"Are you sure about this, Alex?" Rick frowned at his twenty-year-old son. "This isn't some summer trip into the desert we're talking about, this is going to set your degree back by months, maybe even years. And it's in China. Since when were you interested in Chinese history?"
He knew he and Evy had missed a lot of the kid's life after the whole Ahm Shere adventure, between sending Alex to boarding school and getting co-opted by the British government under cover of Evy's archaeological career, but still, dropping out of school to follow one of his professors on a hare-brained expedition to the far East seemed a little much as a cry for attention.
Alex rolled his eyes and focused on the books in front of him, running a finger down a row of leather-bound spines. He pulled three from the shelf, checking their titles carefully, and put one of them back; the two he kept were in some flavor of Chinese, but Rick didn't know enough about the scripts to tell which. Evy was the true polyglot of the family; aside from English, Arabic and French, he mostly just knew enough to swear and order liquor in most of the countries they'd visited over the years.
"Since every time anyone in this family has set foot in Egypt, they've been attacked, or arrested, or raised a mummy, or dug up a bracelet that almost set off the apocalypse," Alex replied, dryly. "Besides, Egypt's Mom's field. So sue me, I'd like to be famous for something I discovered, not because I'm her kid, or yours. And when I found Sir Colin Bembridge's last journal... Dad, he was looking for the tomb of the guy who ordered the building of the Great Wall. You can't tell me that isn't at least a little cool."
Rick sighed and crossed his arms over his chest. Of course it was cool; not that he was going to tell Alex as much. Even he'd heard of the Great Wall; there was a family legend about it, in fact, one of the few that his dad had managed to pass on before getting himself and his wife killed and stranding a very young Rick in Cairo. He hadn't thought about it in years-- when he'd been younger, the story had been too fantastic to take seriously, and since he'd met Evy he'd had other things to occupy his mind-- but if it had been true, he wasn't surprised that there'd be other ancient mysteries around to dig up.
If he'd been younger, he might even have been interested in checking the place out, himself. He wasn't going to admit that to his kid, though; Evy would skin him alive if he did.
"You realize, of course, that your mother's going to look for the absolute first excuse she can find to drop in on you, right?" he said, instead. "And that if you don't check in with Jonathan on a regular basis, she's going to start imagining all the horrible things that might have happened to you and start planning funerals accordingly?"
"Why do you think I'm telling you first?" Alex replied wryly, throwing him a glance from under a fringe of messy brown hair the same shade as Rick's. He'd got that, his eye color, his stature, even his taste in weaponry from Rick; luckily, he'd got his intelligence from his mother. "I'm counting on you to break it to her and let her get the worst of the worrying out of her system before I ask her blessing to go."
"Asking for her blessing might be a little much. Not dragging you back to that college by your ear might be the most you can expect," Rick snorted. "Which professor did you say was sponsoring this, again?"
"Roger Wilson; he's an old friend of yours, right? So at least you can tell Mom I won't be alone out there." Alex scanned another shelf, and drew off another two books, then turned back to Rick with his bounty clasped in his arms. "Trust me; we know pretty much exactly where to look, and he's got all the permissions we need already. A year, maybe two, that's all; this isn't going to be another Tutankhamun's tomb."
"Yeah, sure, you say that now," Rick muttered darkly. Yeah, he and Evy knew Wilson; but the fact that he hadn't heard of this first from him rather than Alex was rapidly diminishing his respect for the guy. "Don't forget-- China's history goes back almost as far as Egypt's does, complete with ancient dynasties and legendary monsters and all, and we don't exactly have any warriors of the Nameless Order or reincarnated empresses around to warn you what kind of supernatural landmines you might trip over."
"Nameless Order?" Alex repeated skeptically, stepping around him to head out into the hall. "Look, I get why you're worried, Dad, I really do. But just because Egypt has a band of mystical guardians running around, and they just so happened to pick you out of an orphanage when you were a kid, and you just so happened to end up fighting their boogeyman, doesn't mean anything of the kind is going to happen to me. I'm not gonna trip over any secret order, nameless or otherwise."
"Only because they got their boogeyman nine centuries ago-- but that doesn't mean there's not another one out there!" he pointed out, following the kid toward his bedroom. It was a bit of a walk; Evy's ancestral home was practically the size of the British Museum itself. "It took twice that long to actually build the Wall; you don't think there might have been a lot of secrets buried with it?"
"Because they what?" Alex threw him a perplexed look. "Wait, are you saying there actually was a Nameless Order? But how would you know about it even if there was? China's not Mom's specialty, and you can't tell me you ever went there with the French Foreign Legion."
