.” He sniffed, mouth working before he looked away. It was like the spell had lifted and Alex could take a breath, blowing it out slowly. “Let me get your bags.”
“That’s not ne-”
“Sometimes people can just be nice for no reason,” Guerin muttered, glancing over before hefting Alex’s travel case and brushing past where he was rooted to the ground.
Alex watched him move up the gangway, curious and intrigued. Kyle shifted behind him. “Yes, you’re right. Complete scoundrel.” He tilted into Alex’s peripheral vision with a small, knowing smile. “Maybe you should just talk to him.”
“I’m not going in blind. You know I hate surprises.”
“Conversation, Manes. This isn’t a war.” Kyle smacked a heavy hand against his shoulder and started whistling as he followed Guerinup the swaying gangway. Alex ducked his head, heat crawling up the back of his neck in embarrassment, before he followed.
The moon barely made it over the horizon, fat and round where it rippled blue shadows over the long grass on either side of the river bank. The ferry boat was brightly lit, laced with electric lights and a player piano that tinkled happily against the deckwall. The lounge deck had several tables set to allow the passengers a chance to enjoy the cooler temperatures of an Egyptian evening, the speed of the breeze managing to keep the mosquitos chasing other prey. Further around the deck the animals made quiet noises, a camel grumping its current situation with a low, gravelly whine. Michael Guerin was glad of the air and glad of the space. He’d spent too long in the cramped cell, trying to use his gifts to break out and leave this city behind, but feeling light- headed and oddly bound. He’d kicked at the weedy blue flowers that grew in the packed dirt, resilient and determined. They sprung from the cracks in the walls, bristled around the water troughs, and shook angrily in the breeze where they poked out of the gutters. He paused at the rail, narrowing his eyes at a ripple that bounced oddly before shaking his head. He’d gotten paranoid, checking his pockets and putting up careful walls whenever anyone was around. He wasn’t allowed to be himself outside of the Foster Ranch he’d grown up on with his brother and sister.
Out here he had to be normal.
He followed the rail to the back of the ship, narrowing his eyes at a familiar voice. He ducked around the corner, spotting the familiar face. Wyatt Long was a narrow man with beady blue eyes and a thin mustache that curled limply over his top lip. He had thin, wire-framed glasses and dark hair he kept oiled and combed fastidiously from a center part. He was holding his cards too close to his chest, the suits visible in the reflection from his glasses. “Quit showing off and just cut the damn deck already, Hank.”
“I’m cutting the deck,” Hank Gibbons muttered, red hair caught back in a sloppy tie. He was peeling and redder underneath where the desert sun had burned him mercilessly.
“Just deal already,” came a woman’s voice and Michael startled. Jenna Cameron was still blond and long-limbed, hair caught in a messy braid and shirt rolled up over her wiry forearms. He hadn’t seen her since she and Max had called it quits and she’d taken off to see the world. She had one foot on an empty seat, sprawled indolently across the chair. She cocked her head at where Kyle Valenti was watching her with appreciative eyes. “Look any harder and I’ll break your fingers.”
Kyle blinked, rearing back slightly before flushing and going loose around a grin. “Feisty.” He glanced back when Jenna looked up and went blank at the sight of Michael. “Guerin! Join us. We could use another body.”
“I only gamble with my life. Never my money.” Michael shook his head slightly, giving Jenna a small, questioning quirk of eyebrows that she answered with a loose shrug and tap to the hand she was holding. He nodded once, knowing that they’d talk later.
“Never?” Hank Gibbons frowned, finally starting to deal. “What if I were to bet you five hundred dollars that we beat you to Hamunaptra?”
“You’re looking for Hamunaptra?” Guerin replied, frowning and shooting Jenna a startled glance. She looked down cooly, ignoring his glance.
“Damn straight we are.” Hank sniffed, turning his head to dip loudly into a brass bowl by his chair. He grinned, teeth yellow and crooked.
Michael wet his lips, glancing over to where Wyatt Long was sinking lower in his seat. “And who says we’re looking for Hamuna-” “He does,” came a chorus of replies as Kyle froze.
