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Scars

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Sam shouts the alarm just in time. I’ve barely a moment to orient myself as I jerk awake, but someone tries to hit me. He’s dead in an instant, my axe gutting him. I move, dodging another attacker. The Kris is in my left hand and I don’t remember ever drawing it, but it saves my life when I block a machete. That man’s blood joins his friend’s in the sand, but I’m already losing count of our attackers. They swarm over our camp. How many of them are there? I fight back panic as I try to find Sam in all the chaos. She has Gyasi, which is good. I don’t see Soraya, but I don’t worry about her that much. She can handle herself.

I nearly go down when something sharp cuts through my leg but I use the pain to fuel me and drive the Kris right into the man’s eye-socket. Time slows down around me as I twist around. My axe finds a skull then a stomach, while the dagger carves a huge gouge into a third’s chest. I slash and jab, aiming for vitals and where I can do the most damage to bring my targets down.

I try to find Sam again. I see her, and the sight is terrifying. There are patterns in her arms and forehead that glow a blue-white, and her eyes are the same color. The wind picks up, gusting around us like a whirlwind. It’s like being in a sandblaster and I lift my arms to shield my face and eyes. “Sam! Sam, stop this!”

The sky above us is violent and uncontrolled. It looks like Yamatai but somehow worse. No, it’s definitely worse because I can feel Sam losing herself to it. It rips at my heart and shreds my soul. I stop seeing the men closing on me as my vision narrows until there’s only the terrible sight of Sam glowing. Sam becoming Himiko. I can’t lose her but there’s nothing I can do. It’s my fault. My fault for not saying something sooner. I’ve had suspicions but I hadn’t wanted to see it. It’s my fault for trying to pretend that everything was okay after that storm. When had all this started? It didn’t matter right now. I can feel despair grasping at me. Is there time to spare her any pain, or is there a way to bring her back. I’m frozen in my indecision, an arrow in my hand.

There’s a sudden flash of light and sound and heat. I’m blown backwards, landing in a heap several meters away. There are spots in my eyes and my ears are ringing, but I’m alive. When my vision clears Sam is kneeling over me. Her voice is echoey. Like we’re underwater. But her eyes… Her eyes are her own. I want to throw my arms around her and never let go, but I don’t have time for that. She helps me to my feet and I take stock of the aftermath.

It’s over. The storm has died down, and our attackers are scattered or dead. I must have taken out nine, by my count. Soraya is approaching us cautiously, the blood on her face gleaming in the moonlight. Where the other attackers had stood there is nothing left but charred remains. I fold Sam against me. I can feel her shaking. She knows what she’s done, and she knows what the price could be. I stare into her eyes again, just to reassure myself that she’s in there. “You scared me, Sam!”

“Scared the shit out of myself too. It was so…easy. Once I thought about it, once I could see the paths the lightning could take. I just had to...tell it to go.” She talks so easily, but her voice is shaking. She’s as disturbed as the rest of us. Well. As disturbed as Soraya and I. Gyasi just looks fascinated.

“Is she in there, Sam?” I cup her face, ignoring Gyasi and Soraya and just putting the entirety of my focus on Sam. I think she wants to lie, but the look in her eyes is a dead give away. I stroke her cheeks gently.

She sighs and says, “Yes… kind of. There’s a piece of her.” She taps her chest and I place my hand there. Enough time must have passed during the ritual for a piece of Himiko’s soul to lodge itself inside of my best friend. That there might be some of that power, too, hadn’t entered my thoughts until Shaw. Sam is a vessel. The power and the soul had been passed down to her. No, she is still Sam. Sam where it counts, deep inside.

“You’re still you.” I say it like I have to believe it.. I have to. I can’t afford to not believe it. “You’ve just had some power poured into you. And we’re going to find a way to get it out. I’m so sorry. I should have done something...”

She says nothing after that, and I don’t press. Instead I take a seat on the hood of the truck and inspect my injuries. The slash on my leg, a bullet graze on my shoulder. I start to clean the one on my leg, hissing as the antiseptic burns. Some more scars for Sam to map. My stomach twists itself into a knot and I look up to watch her. She seems confident. Maybe she thinks she can control this.

