Sometimes the most ordinary of days with the most ordinary of circumstances are the ones that change our lives the most.
It wasn’t supposed to be much, just an attempt to get a little more information for my final project. The archives located at the Museum of Natural History weren’t easy to gain access to, but with the right connections, you can at least sneak a peek at some of the less-fragile documents and artifacts. That’s all I’d been trying to do, really; just do a little extra research before finishing my paper and making some kind of slide demonstration for presentation.
By the Gods, some days I really can’t remember how it all got so out of hand so fast.
Diana Parker sits in a darkened room, surrounded on all sides by various stacks of papers and artifacts. She reads furiously through the book in front of her, jotting notes into a small journal by her side every so often. She is deep into her studies, so deep she doesn’t quite feel the aches in her neck and back from sitting for too long, nor does she notice the dark curls falling from the messy bun on her head, haphazardly held back with a fraying ribbon. She breaks for only a moment, reaching to pull the thick cardigan she wears closer to her as she shivers; New York winters are still too cold for her.
“Attention patrons: The museum will be closing in thirty minutes. Please begin making your return to the front of the building at this time.” A voice calls out from the intercom above her, breaking her out of her trance-like state. The sound echoes slightly against the cold brick walls, though thankfully not enough to rattle the papers stacked precariously at her side. She stares up at the intercom in the corner ー has she really been in these dank archives for this long? She swears to herself, regret weighing heavy on her for not asking her old camp friends to help fix her broken watch, the rusty bronze accessory attached to her wrist with worn, leather strips.
Regardless, she begins piling the books to return them to the shelves, replacing some parchment writings in their protective sleeves to their proper locations as well. Placing them quickly and safely to their proper locations, she notices an older piece of rolled papyrus on the table beside her, unattended and without the plastic sleeve protection the other artifacts were stuffed into.
Walking over to it, she can see at a glance that it isn’t Greek or Latin, like what she has been studying. The hieroglyphics dance in dizzying patterns on the page, not too dissimilar to the English words in the books she had browsed through before;
Dyslexia can be a pain, sometimes.
Next to the papyrus scroll there is a photograph, showing the exhibit upstairs ー specifically, one of the display cases, where other scrolls such as this one are located.
“Must’ve been borrowed from upstairs,” she mumbles, looking around for the head archivist; it probably isn’t a great idea, but she knows that at least if it were supposed to stay downstairs overnight, someone else would’ve been there to put it securely away after closing instead of leaving it unattended in the archive. Seeing no one else in the room with her, she carefully grabs a pair of the disposable gloves off the empty desk by the door, slipping them over her hands before lifting the scroll off the table and exiting the room.
Taking the back stairwells, she manages to make it up to the Egyptian exhibit without running into anyone ー or, more importantly, damaging the scroll. Taking a side entrance past one of the jackal statues, she moves into the artifacts room, and after seeing an unlocked glass case with other similar scrolls inside, she carefully places the scroll back beside the others and closes the case. Staring up at the plaque above the case, she concentrates on the unstable letters, willing herself to see past their movements to read the short paragraph about the display.
“Hmm, nothing major, apparently,” she hums to herself. She pulls off the borrowed glove, tossing it into the nearest trash can before straightening up and turning to walk away, “Just some old trade ledgers.”
“Attention patrons: The museum will be closing in ten minutes. Please make your way to the front exit of the building. We will begin locking up soon.” She begins making her way back towards the staircase, intent on gathering her bag from the archive and finishing her essay back at the dorms. Before she has even cleared the first jackal, however, she feels it: heat on her skin, like she is standing out into the sun, and a light breeze brushing through the fallen curls of her long hair. And the smells too ー hibiscus tea, movie theatre popcorn, even her grandmother’s peanut brittle ー fill the exhibit hall. All for just an instant, and then gone.
Something is wrong...
Slowly, she turns to look behind her, back at the main chamber to the sarcophagus ー containing the remains of some long-dead pharaoh she can’t remember the name of. There, under the propped-open glass case and on top of the stone slab holding the coffin lid down, is a tiny, open dropper bottle of some golden, shimmering liquid, and a small laurel branch.