“Does he.” Michael sniffed, rolling a look down at where the other man was leaning back and looking contrite. The group was a mixed bag of idiots and mercenaries with one out-of-his-league surgeon who was plastering on a poker face.
“Well,” Hank cut in to the matched set of glares he and Kyle were trading. “How about it? Is it a bet?”
Michael sniffed. “All right. You’re on.”
“What makes you so sure you’ll find it?” A man from another table asked, hair thinning over the crown of his head. “Grant Greene,” he introduced himself, reaching a hand to shake that Michael ignored. He’d heard of the man, a crackpot treasure hunter and two-bit reporter who wrote tales for titillated housewives.
“What makes you?” Michael retorted.
“We’ve got someone who’s been there,” Jenna replied, voice silky. Hank nodded, smiling broadly and whooping a little as he set down the river for their game.
“So do w-” Michael dropped a quick heavy hand on Kyle’s shoulder, cutting him off but not before the sly, narrow-eyed gaze Jenna Cameron leveled them. “Good luck,” Michael finished, covering over Kyle’s soft yelp and smiling around the table. “Nice to see you boys again.” He paused, taking a step back and giving a small wave. “Hope it’s the last I see of you.”
Alex Manes was enjoying the peaceful sounds of the music on water, faint and distorted, from where he was sitting on the lower deck near the front of the ferry. Egypt was singing night songs, the water a sibilant beat as it lapped against the side of the ferry and, further out, the crickets and animal noises of night birds and insects. There was another noise, water churning in a slow lull that he couldn’t identify. The desert crept close to the green line of the river bank, undulating outward to the horizon like long waves on the ocean, tipping from silver to blue and then deeper before rolling back into the pale moonlight. He licked his thumb, turning the page of the book he was reading and resettling his weight against the phantom pain where his right leg had been. He was rereading the legend that surrounded Hamunaptra, making sure he was prepared.
The entire table rattled at the loud thump of a bag slapping against the surface and Alex couldn’t hide the startled yelp. He reacted on instinct, throwing an inelegant fist that Michael Guerin barely managed to block, hands moving quickly to tap the blow to the side. He flipped the grip, grabbing Alex’s wrist and lifting his hand to slowly set back down. He managed to look both impressed and apologetic as Alex caught his breath and picked his book back up from where he’d dropped it in his fright.
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to scare you.”
“The only thing that scares me, Guerin, are your manners.” He tucked the curl of desire away and tried to focus back on his book. The other man was dressed down from earlier, jacket discarded, torso caught in a leather gun holster, and hips slim under an ammunition belt. The white shirt was clinging to his skin where he sweat, hair curling indolently over his brow. He ignored the feel of Michael’s gaze sliding recklessly over him and pulled his hand back, stretching his fingers at the lingering feel of where Michael’s fingers had been.
“Still angry about that kiss, huh?”
Alex felt his heart kick over, words tart at the tease. “If you call that a kiss.” He flicked his eyes up, brows together as he tried to hold a glare at where Michael was looking at him with soft mouth and open expression. He could feel the cool breeze slipping over his skin where it was flushing.
Michael’s shoulders were moving, but Alex was trying to maintain a casual indifference, failing to keep his gaze on Michael’s eyes and not the soft pink of his mouth. He tried not to let his imagination wander at the sound of buckles and the deft movement of Michael’s hands, but gripped his book tighter and lifted his chin defiantly. He didn’t even flinch as Michael coiled and unfurled a heavy gun back with a loud rattle, just tipped an eyebrow in question.
“Did I,” he started, finally glancing down and pausing at the sight. There were at least three revolvers, several knives, and a plethora of bullets tucked into the leather satchel draped over the table top. He watched the way the light flickered on the brass shell casings and exhaled roughly. “Did I miss something? Are we going into battle?”
“Alex,” Michael replied, sliding deftly to straddle the seat across from him and pluck a revolver out of his holster in one smooth spin. “There’s something out there. Something underneath that sand.”
“Well, yes, of course. I’m hoping to find a certain artifact. A book perhaps. Kyle thinks there’s treasure,” Alex replied, trying not to watch the way Michael was loading the revolver, spinning the chamber round, and deftly sliding it into the holster against his side in a fluid motion. “What do you think is out there?”