She’s strong, I trust her to be strong but this is something that has haunted us for nearly three years now. Something that’s been taking root inside her. I can only think that the killing has awakened the power inside her. First Victor, then that man on the beach. And now a dozen in one strike. One death is enough to change a person forever, but this is something else entirely.

It takes us an hour before we’re ready to move on. I sew up my leg and then inspect Sam for any injuries. But there’s no point in staying here and we’re all too wired for sleep. I have to find Thinis. There might be answers there. Answers to the riddle of these artifacts. To help Sam, to stop Shaw in whatever he has planned for these things. It’s no longer just about academic research or the pursuit of knowledge and it hasn’t really been that for a long time now. I have to face facts.

Soraya approaches me, disturbing my thoughts. She’s cleaned herself up and changed her shirt. I nod at her, then turn my attention back to Sam.

“Is that what you faced on Yamatai?” Her voice is close to my ear, so I keep my own voice low.

“Sort of. Himiko never showed that level of control, but she had also been completely off her rocker. She was able to take down an airplane with a pinpoint strike.” So calling down lightning into a group of men and not killing me at the same time wasn’t much different. “But she was just...she was mad. She’d spent thousands of years locked in the body of a corpse. Could you imagine?”

I feel Soraya’s hand on my shoulder. Her voice is low. Concerned. The same concern I feel in my heart. “That kind of power can burn someone up from the inside, before they even know it. And I don’t mean their bodies.”

“It won’t happen with Sam.” I don’t look at her. I don’t want to see the expression on her face. It’s like she’s already cast judgement. But I don’t give up. I refuse to give up. I’ll never give up on Sam, not as long as she lives and breathes, and she won’t give up on me. “She’s made of stronger stuff than that.”

Still, we spend the next hour driving in silence. Soraya is at the wheel, and Gyasi is up front with her which I’m glad for. I hold onto Sam’s hand, afraid she’ll be ripped from me. I can’t forget how I’d felt when I’d seen her glowing. She leans into me until her head is resting on my shoulder, so I put my arm around her and squeeze her lightly. No words pass between us, and none need to. Not right now. I find myself drawing as much strength from her as she does from me, and by the time we’ve reached Thinis I feel like I can handle anything the ruins throw at us.

Our destination is a featureless landscape of sand and rock, and with the exception of Gyasi our little party looks confused and lost. I push aside my emotional turmoil to focus on the task at hand, and let the excitement of discovery take over. The man grins at me and I grin back. I can see the city laid out in my mind. The stones aren’t positioned naturally. “This is it, it has to be.”

The sun is beginning to rise, casting the land in bright oranges and yellows as I consult the information we’d gathered from the Sphinx. The map hadn’t been just to Thinis, but to whatever treasure lay hidden beneath the sand. As Sam will probably tell it, Gyasi and I spend a good hour geeking out while we studiously map out what we think are the city boundries. One of the major dieties here is the lion-goddes Mehit. She popped up frequently in Shaw’s notes. I’d lay money on her being important somehow.

If there’s a tomb or temple, I’ll find it. If there are traps, I’ll get us through them. I look at Sam, and she looks at me. Can she feel it? That thrum in the air?

My shovel hits something, and I push away the sand. Onyx eyes stare at me. A lion’s head on a woman’s body. Nearby is another one, and before too long we managed to dig out an opening. The doors are shut, seemingly sealed, but there’s probably a latch or a key or something.

It’s Gyasi that finds it, and as the doors slide open, we inhale air that the living haven’t breathed in nearly five thousand years. I’m sure Sam gets a great shot of me descending into the tomb, before she and the others follow me. I like this. Me doing what I love and Sam doing her thing, like we’re a team. Soraya and Gyasi don’t even feel out of place.

It’s a simple hallway, at first. There are paintings on either side of us, so clear that they look like they were done just yesterday. There are pillars as well, evenly spaced on either side. “Get footage of that, will you? We can do a voice over later, but it’s so beautiful.”

“It looks fresh.” Soraya starts to lift her fingers to the wall but Gyasi grabs her wrist.

“Don’t. The oils in your skin will ruin them. We will observe, and record, and when we have found the artifact here, then we will bring in teams to properly restore the site.”

