Egypt was hot and dry as a bone. Peter had known that when he agreed to come, of course, but every time he went outside he was hit again by the light and the dryness. It hadn’t rained in Luxor in months.
There was the Nile, of course, but as close as the Valley of the Kings was to the river, it provided little magical support. He couldn’t remember it being this bad the last time he’d been here. He sighed in resignation and focused his gaze again on the archaeologists’ camp. It was past sunset, at least, and the desert was slowly cooling.
Howard Carter had been excavating in this area for decades, hoping and hoping for what he had finally found. The local Masters had been watching him, of course, and periodically asking the English to have him recalled. Peter didn’t know what reason Alderscroft had for not doing so, when it would have made everything so much easier, but he hadn’t, and here they were. Weeks ago Carter had sent for his sponsor Lord Carnavron, and Alderscroft had finally got around to sending English assistance – as, he had said, a gesture of goodwill.
And of course, if an English magician was needed in Egypt, the White Lodge would send Peter. He might be a Water Master, and deeply unsuited to working in the middle of a desert, but he also had contacts in Egypt – dozens, both magical and not. Though at first he had only associated with them because of his shop, the craftsmen and forgers turned out to know all kinds of things that Peter, and the magical community in England, wanted – needed – to hear.
Which was, of course, the true reason he had come. He owed these people, for that information and their assistance over the years, and should the ghosts in this one unopened tomb be released, more than merely the English would be harmed.
At least Maya was here as well. And they had local help, he thought, looking at the veiled figure beside his wife.
Miriam was the daughter of Mohammed Fayiz, one of Peter’s craftsmen. His magic shone through his work, even after it arrived in England. When Peter had first met him he had been struggling. Now, judging by his home and influence, he was one of the leading men in Luxor’s magical community. He had been a great help. Most of the Egyptian Masters had been – largely, Peter suspected, out of a sense of relief that the English were finally bothering to clean up their own mess.
And when Peter had asked if he knew anyone from the local community of Masters who would be willing to help, the young woman who had been pouring mint tea during their conversation had turned to her father and said, “Me.”
“Miriam,” he had said, “you would be alone -”
“I would be properly escorted by Dr. Scott,” said Miss Fayiz. “You have been saying that I need more practical experience. And you know that what I can do would be useful, father.”
“I should ask the other Masters for volunteers,” Mohammed said.
“That would take too long,” said Miss Fayiz. “Wouldn’t it?” she appealed to the English guests.
“Well, I’m afraid it would, unfortunately,” said Peter. According to the last word they had from London, Lord Carnavon had already left; there were only days left until the tomb was opened.
“But it will be too dangerous, no doubt,” said Mohammed.
“I am twenty-two,” said Miss Fayiz. “We are not going into the tomb, only surveying it. I will be careful. Father?”
Mohammed frowned at her with exasperation and hidden pride. “Ask your mother,” he said. “She is better at arguing with you than I am.”
Miss Fayiz had smiled and left quickly, and Mohammed had turned to Peter.
“She will not be a burden to you, trust me,” he said. “She is very good. She has skills no one else in Luxor can match. She is simply impulsive, and I worry. If she goes with you, do not let her out of your sight, I beg you.”
“We will watch her,” said Maya. “We promise.”
Mohammed sighed. “She is right, she is an adult and she needs challenges, and practical education.”
“Many men keep their daughters from any education at all,” said Maya.
“Their daughters are not magicians, and neither are their wives,” Mohammed said. “I know better.” He had smiled ruefully as his daughter reentered the room, glowing.
There had been no true danger for any of them yet, though Peter suspected his hopes that that would continue would be dashed.
Miriam Fayiz proved to be a brilliant young woman with a healthy curiosity about anything and everything, and powers Maya was amazed to see in any Master, but especially one so young. In the few days in which they prepared to investigate the tomb, she and Maya became fast friends, and the three of them stayed awake talking over their different magical systems long into the night.
Maya had been fascinated by what she had seen so far of Egypt, so very different from India in most ways, but with the same growing undercurrents of independence beneath the British rule. They had spent little time in the cities, and she wanted to see more of them, when she could. But now, on this dark rocky hillside, they had work to do.
“All sleep,” said Rhadi, landing lightly on her shoulder. She smiled at the parrot. All of her menagerie were wiser than any animals had a right to be, but she could only take one of them to Egypt. So she had taken Rhadi, the only one of the original seven who was still alive. She wondered about that extended lifespan, and its implication that the god Kama was still with her, but she had never had any true sign of that. For now, at least, his presence soothed the constant ache of missing her other pets, being cared for by Susanne Almsley while she was gone.
“He’s right. Now should be late enough,” Peter whispered. There had been no noise from the camp for an hour, and little light except around the guarded entrance to the tomb.
“All right.” Miriam closed her eyes for a moment and took a couple slow, deep breaths. Maya yawned despite herself. Then the Egyptian woman opened her eyes and said, “Done.”