“In a word?” Michael moued his mouth, glancing to the side and out over the water. He glanced back sharply from under his lashes. “Evil. The Bedoin believe there’s a curse-”
“Do they also believe in Santa’s Workshop?” Alex coughed a laugh, rolling his eyes and leaned back to cross his arms over his chest. “Little green spacemen? I don’t believe in fairy tales, Guerin.” He tilted his head and wet his lips, noting absently that Michael’s eyes shifted to watch. “I do believe that one of the most famous books in history is buried there. The book of AmunRa. It’s supposed to contain all the secret incantations of the old kingdom brought by the children of the Goddess Nut as written by her High Priest Rath.” Alex glance up from where he’d been idly fingering one of the bullets, plucking a small strange knife from a side pocket. Michael reached over, taking it back. “It’s what first interested me in Egypt as a child. It’s why I came here. Sort of a life goal.”
“And the fact that it’s supposed to have gemstone pages the like of which have never been seen before, and be written in gold makes no nevermind to you?” Michael interrupted, lifting both eyebrows as he tucked his tongue against his molar on a grin.
“You know your history?” Alex was surprised, dropping pretense and leaning forward.
“I know my treasure.”
Alex looked up from the pages under his fingers, catching on how Michael was watching him. They stilled, caught in the pale silver moonlight breaths from each other. Michael smelled like leather and gun oil with the soft touch of rich sandalwood and pine. Alex inhaled slowly, lungs tight and heart racing. Michael’s curls shifted in the breeze, tumbling lightly around his face and Alex wanted to push his fingers into the mess of them, feel them curl and tangle around his knuckles. He wanted and it twisted a sweet heat just behind his lungs. “Why,” he heard his own voice say, low and rough around the knot of desire in his throat. “Why did you kiss me?”
Michael’s face went impossibly open, vulnerable and hungry and there was a dizzy moment when Alex thought he might lean forward and kiss him again. He wet his lips, wanting. Michael tore his gaze away, blowing out a slow breath before snapping a saucy smile into place. “I was about to be hanged,” he threw between them, voice a taunt. “Seemed like a good idea at the time.”
Alex felt the dismissal like being tossed in ice water. He knew he paled, ducking his head and nodding once. “Right.” He pushed up from the table and strode across the deck, ignoring the questioning noise behind him. He paused, taking a moment to touch the soft nose of a camel and glance back to where Michael was talking to someone. He shook his head, berating himself a fool and turned the corner to head back to his bunk.
Michael had almost reached across the table and pulled Alex to him, remembering himself and his mission at the last moment. He kept his head down, berating himself as the other man walked away. It had been so quiet in that moment, a tense, quivering second where the world seemed to stop and all he could see was the charismatic twist of Alex Manes’ mouth and the impossible expressiveness of his eyes. He’d gotten used to seeing Alex look at him with disdain, with a smug superiority, with a strange rage that simmered for a bright, hot second when he’d thrown the punch, and just then with a searing hunger that Michael ached to feed. He exhaled roughly, swallowing at the way his heart was starting to find a typical tempo. He shifted, stretching his fingers with a light shake before holstering the second pistol.
He almost stood. He almost followed. He almost chased, but a noise just past a pile of crates caught his attention. He pulled his pistol, easing to his feet and slipped closer on silent feet, pausing at the shadow cast in profile on the wall. The eavesdropper was frozen in place, hiding awkwardly and Michael focused, channeling the momentary flit of rage at the interruption into shoving the crates aside with a burst of power and grabbing Wyatt Long where he cowered.
“Hey Wyatt.” Michael glared, shrugging once before thumbing the hammer back on his revolver and pointing it at Wyatt. “I think I’ll kill you.”
“Think of my children!” Wyatt’s voice cracked, a sweat breaking out over his thin face. He was wearing a red felt fez that sat crooked over his thinning hair.
“You don’t have children.”
“I could, someday.”
“Shut up.” He poked him in the chest with the tip of the pistol. “So you’ve convinced the Americans you’re taking them to the lost city. Should have known. What’s the scam? You take them out into the middle of the desert and leave them to rot?”