I grin at Gyasi. We can take the dangerous object out and then let the proper authorities preserve this place. There’s so much we can learn here about one of the earliest time periods of Egyptian civilization.

“How do we know there’s even something here?” Soraya asks, folding her arms. Surely she spent enough time with my father to know not to touch.

“Can’t you feel it?” Sam brushes past her and slowly pans the camera along the west wall. “There’s a charge in the air. It’s tugging at me.”

I can feel something, true. Like how the first skull seemed to summon us forward. This time, it’s not affecting me so much as the Kris at my hip. I wonder if they somehow know each other, or just recognize the magic involved. I hate magic. Worse than tombs.

Soraya lets out a brief, resigned sigh. “Yes. I feel it.”

I jog forward to the end of the hall and look up at a gigantic statue of Mehit. I pull on some gloves and press my hands to it. I don’t think it’s stone, but it’s brightly painted, and cool to the touch. It feels like metal. Bronze.

We’ve found a dead end. I don’t believe that this is all there is to see here. That draw is stronger now, and it’s moved from the dagger to the back of my head. Like the buzzing of gnats inside my skull. There’s probably a lever somewhere. “There’s got to be a secret door, or a lever. Maybe the paintings can tell us how to find it.”

An hour passes, then two. Gyasi and I scribble notes in our journals, and sketch the pictures and hieroglyphics while Sam records it all. There’s some kind of code here, it’s plain as day, but decoding it is proving not to be fruitful. It could take someone a lifetime to really study this, but we don’t have that luxury. I doubt we have more than a few days before Shaw’s men find us. We have to get that artifact and bring in Gyasi’s people before that happens. I shudder to think about what Shaw do to these ruins either trying to find what we take, or just out of spite.

I’m staring at the statue again when it hits me. I backtrack to the front of the temple and take in the entire scene. I let my eyes unfocus, and that’s when I see it. A little gap just above Mehit’s head. I run back to the statue and look around the base. It’s sunken in, just a little.

“The statue! It sinks into the ground, look here.” I trace the base with my foot. “It’s shifted over time. It’s a shortcut, but I’ll happily take it.”

Sam’s at my side quickly. Her arms wrap around me and I can feel her feeding on my excitement. “Great! How do we get it going the rest of the way?”

“We need to find the lever,” I tell her. Except nothing even remotely looks like a lever, and none of the paintings seems to help. Sam taps her finger against her lip, then starts pressing her hand against various parts of the wall next to the statue. “What are you looking for?”

“In Peru, when I got the second skull. Remember?”

I remember. She’d told me about the puzzle she’d solved with the buttons. I move to the other side and start searching for loose stones or something else that could be pressed. We find what we’re looking for at the same time.

Stone scrapes as the statue shifts forward a foot and then starts to slide into the ground. I look at Sam over the head as it disappears and grin at her. “That’s brilliant!”

“Wonder twins powers, activate!”

Soraya snorts, and peered down into the new chamber. “If you two are twins you’ve got some serious problems.”

Wonder twins,” Sam clarifies. I just laugh, feeling my cheeks redden.

“Moving on.” I kneel in front of the gap, trying to get an idea of what might be beyond the threshhold. I am pleased at the banter, and more than anything else that sets my mind at ease about the events last night. Sam is still Sam. I fear that might become a mantra. Sam is still Sam.

“All of you need to stay back. I’ll let you know when it’s safe.” I drop down the three feet and step into an antechamber. It’s small but lavishly decorated and painted, and half as long as the main entrance hallway. After ensuring the chamber is safe, I let the others into it. “You should have time to get some really good footage here.”

“Yeah, but just in case?” She hands me another camera and smiles cheekily. I give her a look, pretending don’t understand what she’s talking about.

The antechamber slopes steeply at the end, but I’m moving slowly and avoid a nasty tumble into some waiting spikes. I’ve developed a second sense when it comes to these kinds of traps. Costa Rica and Yamatai killed any joy I might ever get from slides. I carefully go around the spikes and creep into the main chamber itself.

It’s immediately apparent that someone is entombed in here. Not that unusual in Egypt but it is pretty unusual considering that this is a temple. Most burials were nearby, not in the temples themselves. But it could be that all that information is wrong, at least about Thinis. I want to spend hours in here, studying every last centimeter, but we need to get what we came for.