"It's kind of a family legend, actually... and now that I think about it, I wonder if it's why the Medjai did pick me," Rick replied, coming to a startled halt outside Alex's door. Traveler from the West. Huh.
That actually hadn't occurred to him before; but his father hadn't been shy about telling the story, especially when people asked him why he'd become a missionary in the first place. That was one of the reasons Rick still remembered it, after all. It was easy to believe that at some point, an unintended pair of ears had heard the tale and passed it on.
"What legend?" Alex frowned, dropping the books on a table next to his bed. "I've heard all your stories, but I don't think you ever told me any family stories before. I didn't know you even had any."
Rick shook off the introspective mood, and gestured further down the hall toward his study. "Yeah, well, your mother had enough for both of us, and it didn't seem that big a deal. But if you actually are going to China... then there's something I think you ought to see."
The darkly furnished, wood-paneled room that had been set aside for the master of the house didn't actually see much use; Rick spent more time in the chair by the window reading magazines and trying to figure out what to do with life as a retiree than anything else, and he wouldn't even do that much if Evy didn't spend so much time at the typewriter in her study, fictionalizing their adventures as one more layer of belated cover. But it did make for a good place to store the few pieces of his own past that had managed to survive the years.
He opened the safe and took out an oilcloth packet, then set it down on the desk and turned to Alex. "So, you know about the orphanage, and my mother's brother in Chicago, and the fact that my parents were missionaries before that. Did I ever tell you anything else about the O'Connells?"
Alex shook his head, taking a seat in front of the desk. "No, not really. You just said there's a long tradition of scoundrels in the family, so no one was all that surprised when you ran off to join the Legion."
Rick snorted, leaning against the desktop and crossing his arms again. "Yeah. My dad used to say our family's been known for its soldiers, mercenaries, and explorers as far back as we can trace our history, to the point that it's rare for an O'Connell to stay in one place our whole lives. And it started with a man named William back in the 11th Century. He spoke English, but he had a Norman name, and he was sold to an army as a child, so it's anybody's guess what his heritage was. But by the time he was in his thirties, all that mattered was that he was a high value mercenary known for his skill with a bow who'd fought in several conflicts all over Europe."
"A medieval sharpshooter, huh? Sounds familiar so far," Alex said dryly. He still sounded like he was reserving judgment, but he kept throwing curious glances at the packet on the desk next to Rick.
"It's also worth noting, or so my dad always said, that his name was a combination of the Germanic words for will, or desire; and helmet, or protection. Because it was about that point in history that the Song Dynasty put the recipe for gunpowder in one of their military manuals, and rumors started filtering out to the West."
Alex's eyes lit up, and he leaned forward, bracing his elbows on his knees. "Black powder; right. It took at least a century for the secret to get out, if I remember right; and the first record we have of the recipe outside of China wasn't until the 13th Century."
He might have known his son would know the history of guns; Rick grinned at him. "When an English friar named Roger Bacon wrote it down, right. But it wasn't for lack of trying. The man who brought that secret back for his country, or company, would have been set up for life."
"If his buddies didn't kill him first to take it for themselves," Alex scoffed; but his full attention was engaged on the story. "I take it our ancestor was one of the ones who tried?"
"So the story goes," Rick nodded. "He and twenty or thirty other mercenaries made their way overland under the guise of a trading expedition; the story didn't say what route they took, but I wouldn't be surprised if they took the Silk Roads most of the way, then branched off once they got near what we'd call Eastern China. Where they ran into a lot of the problems that plagued travelers of that era; including the nomadic tribes of the steppes. Only two of them made it as far as the Wall, which came as an unpleasant surprise to them-- it wasn't actually well known in the West until centuries later. They surrendered to the garrison there rather than run back into the teeth of the nomads, and if it hadn't been for some pretty unusual circumstances, the story of William Garin would have ended in that place."
"Long before he had a descendant named Conall, never mind all the rest of us," Alex filled in. "So. I'm guessing this is where the Nameless Order comes into the picture?" He glanced at the desk again.
"Yup." Rick picked up the oilcloth packet and unwrapped it, exposing the leather roundel inside. It was cracked and slightly faded with age, but the original crimson color and the bird's head impressed on the disc-shaped armor remnant were still easy to make out. "Turns out they'd been manning that section of the Wall for about two thousand years, fighting off a horde of monsters called the Tao Tei who swarmed down from the north every sixty years, eating everything in their path. They could only be killed by a strike to the eye, or by someone carrying a magnet-- which weren't exactly well-known in the West at the time."