“Unfortunately not. The woman is smart. Blondie paid part now, part when we arrive in Hamunaptra, and the rest when we arrive safely back in Cairo.”
Michael relaxed. Wyatt was an idiot and a coward, but he was rarely dangerous. “Them’s the breaks, huh.”
Wyatt was watching him steadily, eyes narrowed as he tried to make sense of something. “You hated Hamunaptra, Guerin. Why are you going back?"
"See that guy?” Alex was petting a camel. It was an unconscious gesture, the animal chewing and blinking long-lashed eyes at him. “He saved my neck."
"You always did have more balls than brains,” Wyatt Long muttered, sweat-stained fez slipping off his brow. He always looked closer to a drowned rat than ex-French Foreign Legionnaire.
Guerin smiled, patting the other man at a safe distance from his smell. He let the laugh bubble up, snickering quietly as Wyatt joined in. He patted Wyatt’s shoulder as he made a quick and necessary decision. “Good bye, Wyatt.” Michael Guerin smiled brightly, fisting his hands in the front of Wyatt’s shirt and heaved, tossing the wiry man overboard. He strolled back to where he’d been cleaning his gun, trying to get the half-glimpsed image of Alex Manes looking at him quietly in the moonlight out of his mind. He could hear Wyatt spluttering and splashing in the river.
He almost missed the trail of wet footprints that were drying against the wood floor of the deck. Someone had come aboard. He didn’t think, just rolled his weapons up and followed.
Alex glowered down at the straps of his prosthetic, hair wet and shoulders bare as he replayed the events of the day in his mind. He’d tried to distract himself by rereading the legend of Hamunaptra, a treatise published by the Bembridge Scholars five years prior that included several anecdotes about George Bembridge himself. He’d dropped his shirt just inside the door, pants following after. He meant to hang them, but instead splashed water over his face and dug out the soft cotton pants he slept in. He hooked them over his hips and rolled the right pant leg up his thigh, thumb sliding along the red marks on his skin where the straps kept the wood and metal leg anchored.
He exhaled, closing his eyes and berated himself. “For fuck’s sake, Manes.” he whispered, pulling the buckle with a rough tug. “It wasn’t that good of a kiss.” He let go of the buckle, rubbing his face with a tired sigh before reaching blindly for where he’d left the book on the table in the center of the cramped cabin. He found the leather binding and opened his eyes, shocking at the sight of a black clad figure slinking closer.
The intruder lifted a sharp blade. “Where is the map?” he rasped, voice heavily accented and thumping forward into the silence. Alex’s eyes glanced to where the puzzle box sat next to the bed he was sitting on, tucked next to his pillow. “The key!”
Alex prepared, focusing in on where the man shifted his stance, pausing as he sized Alex up. He had no doubt he looked weak, crippled and half dressed in a small room littered with discarded clothes and books. He was counting on it.
They stared at each other for a bare breath before Alex launched into action, flinging the book at the intruder and shoving to stand. The man was wearing a sort of modified Bedouin garb, head wrapped and body draped in black fabric that was so light it barely made a sound as he moved. His tanned face was marked with writing, the tattoos blurring and fading slightly with age. He had an angular feel to him, eyes heavy and cheekbones a jutting gaunt over a slim jaw. Alex gritted his teeth as his prosthetic shifted, the top buckle loosened, still managing to duck away from the slice of a wickedly curved dagger. He turned, hooking his arm over the man’s wrist, grabbing for the knife as he disarmed the man and twirled back to brandish it at his attacker. He glared, dark and heavy as the man simply took an easy step back and unsheathed his sword.
“Alex!” The door slammed open, bursting off the hinges as Michael Guerin charged the room, pistols drawn. Alex was so surprised he dropped his guard, blinking at where Michael stood, and the intruder attacked, lifting his sword to strike. Michael fired, both pistols cracking loud in the small space. The man screamed, dropping the sword even as the port window of the cabin flew open, and Michael readjusted his aim, tilting his head for Alex to follow. “Where are your pants?”