Peter was between Maya and the door; he blinked and said, “Eh?” Then he glanced over with them. The guards were sound asleep, somehow having fallen into positions that seemed perfectly comfortable.
“They won’t wake if they are disturbed,” said Miriam. “But it will wear off by sunrise. We need to go.”
“You must teach me that, after this is over,” said Maya as they began to pick their way down the hillside. They passed through the first, unmarked, door, and then all three of them called up small witchlights to lead them through the rough corridor, past piles of debris, to the still-sealed entrance to the tomb.
When they were on a level with the door, they could finally see the spells clearly. The stone was crumbling at the corners, but still marked with symbols that sang out their power to Maya’s magical vision. They had been breached once. It had been millennia ago, but she could still see in their shapes the breakage, and in the new seals the repair. This was magic more powerful than anything she had ever seen wielded by humans before. She felt as she had fifteen years ago as she realized that her mother’s pets were not pets – not natural – at all. This would recognize any attempts on it.
“Good Lord,” Peter breathed.
Miriam was wide-eyed. “They said the ancients were great,” she whispered, “but I thought, they were only pagans...”
Maya took a deep breath. “If they are that strong still, she said, “we can negotiate with them. They will almost be conscious, from the strength put into them and kept in them...”
“Yes,” said Peter. “Or at least, let’s hope so.”
“Like this?” asked Miriam, placing her palms flat on the stone.
“No!” shouted Maya and Peter simultaneously, but it was too late; Miriam was frozen in place, staring unseeingly at the door. Maya desperately tried to clear her mind of any intentions other than helping the other woman, nodded at Peter, who looked just as horrified as she was, and then reached for the stone herself.
Peter stared in shock as Maya went as still as Miss Fayiz had, then quickly reached to place his hand on the back of her neck. Oh, thank God – she was still there, barely. He wished they had had time to discuss this – here, in the middle of the desert, she would have been a far better anchor for such work than he. But he kept a hold on the sense of her presence and placed his other hand, after a moment’s consideration of Muslim modesty, on Miss Fayiz’s wrist, careful to keep his own skin away from the stone. Then he went into the depths of himself and the earth, searching for water and hoping he could reach the river.
Maya was trapped in a vast dark space, curses draped around her like spiderwebs. She looked around wildly, and saw a silver cord trailing away from her ankle into the blackness. It was immensely reassuring. She turned with more deliberation, searching, and caught a glimpse of Earth power. She dove after it. There was Miriam, and if she could just -
She had her. There you are, she said. We must get out, and prepare properly -
But they’re here, said Miriam. They need us.
They, yes. Not just the dead boy pharaoh – in fact, not him at all. He hadn’t been a magician, and after so many centuries even the best preservations could not keep his essence there, not surrounded by rich grave gifts he’d never used and had no connection to. But the priests. Every temple priest who had laid the original spells, every priest later who had renewed them after the theft. They were magicians, and the remnants of their personalities that clung to their curses were utterly dedicated to protecting their charge. Maya had been able to feel them watching her ever since she had arrived here.
They need us?
To help them. To protect it.
Maya stared around them at the cobwebs of spells, waving gently as if in a breeze. There was no system she could recognize to them, though hints of patterns teased at her mind. She and Miriam hadn’t intended to damage or even truly enter the tomb, so they were not being harmed, yet. She couldn’t read the ancient spells well enough to tell what would happen if someone, magical or not, with an intent to harm tried to enter.
Can you read what the spells mean? she asked.
Not well, said Miriam. Priests of the ancients? she called out into the echoing space. Maya wished in the expectant silence that followed that they had been able to choose a less impulsive assistant.
She felt the cobwebs grow thorns where they brushed against her. The knowledge that this was all metaphor, that she was not truly present at all, did nothing to ease the tension she felt in the body she was not inhabiting.
We know they are here. It was as if the sand had spoken, the words dry as dust but sticking in the mind like bitumen. Grave robbers and thieves. We know them. They had left us, forgotten, but we have our duty now. It was hard to tell if it was one voice or dozens mixed together. Perhaps after thousands of years all the remains of personality put into the guarding spells had mingled into one consciousness. Our king was only a boy, not wise and not ready. But he was devout, and dutiful to the true gods, not the usurpers. We could not protect his reign, but we will protect his second life from raiders.
These are raiders of a different sort, thought Maya, trying to find an explanation for archaeology that they would accept.
You think we do not know? We have seen it. All his possessions will go to the north, cold and covered in water, as you went from your home. The ease with which they read her memories scared her. What was their magic?
Send them away, whispered the dangling spells, shaking in a nonexistent breeze.
We can’t, said Maya. Now that they know this tomb is here, they can’t be made to leave. Is there any way you could let them in without hurting them?
You are here already. The words were cold, considering. What would happen if two bodies were found outside this tomb, with your husband ready to explain something that would keep all others safe? You would go to join our king. It would not be unpleasant for you. They would go then.