"Let me guess, William had one?" Alex smirked.
"Yup. The whole story's a little long, and I don't remember all of it, but Dad said he fought with them several times before they killed the Queen of the Tao Tei and ended their threat once and for all-- enough to earn the badge of their dedicated archers," he carefully passed over the roundel, "and win his freedom. Afterward, General Lin Mae gave William an escort back home, and his choice of prize: all the black powder he could carry, or his last surviving friend."
Alex chuckled at that, carefully turning the piece of leather over in his hands, tracing its curves with his fingertips. "He chose the friend, didn't he?"
"Yup. And that's how, according to the legend, our ancestor went East looking for black powder and came back with a Spanish husband and a taste for derring-do to pass on to his descendents, instead."
"Husband?" Alex raised an eyebrow at that.
"Well, not that they called it that in the Middle Ages, but they did everything together from then on, including marrying the same woman and settling down together, so," Rick shrugged. "I didn't really believe the part about the monsters at the time; but considering what we've seen since... well, it's your legend to carry now." He picked up the oilcloth wrapper and handed it over, gesturing for Alex to cover it back up again. "Who knows, maybe it'll come in handy at some point, kinda like my tattoo."
"I'll be sure and ask about it, at least," Alex said skeptically, but he handled the leather disc almost reverently as he began wrapping it up again, confirming for Rick that he'd made the right choice to tell the story now. But then Alex's eyes went to the bracer on Rick's wrist... and he paused, a strange, startled look crossing his face.
"Hey, you all right?" Rick frowned as he tried to figure out what had upset his son. "I wasn't trying to scare you off your plan, you know. If anything, I thought it might help to be forewarned."
Alex blinked, then shook his head sharply, eyes slightly wild as he met Rick's gaze again. "No, no, it's a great story. I just realized something, is all."
Rick narrowed his eyes, glancing down at the bracer again, which he usually wore to cover his Medjai tattoo. "Something to do with the Medjai?"
"Uh, sort of?" Alex winced. "It's just... speaking of husbands. All those times Ardeth came and visited you and Mom, or we went to Egypt and you guys stayed in his tent...."
Rick cleared his throat, his own face going a little red. Alex had been a little too young back in the beginning, and well, what with the war, it hadn't really been an issue since. "What about it?"
Alex shook his head and stood, resolutely looking away from Rick as he headed for the door. "Uh, never mind! I'm just going to... yeah, I've got some reading to do, so if you'll talk to Mom for me...?"
"Yeah, yeah," Rick called after him. "But I won't be able to hold her off forever!"
"Just try, Dad! That's all I ask."
It looked like the retirement visit to Egypt was going to have to wait a little longer.
Rick did hold her off for awhile; but when the Foreign Office came to them with the Eye of Shangri-La and the offer of one last mission... well, the lure of adventure and call of family both proved too strong for Evy to resist. And as it happened, Alex was already up to his neck in more intrigue, Chinese mummy included.
Roger Wilson betrayed them; a Chinese general managed to use the Eye to wake the Dragon Emperor; and Rick and family ended up on a massive chase through a New Year celebration in Shanghai... in the company of a young female assassin who just so happened to be named Lin.
"Nameless Order, huh?" Rick asked his son knowingly, holding a bag of ice to his bruises as they recuperated in Jonathan's nightclub after the chase.
Alex's heart was in his eyes as he stared across the room at the mysterious young woman; some things really did travel down family lines, it seemed. "Sort of, I guess? After she tried to kill me, back at the tomb when we first met, I showed her the badge; she seemed pretty startled by it, and she almost said something before Professor Wilson showed up and shot at her. To defend me, I thought at the time; but he was probably actually trying to scare her away, and it worked. We haven't really had a chance to talk about it since."
Rick nodded, then cleared his throat and raised his voice. "So. Named after the 11th Century general?" he asked, aiming the words in the young woman's direction.
Lin started, but she looked more amused than confused by the question, drifting over toward their little knot of scorched and scraped humanity at the bar. The wisps of hair escaping her long, dark braid and the smears of ash on her cheeks made her look even younger than Alex, though given her apparent experience, he was willing to bet that was misleading. "No; though you could say I am a part of the Order. Perhaps its last remnant in modern times."
"How so?" Evy asked, frowning at the girl. Rick had told her the legend on the trip over; she'd been looking forward to doing a little research on the subject while they were in the country.