“I was getting ready for bed,” Alex growled, ducking his head to sight down the hall and ease past where Michael was laying cover fire. “I wasn’t expecting to have to flee!” He was four steps down the hallway when he remembered the puzzle box, stopping himself with a hand to the wall and turning even as Michael strode determined from the room. “The map! Map, map map map.” He was a half-step back into the cabin, blinking at the way his mattress was on fire before Michael grabbed him by the elbow and spun him back to facing down the hall.
“I’m the map.”
“My cane.” Michael frowned, glancing at him finally and stilling, the fire catching behind him. Alex stood and let him look, frowning darkly. He was half-naked and exposed, skin pebbling in the chill night air even as the metal joint of his prosthetic and the smooth, shapely wood glowed in the rising firelight.
“Fine.” Michael turned, ducking into the smoke that was filling the cabin and emerged moments later with the simple cane Alex used. “You’re welcome.”
They ran. It’s what intelligent people did when the ship was on fire. Alex Manes was sensible. He’d had years of study in the finest academies. He’d served in his Majesty’s Air Force. He was educated and driven, but someone was shooting at them.
The intolerable mess of a man, Michael Guerin, was casually reloading his double set of revolvers, braced back against the wall as the fire blazed behind them and the strange invaders in black fired at them. Guerin was infuriatingly calm, possibly because he was American.
The bullets started punching holes in the wooden wall. First two feet, then a foot, then five inches and Guerin’s curls fluttered in the breeze as the next bullet punched next to his head. Alex didn’t think, just reached over and hauled him out of the way as the next cracked where Michael’s head had been.
"Thanks.“ Michael Guerin flipped the revolvers closed with a bright reckless smile and turned, firing back as Alex gaped.
The boat erupted into chaos, the horses panicking at the smell of fire. People were running, bullets firing from all angles, and Alex stayed close to where Michael Guerin was moving through the melee with something approaching delight. He moved like a brawler, lacking the sophistication of a fancy fighter but somehow just as effective. They made it to the edge of the ship, the rail cold against Alex’s stomach. Beneath them were the soft ripples of the river, dark and catching the orange light of the flames. Michael turned and stared at where Alex was waiting.
“Can you swim?” he asked, voice low and close and Alex was sure for one moment that if he turned his head right then, they would be touching. A second was all he had, imagining the way their foreheads would touch, a shared breath, the quiet space of intimacy drawing taut. A second and it was gone as Michael glanced down at his leg and Alex felt a low coil of indignation simmer hotly under his skin.
“Of course I can swim,” he snarled, cocking his head angrily and swiping at his jaw with the back of his wrist. “If the situation calls for it.”
Michael reached out, hand a warm brand where it rest against Alex’s bare chest. “Trust me. It calls for it.”
And somehow, between one breath and the next, Alex was flung bodily over the side of the boat to splash into the cold water of the river below.
The ship continued to paddle placidly downriver despite the way it was hemorrhaging passengers and pack animals. Michael Guerin pulled himself up out of the water, stumbling onto the river bank in a clearing between walls of high grass. He dripped, clothes sticking to his skin where he stood and took a long slow breath. Behind him the boat burned, a cheerful sort of blaze in the moonlight as horses and people thrashed in the water below. He heard Kyle splash loudly to safety, and was caught for a moment staring at where Alex Manes was limned in moonlight on the river bank. He had his hands loose at this sides and bare skin slick as he shivered slightly. His black hair was pulling into wet bird spikes, brows a heavy, angry line and mouth thinned. Michael could see his ribs flex as he breathed, golden skin puckered with a scattered galaxy of scars that flung outward from his right hip and over his chest. His thin cotton pants were nearly see-through where they clung to his thighs, slicked tight to his left shin and unrolling awkwardly and catching on the leather straps of the metal and wood leg he wore on his right.
Michael wet his lips, holding the dark gaze. “You okay?”
Alex blinked, focusing in on him for a moment before nodding slightly and touching light hands to his shoulder. “We’ve lost everything. All my tools; all the equipment.” He paused, wetting his lips and Michael swayed closer unconsciously. “All my clothes.”