Maya and Miriam shivered. The utter amorality of that tone, cold logic and colder practicality. The priests who had cast the spells were already dead – what did modern lives mean to them?
It is not a good plan, said Miriam. There will be revenge taken. You will be seen as a threat, and at last torn out of this valley like weeds.
Will that not also be the case, should we allow intrusion? The death – for lack of a better word – that they faced, scattered to the winds and taken away from their anchor, slowly dwindling into dust without the reinforcement of Egypt and a purpose, appeared clearly in Maya’s mind, and she felt the lingering loss of self as if it were her own.
Museums, she thought desperately. They will take everything to a museum. It will be carefully kept, and studied. It will let everyone know how great your power was, how rich your people -
Fame, the voice – voices? – said, is not the point. Only continuing Life.
Maya glanced at Miriam, seeing her own concern reflected in the other woman’s face. They desperately needed some bargaining power, some leverage – but there was none. There was no reason for the consciousness that had grown out of the spells to choose one slow death over a slightly faster one.
Peter did his best to bolster the two Earth Masters in front of him with his own power and that he could draw from the nearly dry earth, but he knew from the faint emotions emanating from Maya’s spirit that it wasn’t enough. Whatever they were facing, it was more powerful than three Masters combined, and it had Maya in its grasp.
The edge of panic was not strengthening his magic enough either, he could tell. He looked around the bare tunnel, trying desperately to think of something. He was not close enough to the Nile, and there was little other water nearby.
Wait, Rhadi was no longer on Maya’s shoulder. Where -?
“Water!” said a voice behind him, and there was a flutter of wings. Surely not – surely there had not been enough time -
There was a tap of pottery against his cheek, and then Rhadi landing on his shoulder, spilling the tiny cup it held in its claws as it did. And he recognized the feel of that water.
Nile water. A river that surged with all the power of the ocean, that until only twenty years ago had flooded and receded with its own tides, that had given this country all the gifts upon which it had built its civilization, now and in the past.
The Law of Contagion. Now that he had a focus, he searched for the previously unreachable river and felt it flow into him, glowing green and blue. It nearly overwhelmed him, and he tried to focus it, shaping it, narrowing the flow and reaching for the parts of it that felt the most similar to Earth magic. And then he centred that power in his hands and hoped it would be enough for the women in front of him to use.
Is it only this tomb, or Egypt altogether? Miriam asked. Maya wondered how obvious it was that they were making ever more desperate bids for time.
This tomb was not his, originally, said the voice, with something like interest. This country, from the oases to the land between the rivers, all of that was his and ours, once. It is Egypt. But we must have our treasures. They must remain here.
Maya had been able to feel Peter’s support behind her, the entire time they were in this dark halfway-space. But suddenly Peter’s faint presence turned into a bright green light, casting shadows before it, and power flowed into Maya like some foreign wine. Very foreign, very strange – Water, not Earth – but close enough that if she just reached for it -
Miriam grabbed it first, and it steadied a little. Maya took hold of it, and felt confusion coming from the emptiness in front of them.
The Nile? Disbelief, and a little fear. Maya could barely believe it as well.
What are your terms? asked the voice of the spells. Was that all? If the River will back you, we cannot stand against it.
We don’t want to destroy you, said Miriam. Truly, we don’t. Maya, can we find a way of keeping everything in Egypt?
We should be able to, said Maya, thinking of Lord Peter Almsley and Alderscroft and all the connections to the foreign office there must be in the Exeter Club. If we can convince them it’s necessary. But is it?
Yes, said Miriam. What is this tomb worth, without its magic?
Please, she said, as Maya thought about that. Priests of the ancients, we will ensure everything in this tomb is kept inside Egypt, and if we can, we’ll keep it together. Promise you won’t harm any of the archaeologists, or their workers. They only want everyone to know how great Egypt is and has been.
There was a long silence, while the drifting spells shook around them, lit up by the magic Maya and Miriam held.
You are generous, said the spells.
I am Egyptian, said Miriam.
Maya thought she might have heard a laugh.
You may go, said the voice, and no one will be harmed so long as this magic stays in Egypt.
Maya glanced at Miriam and was glad to see that the other woman was wise enough to have the same doubts as she did.
No one will be harmed, the voices said. By Amon-Ra, and all the gods. Remember you have the power to make us keep that promise, now.
Maya felt Peter’s reassuring hands behind her, and the Nile’s power working through him. She nodded, whether to herself or the spells or Miriam she didn’t know.
In front of them, the cobwebs of the spells began to thin, like a fog slowly clearing. The darkness remained, growing thicker and blacker as the greyness of the spells faded out of it. When it was only her and Miriam and the turquoise light behind them, they heard, It is done.
We still bear no good will to those who would destroy us, the voices whispered as they slowly returned to their physical selves. But we will do them no direct harm so long as they keep that promise.