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Sunsets and Desert Sands

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From their vantage point high on the cliff, Ardeth Bay and the group of Medjai with him silently watched the battle unfolding below in the ruins of Hamunaptra. Battles such as this—the native inhabitants defending their land from foreign invaders—had become a fairly common occurrence here since the start of World War I, and the task of guarding the Creature’s grave had become even more vital. The last thing the world needed now was the curse of an undead horror.

As Ardeth watched, it seemed clear that the invaders, the French Legion, wouldn’t last long. As good as they were, these indigenous people knew the land and knew how to defend it. However, his eyes were drawn again and again to one man in particular; the commander of the French Legion fought very well, and Ardeth focused on him through a pair of worn binoculars, a little surprised by how quick and graceful he was.

Soon, only the commander and a few of the men were left. The Medjai continued to watch the survivors from a distance, and the older man to Ardeth's right asked if they should kill them.

“No,” Ardeth answered quickly. “The desert will make its choice.” He didn't know why he was sparing this man, but he felt in his heart that it was the right thing to do. As he glanced through the binoculars again, the commander turned around and looked up at them, and Ardeth could've sworn he was looking right at him, right into his eyes. Ardeth felt a shiver run down his spine.

He had his men track the survivors until the soldiers eventually died in the heat, and he himself personally tracked the commander, Rick O’Connell, all the way through the desert to Cairo. Surely Allah must have some great plan for him, Ardeth thought, for him to survive the unforgiving conditions of the desert.

The Medjai kept watch on O’Connell and the one other man who survived, Beni Gabor. Only a few people ever left Hamunaptra and the desert surrounding it alive, and it made everyone in the camp uneasy knowing that even two people might know how to find the city again and discover the secret the Medjai had guarded for thousands of years.

Nothing of much interest happened for the next three years. O'Connell got into the occasional bar fight (well maybe more than occasional), and Gabor often picked peoples' pockets and never got caught, but neither of them ever got in any serious trouble. But then, O’Connell was sent to prison, and not long after, they heard that a librarian in the Cairo Museum, an Evelyn Carnahan, had somehow found a map to Hamunaptra, and Beni Gabor disappeared completely for almost a week; it seemed everything was happening at once now. These three events had to be connected, Ardeth thought, and they all signaled trouble for him.

Then Carnahan and her brother found O’Connell and got him out of prison, and the three of them left Cairo together; and Beni Gabor agreed to take a group of American treasure hunters to the city. Suddenly everything was much more serious than anything Ardeth had anticipated. They had a man keeping tabs on things in Cairo and the Cairo Museum, a cousin of Ardeth’s, and he'd been unable to persuade Miss Carnahan not to go looking for Hamunaptra, and now the threat that someone would unleash the Creature loomed large.

Ardeth wouldn’t lie and say he wasn’t scared—he was terrified—but he had faith in every one of the Medjai warriors, and he had faith that together they could prevent the Creature from being awoken, insha’allah. It was their sworn duty to protect the world from the evil their ancestors had created; they couldn’t, and wouldn’t, fail.

***

The Medjai had eyes and ears everywhere, so Ardeth was kept informed of the parties’ progress through the desert. He quickly guessed that both groups, O'Connell and the Carnahans and the treasure hunters, were going to the same place.

Ardeth sent men to attack the boat, but somehow, they all made it to their destination unscathed, the key still in their possession, still full of determination. Ardeth was growing frustrated, and the grief he felt after the deaths of so many of his men only made him feel worse and more guilty; but he tried to remind himself that there would be other opportunities to stop them. Unexpected regret pierced through him at the thought of having to kill these people, and he quickly shook it off; he knew he couldn’t afford to be sentimental. Many more might die if he didn’t, so if that was what needed to happen for the Creature to stay buried, then that’s what he’d do.

But he couldn't ignore the doubt forming in the back of his mind, telling him the events that had been set in motion were too powerful to be so easily stopped…

***

Ardeth felt it when they found the Creature’s sarcophagus, felt a chill run through him, and he dropped the paper he was reading with shaking hands. He immediately assembled more warriors to attack the camp in Hamunaptra.

The Americans had already found the Book of the Dead and opened the chest that would allow the Creature to regain his power once he was awoken, and surely it was only a matter of time before Miss Carnahan figured out how to do just that. Ardeth could tell that while the Americans and O’Connell were here for the treasure and glory, Carnahan was here for a very different reason: her true desire was to discover the hidden knowledge in this place, to learn as much she could, to prove herself, and Ardeth knew that these desires could be stronger even than a desire for treasure. It wouldn’t be easy to deter her.

“We must leave quickly,” he told his men, and they stormed the camp during the night. Tents were knocked over, fires broke out, several of their own were wounded or killed; in the chaos, Ardeth’s horse spooked and nearly threw him.

Blood rushing in his ears, Ardeth rode hard toward the man nearest him, sword in his hand, and before he knew what was happening, he was being tackled off his horse, landing hard enough to almost knock the wind out of him. He got up quickly, preparing to fight the man who'd attacked him, and came face to face with none other than Rick O'Connell.

His momentary surprise gave O'Connell the chance to shoot Ardeth's sword right out of his hands. Cursing himself, he picked it up again while O’Connell was distracted and swung at him, knocking the gun out of his hand, and Ardeth thought he’d won. But then O’Connell lit a stick of dynamite in the fire, holding it out towards Ardeth to protect himself. A stream of curses rolling through his head, Ardeth lowered his sword and resigned himself to failure once again.

“Enough! Yalla!” he shouted to his men, and the camp was suddenly very quiet. Ardeth turned back to O’Connell. “We will shed no more blood. But you must leave.” His eyes swept over the camp, looking every one of them in the eyes, trying to get them to understand the seriousness of the situation.

“Leave this place or die. You have one day,” he finished. It was a bit melodramatic, but he had no time and no wish to sugar coat this. Too much was at stake, and they had to see that.

He grabbed his horse and was quickly in the saddle again. “Yalla imshi, let’s go!” he shouted again, his eyes never leaving O’Connell, and Miss Carnahan behind him, praying that they would leave this whole thing alone.

***

All the next day, the Medjai kept watch on the camp, and it didn’t look like anyone in the group was planning on leaving. They just continued to dig and talk among themselves, and Ardeth could physically feel himself growing more and more tense. But it wasn’t until after midnight that night, when Ardeth had let another group of men take over the watch, that anything actually happened.

Waking with a start from a fitful sleep, he sat bolt upright and drew the short knife he kept by his bed before he knew what he was doing; he knew instinctively, felt in his soul, that the Creature had been awoken. He threw the blanket off and stumbled out of his tent, his eyes still blurry from sleep, and even before he saw the massive cloud of locusts around the camp, he could hear the buzzing of their wings growing louder and louder in what would soon be a deafening roar. Many of the other warriors saw or heard them too, and they looked just as alarmed as Ardeth felt.

“God help us all,” he said softly, trying to fight the feeling of helpless frustration growing in his chest.

He let out a shaky breath. Then he went back into the tent to get ready for the day, prepare, and pray, as he always did, for strength and guidance. He had a lot of work to do.