Michael didn’t speak, he didn’t trust his words. He simply blew out a slow breath. To his right, Kyle Valenti flopped onto his back, coughing roughly, and held up a triumphant hand that clutched the metal puzzle box.
“Hey Guerin!” The voice was thin, leaning over the squeals of the horses to lap against the riverbank behind him. Michael turned, catching sight of where Wyatt Long was waving skinny arms at him. “It looks to me like I’ve got all the horses.”
Michael sucked his teeth, turning away from Alex and cupping his hands around his mouth to carry the words clearly. “Hey Wyatt, looks like you’re on the wrong side of the ri-ver!”
The sun rose easily, layering the desert with an undulating heat that baked into the soles of Michael’s shoes and dried his shirt across his shoulders. The small market was tucked into the shade of a copse of trees that had found a small spring and settled in. The tents flapped in the brisk breeze, the grit of sand catching at every press of cloth against his skin and worming under the leather wrist cuffs. He was uncomfortable, scuffed raw and sweating, but he was clothed. They’d walked through the night, mindful of Alex’s bare foot and the stretch of wet leather, the desert sand shifting and slipping as they’d walked. Near dawn they’d rested, the light of sunrise gifting them with the small market that rose out of the long shadows, and Michael had watched the muscles shift under the broad planes of Alex’s shoulders as he’d been led away by a bevy of older women swathed in layers of dark fabrics that lay lightly over their frames.
Kyle had stepped up next to him, clearing his throat pointedly and slanting him a judgmental look. “Alex and I served together in the war.”
Michael thinned his mouth, measuring Kyle with a critical eye. “Alex and you, huh?”
Children played around them, screaming with delight as they frolicked through the spaces between the tents. It seemed so normal here. No fires, no strange invaders, and no race to find a city he didn’t want to return to. A lowing groan from the pack of camels being sold caught his attention and he glanced away. He missed the way Kyle had paused in pity, before rolling his eyes and dismissing Michael outright. “I’ll buy camels.”
“You could just stay here. We’ll trade you for them.”
“I’m a surgeon,” Kyle replied. “Not barterable goods.”
“Debatable.” Michael sniffed, scratching lightly at his jaw as the vendor started haggling with Kyle in Arabic. While they argued he took a moment to gain his bearings, noting the low ridge that buckled up out of the sand where it held an old, crumbling outpost. There were no more than ten tents total, but the ridgeline suggested the further oasis was a near days camel ride from here heading east. They would need to head West, three days ride through the red sand waves of the desert until they could slide against the tertiary mountain range that was being slowly swallowed by the Sahara to face the rising sun.
“I don’t want the whole pack!” Kyle yelled, throwing his hands up. “Do I look like a man who needs a whole pack of camels? No. I need three. Three camels.”
“Just pay the man,” Michael muttered, moving to stand next to where Valenti was muttering and counting out a small pile of bills. The vendor handed him two ropes, Kyle taking the remainder that was attached to a dun-colored camel who swung its large head from side to side before finally kicking into motion and plodding after the first two.
“Can you believe how expensive these flea-bitten walking rugs are?” Kyle asked him.
“You could have just sold them Alex.” Michael shrugged, glancing up as the bevy of women spilled out of the farthest tent, shoving the other man out into the sun.
“That’s awfully tempting, isn’t it?” Kyle muttered, unaware of the way Michael had just slowed to a stop, the first camel butting its wedge shaped head against him where he stood.
Alex Manes was fully dressed, covered nearly from head to toe in flowing black robes that had been embroidered and stitched with flecks of gold. He had his head wrapped Bedouin style with a black strip of the flowing fabric pulled over the lower half of his face. All that was visible were his eyes and a deeply distressing stretch of golden skin where the robe slouched open in the front, belted high around his waist. His brown eyes looked lighter, lined with kohl to help protect from the glare of the sun and shiny with the gold tinted grease that caught the sands the wind carried and protected the delicate skin. Michael heard himself whisper an agreeable, coherent response, stunned as Alex simply arched an eyebrow at him in quiet question and held his gaze.