Oh no. Her mind races as she carefully comes close enough to seal the lid onto the liquid (the smells returning as it nears her face), putting the vial in her pocket as her fingers grasp the laurel branch. She feels shocked ー this is something, as far as she knew, that was completely unheard of. After carefully replacing and latching the glass cover, she lifts the branch to eye level, staring at its impossibly green leaves — it's almost mid-December, how could it have stayed so fresh? — when she notices something else behind it.
The tablet. Where is the golden tablet? The branch forgotten, it falls from her hand as she moves closer to the empty wall, wondering where it could possibly have gone.
“... soon we’ll really be headed to Boca!” A whispered voice echoes just behind her, followed by two sharp shushing sounds. She turns on her heel and walks back out to see three older men huddled just by the exhibit gate, the tablet grasped in the tallest man’s hands. Her own hands lay twitching at her sides.
Not good… She follows behind them silently, keeping just out of sight as they take the same back routes she used on her way up, moving just past the archives to the employee locker room, where through the crack in the door, she can see many more artifacts piled up inside a metal cart, the tablet placed precariously on top. Just beyond her sight, she can hear the three men begin laughing.
“Thieves,” she gasps, before quickly covering her mouth and hiding behind the corner. The laughter stops. Her thoughts are wild, bouncing back and forth between feeling safe and imagining just how bad this situation could turn. She waits in the silence, before peeking back out. The door is wide open, with the cart of stolen goods in plain sight. Even the tablet is still in place.
Too easy, she thinks, sneaking forward carefully. Images of capture the flag flash in her head ー a lone flag, seemingly unguarded in the forest, until a tall boy and his hidden forces rush in to defend it; bright blue eyes and an infectious grin shining under his helmet, laughing wildly as he defends his team’s territory.
Nothing is ever truly left unguarded. Reaching one hand for the dangling piece of her earrings, she sneaks up to the door. Looking through the gap between the door hinges still revealed no sign of the three old men, so she turns her head to the other side, searching the wall for something to aid her if needed.
The light switch. It is too far from her to just hit it and go, but she knows it would be her best opportunity to get in and…
And then what? What exactly did she plan to do once she grabs those artifacts? Take them down to the curator?
And what if these guys aren’t what they appear? She shakes the thought from her head; worst comes to worst, the cameras should at least be able to pick up something that could potentially be used to defend her. Deciding that would be enough, she moves to flip the switch.
And then they attack. Instinct kicking in, she ducks just below a fist that flies out from her right. She tries to grab her earring but before she can, a cane strikes out at her shin, knocking her to her knees. Her elbow jabs behind her, just barely missing the tallest guy’s leg as he leans over to put her in a chokehold. He lifts her up as he cuts off her breathing, and she glances over as best as she can to see the other two old men ー a shorter, stout man, and a tall, black man ー coming closer with an open bottle and a torn rag.
“‘Least we got another suspect, in case ole’ scotch tape catches wise.” The shorter man chuckles, taking the bottle from the other man and pouring some on the rag. She scratches at the arm around her neck ー he is just enough in the way to block her earrings ー trying to get some air as her vision begins to blur at the edges.
The third man takes the soaked rag from the other, and before she can blink he pushes it to her face. The grip on her neck loosens, and she gasps into the sickly-sweet scent of the cloth. She feels her throat closing, and she starts to cough and hack, muffled by the cloth. The room starts getting dark really fast, and she can feel herself falling. Her eyes catch sight of the tablet one last time before everything fades to black.
Well, she thinks, they certainly aren’t what I could’ve expected…
When she awakens, she can just barely hear sounds of animals and chaos over the pounding in her own head. She tries to rub at her temples, only to struggle as some ropes rub against her wrists and ankles, her hands behind her back. Her mouth feels full and fuzzy, though she isn’t sure if that was the drug they’d hit her with or if they’d gagged her as well. Looking up, she can see now she must’ve been shoved into a locker; the space is dark and cramped, with only a little light shining through the slots just above her head.