"My family has watched over the Emperor's tomb for centuries; for he cannot be killed, unless he is stabbed through the heart, with this." She lifted the ornate dagger she carried at her waist. "In life, he was known for his mastery of the elements, and for uniting many smaller walls into the Great Wall, including the part built by the Order. But he was as greedy as the ruler whose foul deeds brought the curse of the Tao Tei upon our people in the first place, and my-- my family feared what might happen if anyone, even the Order, decided to raise him to use his skills for their cause. Fortunately, they were convinced, and for many centuries sent men to serve as guards. But when the outsider came and helped General Lin defeat the Queen-- the Order was disbanded, her command transferred, and all evidence of the Order's existence hidden away."
She seemed to be taking the whole thing awful personally for a story several thousand years old; then again, so was Rick, entirely separate from the part where he was facing down an angry mummy for the third time in his life. He wondered if it meant as much to Lin to have her family legend backed up-- if only in part-- by an outside source, as it did to him.
He'd have a lot to talk about with Ardeth the next time their paths crossed. Destiny was a bitch, that was all there was to it... but sometimes it could bring about the most remarkable meetings. He reached out to Evy, and took comfort in the swift grasp of her fingers intermingled with his.
"Sounds like a long, lonely watch," he said, thinking of the three thousand years the Medjai had spent waiting for Imhotep to awaken-- and the even longer cycle of the Scorpion King's rise.
"One that has failed," she agreed, frowning in distress. "Though I am grateful for your attempts to assist. And now time is running out. If the Emperor reaches Shangri-La and drinks from the pool of eternal life... he will raise the army that was cursed with him, and no one will be safe."
"I'd say Shangri-La was a crock... if it didn't make a depressing sort of sense. You'd think that at some point, someone would have invented a curse that didn't give the enemy invincible powers the minute it was broken," Jonathan spoke up sourly, pressing a glass full of ice to his forehead. "I mean, if it had just been Imhotep, I might have put it down to sadistic bad luck, but this guy too?"
Lin gave him a supremely unimpressed look. "It is about balance. 'Sometimes gain comes from losing; and sometimes loss comes from gaining.' The Dragon Emperor sought immortality, and reaped a curse; when the curse is taken from him, he will receive immortality. We must stop him before he reaches his goal."
"And the powers he's already got?" Jonathan frowned.
"He had those already," Lin informed him, grimly. "So you see, now, why he was cursed."
Rick looked at Evy again; still as beautiful as the day they'd met, despite the passage of years and the tattered state of her dress. She met his gaze with a rueful smile. "Well, we can't argue with that. So where do we need to go?"
Lin gave his wife a grateful nod. "The gateway to Shangri-La lies in a mountain pass...."
Rick's eyes strayed to his son again, and he wondered what price his family would pay this time as he listened to Lin lay out the next steps of their crazy task. Rick had passed on his legend; was it his turn now? But he wouldn't trade the look on Alex's face for anything, so.... as long as he survived, Rick would be okay with that.
When it was all over-- after Rick paid that price and unexpectedly survived it; after Lin's mother sacrificed her immortality and her daughter's to give them a fighting chance; after the Dragon Emperor and his army were finally defeated, and blew away as dust in the wind-- they gathered again in Shanghai, and Lin brought with her one last surprise.
She withdrew a scroll case from her luggage and handed it over with a bow and a small smile. "My namesake kept this for many years; and when she retired, she gave it to my mother's keeping that at least one person might remember the truth of the last battle against the Tao Tei. It contains an account of all that transpired... and a letter, written by your ancestor to his friend when they were separated by the battle, that was left behind when they journeyed home. It is yours, now."
Rick accepted the priceless gift with a grateful smile, handling it carefully; no matter how well preserved, centuries-old writing was a brittle, fragile thing. "For now," he replied, cutting a pointed glance toward Alex, standing behind her. "Give it a few decades, and it might just end up in your keeping again."
She blushed, but cleared her throat and continued. "The letter is written in a language none at the time understood, but your wife should be able to translate."
He nodded, then gave her a more serious smile, fumbling for more adequate words of gratitude. "Among my, uh, my brother's people, they have a saying. 'If a man does not embrace his past, he has no future.' This is a piece of my family's past I never thought I'd get to know-- I can't thank you enough."
"No thanks are necessary," she replied, smile widening. "Like your ancestor, you-- and your family-- were heroes when you were needed most; and now I am free from my long task. I will always mourn my mother, but I do not regret meeting your son."
"I can see that," Rick chuckled, grinning as Alex bit his lip and looked away, fidgeting with something in his pocket. "I'll see you guys at Imhotep's later, then?"