One of the camels grew impatient, moaning grumpily and leaning to lip at Michael’s hair as it shouldered him back into motion. Alex smirked and Michael huffed an aggrieved noise, reaching to pat fondly at the animal and start the final leg of their journey.
Hamunaptra was a three-day journey through the stunning beauty of the Sahara. It felt oddly like home, the flat, wide spaces between jutting red sandstone familiar. The scrubby desert plants and the sharp, stabbing growth of the palms. Michael found himself relaxing, the swaying gait of the camels a balm after the wild chaos of the previous days’ journey. He wondered if his family missed him. He wondered-
“Hamunaptra is where the Pharaohs buried both the most wicked and the most righteous of their servants. It’s said,” Alex started, speaking with the quiet excitement of someone who had a passion and a trapped audience. The day was drawing to a close and they had managed to doze fitfully through the hottest portion when the sun baked them mercilessly from a cloudless sky. “That Pharaoh Maneses buried his High Priest Rath at the base of the statue of Anubis. The legs would reach deep underground to signify his connection to the underworld and death. Rath was supposed to be the son of the goddess Nut, born under the auspicious sign of a falling star with his twin siblings, Zan and Vilandra.”
“Was he one of the righteous or one of the wicked?” Michael asked, enjoying the sound of Alex’s voice. It was lilting in storytelling and he had a moment to wonder if the other man could sing.
“I think that depends on who’s telling the story,” Kyle replied from behind them. His camel was a slow, dun male that plodded along. Michael’s was a more rich brown, but Alex’s nearly white female had taken the lead by a half-pace.
Alex turned, hair catching and fluttering around his face as he smiled back at his friend. “Some people would call it a legend, some people would call it a curse.” He turned back, smile still lighting his face and Michael had to look down at where his hands were curled into the saddle reins. “I vaguely remember the story the way my mother told it to me.”
The swaying gait of the camel and the soothing tone of Alex’s voice as he told the story lulled Michael nearly asleep. It felt like a fever dream, remembering the story in moments before it was told.
A legend is told in small whispers that curl into the warm eddied breezes of Cairo; of a love that could not be stopped by death. The pyramids would lean against the night sky, golden tipped peaks that glittered against the wheel of stars that smoothed silky across the night sky. The city was divided, broken by the Nile, a lush verdant green that would hop its banks to sprawl indolently into the farmland on either side. The city was the heart of stories. It was the pulsing beat of scholarship and spirituality. It was touched by the gods.
Myths are set in motion in times long past; set in a cycle as undeniable as the path of the Nile. There is an ebb and flow, a swell and contract of its banks - of its truth. A legend is a myth set to a cycle. A curse is a legend told backwards.
The Pharaoh Maneses was a proud man who had four sons. His youngest son, whose name was lost to time, was never to be seen by another, never to have been touched with any hand. He was to be the legacy, kept pure and sacrificial. The Pharaoh had a son set for sacrifice and a Priest who defied him. The Priest Rath was touched by the heavens: special and extraordinary. Against all odds they fell in love: the Priest and the Sacrifice. The Pharaoh Maneses discovered them, looming in the doorway as his son tried to hide the Priest from his father’s rage. The Pharaoh simply killed his son, leaving the body to the elements, ruined and incapable of being resurrected by the Priest’s powers. In retribution, the Pharaoh had the Priest’s hand broken under the strike of a hammer so he would never be able to touch again.
There was more in their story, but all that is remembered is the rage of possession and the screams of a man who broke for love.
They say he could move mountains. They say his brother healed with a touch. Their sister could convince armies to rise and kings to kneel. The Pharaoh banished them all, cursing them to an endless sleep.
They say that the wood of the Priest’s sarcophagus shook the statue that stood on it with his pain. They say he was buried alive with a mangled hand and no tongue to speak his lover’s name in resurrection.
A legend is told that sprawls across the span of humanity and the span of galaxies. It tells the story of a man who loved a god. It tells the story of betrayal and destruction. It is whispered in hushed voices at night. It is tattooed into the hearts of the young and weaved into the hopes of the old.
It says that death cannot stop true love.