“...ack here, kid!” A voice rings out over the chaos, too loud in her ears. She groans, trying to kick forward at the locker door, bracing up against the back of the locker as best as she can. No luck. She huffs to herself, and screams out for help ー muffled, though this time she knows there's a gag tied in her mouth.
But it does the trick, well enough. The talking outside stops, though the chaotic noises continue in the background. A shadow covers the slits in the door, before it opens to reveal a man ー late thirties, maybe early forties ー staring at her in shock.
“Kidnapping, too, guys?!” The man carefully pulls her out of the confined space, working the gag off her head and starting to untie her wrists. Relieved the cloth is now out of her mouth, she looks up at the men around us. Her senses kick into overdrive almost instantly, making her see everything happening at once:
The old men are stretching and standing taller, as if invigorated by some kind of drug. The cart of artifacts has apparently been pushed back, knocking into the wall but not spilling any of the pieces inside. The only thing that visibly seems to be missing is the tablet, no longer sitting atop the mountain of stolen artifacts. The shortest man steps closer then, holding up his cane over his head. The ropes around her wrists loosen finally, just in time.
“Look out!” she shouts, turning to knock the younger man to the ground right as the cane swipes at the air where his head had been just seconds before. He turns to swing again ー at her, this time ー and she rolls out of reach, pushing herself to her feet and getting into a fighting stance.
“Bad idea, miss,” the tall one says, stepping around the short man to face her directly. The younger man stands beside her, looking a little lost as the short man taunts him.
“Wanna dance, hot dog?” he laughs. The man beside her sighs.
“Gus, you’re an old man,” he says, almost reluctant, “I don’t wanna hurt yoー” Before he can finish, she shoves him back as the short man ー Gus, she guesses ー swings to hit him in the face. She rolls her eyes.
“He clearly doesn’t care much about hurting you, though!” she says, undoing her right earring and holding it in her hand, “And quite frankly, I’ve done far worse than hurt some fat old man!” In a flash, the metal elongates in her hand, forming a bronze dagger with a glittering hilt. She swipes at Gus, just missing his face as he jumps backwards.
“Whaー” he screeches, pointing wildly, “Where’d she get a weapon?!”
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” she huffs, swinging again as she pulls out her other earring and forms an identical dagger in her other hand. Gus isn’t so fast this time, the knife grazing his stomach for a moment before he can get out of her range. When he looks down after, however, they both are surprised: there’s no blood, not even a scratch.
“What?!” Diana curses to herself, “There’s no way I missed!” The taller old man starts to laugh, watching the both of them stare at where Gus should be spilling his guts ー Diana in frustration, and Gus just in shock.
"Looks like someone needs a little more practice!" The laughing one cackles, holding his arms up as is to say 'oh well'. Diana growls, aiming to throw her knife at him.
"I'll show you who needs practice!" She takes the blade in hand and goes to throw it, the metal just leaving her fingertips as the younger man pulls her back.
"What is going on here?!" He shouts. Diana ignores him, watching as her blade imbeds itself in the wall beside her target, slicing a few short, white hairs off but otherwise causing no harm. She watches the hairs fall to his shoulder, and grins.
"Cecil, why are you doing all this?!" The man behind her yells again, pulling her aside as she reaches to throw her other knife. The other man — Cecil — steps away from the wall, spreading his arms wide as he speaks.
"You see, Larry, the museum isn't the only thing to gain new life at night! Why, for years now, the three of us have also felt the age and pain melt away every night that we've spent working here." Diana stares between them, first at Cecil's gleeful grin and then to the man apparently called Larry, watching in confusion as his face slowly gave way to a look of mild horror.
"Wait a moment," she says, turning slowly to look back at Cecil, "What do you mean, 'gain new life'?" Four heads turn to face her slowly, filling her with a sense of dread.
"Oh that's right, our new little friend doesn't know about the big secret," the final man says, chuckling quietly as he twirls his walking cane.
"You see, miss…" Cecil gestures, holding the last 's' a moment longer than necessary.
"...Diana, this isn't any ordinary museum. That tablet that Larry's young son ran off with, it has magic."
"It brings everything in the museum to life, whether it was even living to begin with or not…" Larry adds, "And these three were trying to steal it."