The ceiling is six meters overhead, and glitters like the night sky. At the center is a sarcophagus, gold and silver, painted brightly and inlaid with gems. I still don’t know how the paint survived all this time and I’m all the more eager to get Gyasi’s people in to protect this place. But first I need that artifact.

I glance back the way I’d come. I really should wait for them. But there’s no telling what’ll happen when I open that lid and retrieve what I know is inside. I can feel it in my bones. Whoever is in here was important enough to be buried in the temple itself. I move the camera, trying to catch every painting, every ancient word, and as I do, my mind puts the story together. Mehit was a goddess associated with Onurus, who was later known as Horus. It’s more complicated than all that but I only remember part of the myth. Something to research later. I pan the camera back to the center. The paintings tell the story of how Onurus tamed the lioness, then brought her back to Egypt where she became his consort. Thinis was considered their chief place of worship.

I approach the sarcophagus warily. According to the inscriptions Mehit herself is interred there. It’s not as impossible as I’d like to think, either. I see other symbols, and more of the story fills in. Narmer the first pharaoh of the First Dynasty, and his beautiful wife from the south. A tamed lioness.

It takes me less than a minute to get it open. Inside is a perfectly preserved body. Dried due to time and the desert, but about as well preserved as one can get. This temple predates the first deliberate mummification rituals by several centuries, at least, but she’s still beautiful. Her skin is very dark and great pains were taken with her face and nail paint. There’s even evidence of body paint underneath elegant robes. I half expect her eyes to open.

She’s clutching a statue of Mehit over her breast. It seems to glitter, and it’s darker than iron. I’ve seen metal like this before, but it’s usually in jewellry pieces, not a small statuette. Meteor iron. Many cultures have used it and it’s generally considered sacred. I press a finger against the side of the statuette and I can feel static crackle in the air. It thrum and beats almost like a pulse. It’s the same feeling I get from the skulls we have, safely locked away back home.

I gently try to dislodge it from her grip, but she doesn’t seem to want to let go. I can’t blame her. If I believed the story her tomb tells, then she is basically holding herself. The thought makes me let go and I look between her peaceful face, and then the statue. My hand falls to the Kris.

“Oh my god. She’s really holding herself.” This is the first Queen of Egypt, the consort to the first pharaoh. The man and woman who became the basis for the myth of this city’s chief god and goddess. I look at some of the hieroglyphics again with fresh eyes. Instead of immortality through human vessels, they’d sought it through objects.

I take the camera Sam gave me to record some more symbols. I’ll need to to study them later. They depict a woman holding the statuette, but it’s not Mehit. It’s someone else. Passing the power, like on Yamatai? I don’t know, not yet.

“I’m terribly sorry about this, but I’m a lot more polite than my so-called colleague will be.” I’m less gentle this time, but eventually she relinquishes her hold on the artifact. While the others were warm, this one is cold to the touch. It’s like holding a block of ice.

There’s no rumbling, no sudden threat or dangers. None of those corpse-like copies we’ve dealt with before. I only feel this sudden sense of relief. As though a long sleep were finally over. I look down at the statuette in my hands. “Three skulls. A statuette, the Kris. And Sam.” If my theory is correct, that means there are still four more skulls, and ten more artifacts of similar power. There’s more besides but the thought of trying to find over a hundred relics is daunting right now.

It pains me to think of Sam as an artifact, but she’s as much a part of this as I am. More so, even. I turn to make my way back to the others, where I’m sure I won’t hear the end of it for making them miss the good stuff.

I give Sam back the camera after smiling sheepishly at her, and we force the big statue back into it’s original position. Once outside, Gyasi and I work to get the doors closed while Soraya makes a phone call. We’re going to be long gone before the Egyptian teams arrive.

As we drive away, the desert wind picks up and sand starts to bury the temple once again. I just pull Sam’s head against my shoulder. Sam takes my hand, and I squeeze it in return.

“Lara?”

“Yes, Sam?”

Her lips feather against my neck. “Do you trust me?”

I swallow a lump in my throat, and squeeze her hand again. “Yes. With my life.”