Egypt was larger then. It spanned the entire edge of the known world, decadent and golden. The modern world crept in slowly, time and the sands of the desert inescapable. The Pharaoh was remembered. His lover was not. His murderer buried under the sands of both time and the heat of the desert. Stories are safe. Stories are words on a page that evoke a longing, a memory of what was.
“Stories are safe because they aren’t real. Myths? Legends? They could be true.”
Michael blinked, surfacing out of his memories and swallowing thickly. He glanced over and watched Alex go concerned at his expression. “It’s cursed,” he said after a pause, the sand shifting in a slow, hissing slide under the padded two-toed feet of their camels. “Trust me.”
“I don’t believe in curses.”
Michael almost replied: you will. Instead, he tucked his lips over his teeth and looked out over the undulating waves of sand, the small wind-cut ripples. A jut of sandstone was being swallowed three hundred yards out, stretching a long shadow into the desert. The sun was slipping lower, a quick dash for the horizon and sunset that would pull the hot blanket off the land and let the cooler air swirl in off the plains.
Night came quick, flicking out from where the sunset had gasped under the horizon. The stars pricked into view, flecking the night sky between scraps of fast-moving clouds. The desert started waking up, the trill of insects growing bolder and the nocturnal predators dashing through scrubby patches of reedy grass or thorny bushes. They were drawing closer to the ridgeline and Michael glanced up, movement catching his eye.
There was a passel of people watching them from the ridge top. They were clad in black, barely more than a blur of trouble that loomed out of the dark. They didn’t move, simply watched the caravan of three trod slowly towards the ridge. Michael reached down, grabbing his canteen and taking a small sip, savoring it over his tongue before swallowing. He kept his gaze trained on the line of silent watchers, determined to get a feel for whether they were simple travellers crossing paths or a possible threat to be addressed. He focused entirely on the sight and startled when Alex Manes’ head lolled to rest against his shoulder. The other man was rocking to the surprisingly smooth gait of his camel and Michael froze, trying not to disturb where the man’s temple tucked against his shoulder, the brush of his hair tickling Michael’s jaw.
He reached, helpless to the irrational need to touch, and slid two fingers along his jaw. The rasp of stubble was an odd surprise he felt spark hot under his skin in time with his heartbeat. Alex muttered something and Michael tried not to be disappointed when he woke up enough to sit up, blinking blearily at his surroundings before slipping back into seated sleep.
Michael tried not to miss the weight of his head.
When Alex woke, they were at the base of the ridge, turned back to the wide, flat expanse of land to the East, the dark starting to lighten with the threat of the dawn. During the night the clouds had strengthened, gathering and catching at the ridge. Now they glowed, red and warning as the sky went warm, horizon lightening.
Michael wished he could have been surprised when Wyatt and his posse pulled around the corner on their pack of ponies, but he simply sighed and turned to focus back on the sunrise.
“Oi, Guerin.” Wyatt’s voice was still that nasal drone that managed to echo indiscriminately around the rocks. Michael glanced over, gaze skipping from one person to the next. Jenna Cameron sat easily on a large black arabian, Hank Gibbons was fighting a skittish brown mare, and Grant Green rode further back on a nearly swaybacked older roan that had two heavily laden mules tied to the saddle. Wyatt was on a dappled white that he’d probably stolen, the breeding too good for the likes of him. “Nice camel.”
“Bet’s still good, Guerin,” came Hank’s contribution to the conversation.
Michael ignored them both, turning back to the dawn and reaching to tap the back of Alex’s hand. “Get ready for it.”
“We’re about to be shown the way.”
Michael didn’t look over. He knew what was coming but still wanted a moment to savor the magic of it. The sun rose, the heat waves building off the sand seeming to catch the golden tone and stretch it in a river of light that meandered to pool at the base of something that wasn’t there. It was miraculous, the way the view started to shimmer, the air itself seeming to shake and stretch thin, peeling back to reveal a rockwall that stretched up out of the sand, a small crack in the rock canting to the side.
Hamunaptra rose out of nothing, a mirage, a legend. A lost city bathed in light. He only had a moment to admire it, to be lost in the wonder and magic, before the race began with a whoop and the pound of hooves.