"Yes," she agreed with a nod, then turned to the door to take Alex's hand and lead him away. Rick carefully did not speculate where they might be going; instead, he turned toward the inner door where Evy was laying out a sparkling silver gown for the evening's entertainment, carrying the scroll case with him.
"Was that Alex?" she asked absently, frowning down at the dress.
"And Lin-- she had something for me," he replied, sneaking up behind her to tuck his chin over her shoulder and wrap an arm around her waist. "Something wrong with the dress?"
"No? Or, well, I don't know... you realize I've worn more fancy dresses on this trip than I have in years? Oh, for the days of trousers and sand-colored wrap blouses; please tell me we'll take a trip to Egypt when this is all over. No more trying to retire to the country; the few months we spent there were the most tedious of all our marriage."
"Funny, I was just thinking the same thing," Rick chuckled. "One thing first, though-- here."
He waved the scroll case in her line of vision, and she blinked at it for a moment before reaching out a careful hand to seize it."This is what Lin brought?"
"She said it was an account of the final battle against the Tao Tei; and a letter my ancestor wrote his friend at some point while they were separated by it. It got left behind when they went home. She said it was a language nobody at the time spoke, though, so she didn't know what was in it. Probably not any kind of English, I'm guessing, since somebody at the Wall must have spoken that for them to communicate at all."
"Oh, a surprising amount can be conveyed without a single word in common, as well you know-- but you're probably not wrong," Evy replied absently, stepping out of his arms to cross to the room's small desk, where she carefully pried the scroll case open. "And I suppose you want me to translate it?"
"If you would," he replied, affecting nonchalance.
She threw him a bright, affectionate smile, then began carefully removing the rolled sheets of paper within. They were thicker than any paper he would have used, but clearly paper; he'd forgotten that that was one of the things the Chinese had done earlier than the West, too. Most of them were covered in faded Chinese characters, but the last, a slightly different shade than all the rest, was covered in a blunt, more familiar-looking hand.
"Definitely not Old English," she concluded, gently separating the pages and tucking the Chinese text back inside the case. "It looks more like... archaic Castilian Spanish?" she decided, raising her eyebrows. "Hmmm."
She scanned it over for several more minutes while he fidgeted, then finally caught her breath and gave him a wry look. "Well, he's definitely your ancestor," she said. "Here, this is roughly what it says:
"My dear Tovar,
"As I write this, you are riding away from the Wall with your pockets full of stolen black powder, having left me for dead, and the Order readies for another attack by the Tao Tei.
"It is my belief that they have let me live that I might fight again when that attack comes, and that you guessed they would do this. It is also my belief that you are wrong to put your trust in Sir Ballard, and that he will leave you behind as a distraction for the Order's patrols in order to escape alone.
"If I am right, but I am not here when you return, and you find yourself in this cell in my place: I wanted you to know that there is only one thing I regret. And that is not having persuaded you to stay. You were right; I am a thief, a liar, and a killer. But that doesn't mean I can't be a man of virtue when it matters, and I know the same is true of you.
"Maybe it's true that in the West, we would have been enemies, not friends; but we are friends, and I am glad of it. So in the time that is left to you, think of me smiling as I write this; and know that I don't blame you. I would have chosen no other to stand at my side.
"Separated, huh," Rick replied, raising his eyebrows. There was a lot that had been left out of the legend, apparently; no wonder William had been asked to choose between the prize he'd come for and taking his friend home as his reward. And yet... he shook his head, realizing what Evy must have been remarking on. "So, what, you're saying I resemble that description?"
"If the shoe fits...." she said teasingly, carefully returning the letter to the case.
He gave her a thoughtful look in return, scanning her lingerie-clad curves and eyeing her bare feet. "Speaking of shoes, or the lack thereof. And of choosing no other...." He sidled up to her, framing her hips with his hands, and watched a smile like sunrise break over her face: as stunning and illuminating as each new morning, eternally, each day she gifted him with her company.
"Rick," she laughed, lifting her arms to thread them around his neck as he lifted her off her feet. "You'll make us late!"
"Then we'll be late," he shrugged, walking her back to the bed. "Scoundrel, remember?"
"To the end of my days," she replied, smile softening.
"And mine. And yet...." he chuckled, lowering her onto the soft surface.
"I suppose it's true what was said, then; death is only the beginning," she agreed, then pulled him down and sealed his mouth with a kiss.
And maybe, whatever adventure they embarked on next, that was the true legacy of his family; to live each day like it was the last and leave no regret behind.
Rick O'Connell stroked a hand up his wife's side, and lost himself in the moment.