"Oh stealing is such a naughty word," Cecil brushes off the accusation, stepping forward again as Larry gently pushes Diana behind his shoulder, "We prefer to think of it as reappropriating it, for a more noble cause." With that, he jumps quickly and turns, kicking his leg out and into Larry's face. Diana just manages to dodge, rolling away as he hits the ground, groaning in pain.
If that tablet can do all this, then I'm wasting time.
"What's your son's name?" She asks, remaining armed and at the ready as she kept her eyes on the encroaching attackers. Larry moans, nursing a cut on his cheek as he turns over.
"...Nick," he says finally, "His name's Nick."
"Then that's all I need." With that, Diana leaps up from her crouched position, kicking off Gus's shoulder as she flips through the air past Cecil. The men try and grab for her but even with their renewed energy she's still too fast, pulling her dagger from the wall as she raced out the open door.
It's connected, she thinks as she passes empty exhibits, their main attractions no longer housed within their confines. The parchment, the Nectar, the laurel branch, and now this? Someone meant for me to get involved, I'm sure of it.
"Come back here, kid!" The men's voices echo behind her, finally giving chase. She pushes harder, taking the stairs nearly three at a time in order to reach the next flight, where ahead she sees a small, brown-haired figure duck into the Egyptian exhibit. She follows close behind, ducking to move behind one of the pillars.
"Hey, let go!" A child's voice shouts, and she looks to see the men — who were so far behind just a moment ago — catch him in his tracks, yanking the golden tablet from his hands. They shove him back harshly and he stumbles, causing Diana's blood to boil.
"Leave him alone!" She yells, moving forward to swing her daggers at them again. They side-step her attack, shouldering her and knocking her into another pillar.
"Nicky!" Larry reaches them at last, arriving just seconds before Cecil knocks him to the floor, pulling the gates closed behind them. He turns the key, the lock shifting loudly into place.
"Sleep tight, hot shot!" Gus cackles, and the three men turn and head quickly towards the rest of the museum, muttering to themselves about collecting more artifacts to pawn off later. Larry pulls himself up and grabs at the bars of the gate, shaking them wildly as if it might open them.
"Let us out of here, Cecil!" He calls out frantically. He says more, but is soon drowned out by the sound of screaming. Diana turns, and after being shocked by the sight of the moving jackal statues on either side of her, she focuses on the sarcophagus of Ahkmenrah. The elaborate coffin shakes beneath the stone pinning it, muffled cries of anger and anguish echoing from within. Larry continues to talk behind her but she pays no mind, instead zeroing in on the forgotten laurel branch, still resting where she had dropped it atop the stone slab, bright against the dark surface.
Taking a moment to eye the statues leering down at her, she moves swiftly, leaping and ducking around their sharp-tipped staves until she reaches the glass box again. She tucks the branch in her jean pocket and quickly begins to push, struggling against the weight of the rock.
"What are you doing?!" Larry shouts behind her, and she turns to see him pressed against the gate, his son tucked behind him as they stare fearfully at the jackals.
"Help me move this thing!" she replies, grunting and groaning as she continues to push, only achieving slight movement. The shouting dies down slightly, the shaking lessening — the pharaoh seeming to have calmed. It takes a moment but Larry soon joins her at her side, pushing the slab more quickly as Nick hides behind another nearby pillar.
As soon as the slab hits the ground, the lid of the sarcophagus shakes again, and Larry quickly undoes the metal latch before pulling Diana back. They both duck down as the lid flies across the room, smacking against the opposite wall. Diana's eyes are drawn back to the coffin again as a figure sits up inside, wrapped head to toe in aged strips of cloth as it turns to face the two of them. Larry pushes himself in front of her, drawing the mummy's attention as Diana freezes, feeling for the small branch and dropper bottle in her pockets. Her gut feels as though it's tangled in knots.
When I asked for a quest, she thinks to herself, this isn't what I had in mind… She watches carefully as Larry tries to reason with the long-dead king, the jackals closing in not far away. Her grip tightens.
Gods, whatever reason for this sign, please let us live to see its end!