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Death is in my sight today

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The pyramid has been looted.  Will looks at the mound of rubble, and reminds himself that this place will have been stripped of everything valuable, but, in spite of it all, hope keeps rising inside him.  And even if the pyramid is bare, even if every carving has been hacked from the walls, every statue and artefact carted away, it’s a whole new pyramid and he’ll be the first one inside -- the first Egyptologist, at least, and this sort of opportunity comes once in a lifetime.  So he switches on his head torch, and he checks his GoPro is recording, and -- he stops.

They’ve burrowed a tunnel through the rubble blocking the entrance, a tunnel whose entrance looms darkly in spite of the morning sun, and Will has the strangest sensation that it’s a giant mouth, waiting to gulp him down.  Panic writhes in his gut, twisting up around his spine to gnaw at his brain.  He thinks that maybe this isn’t such a bright idea, that maybe he ought to wait for the others: for Beverly and Mahmoud, who’ll have the cameras and lights loaded into the back of the jeep; for Ahmed and the others with their shovels and the little stove and kettle that’s somehow always on the boil.  Bev will give him hell if she finds out he didn’t do the preliminary investigation.  Just the thought of that makes him smile, and whatever it was that had him spooked a moment ago is already a fading memory.

Will drops to a crouch and squeezes into the tunnel.  Fallen masonry bites into his skin, and he’s going to have sand everywhere for a week, but he could care less, because the tunnel is only a few feet long and almost before he knows it he’s in.  He’s in a brand new, four-thousand-year-old pyramid, and if this isn’t the highlight of his career then he can’t wait to see what could possibly top it.  Bluish light glares back at him from the walls, softening with distance before finally fading into darkness.  Will’s feet hit stone -- solid flagstones -- and he realises that the floor is clear.  The whole corridor is clear, as far as he can see.  Which is great, because they won’t have to spend the next however-many seasons, and all of their funding, carefully digging it out, sifting the sand for the tiniest of finds.

The floor is smooth and even, nothing that he might fall over, no animals and no sign that any have even been in here.  There’s nothing to stop him going further inside, and yet he finds himself hesitating again, paralysed by the same idea that keeps on welling up from the depths of his brain no matter how hard he tries to stop it: this place is going to swallow him whole.  And if the tunnel was a mouth, then this is a throat, leading on into the dark belly of the pyramid, the opening of which gapes blackly in the distance.

Will has an overactive imagination; he’ll be the first to admit it.  He knows that it’s just pattern recognition, neurons firing in response to visual stimuli, but that’s not the way he experiences it.  He looks and he sees: pictures, a story, it all amounts to the same thing.  It’s what gives him an aptitude for interpreting archaeological evidence.  As for the downside -- well there usually isn’t a downside.  Will likes the idea of bringing light into hidden places, of putting names and faces to the dead, of giving them a voice.  He doesn’t hesitate when he walks into a tomb because he did his doctoral thesis on funerary curses, and he knows that they’ve never stopped robbers and vandals and they never will.  So he presses on into the darkness.

The antechamber opens up around him, not huge but a welcome change from the claustrophobia of the corridor.  Shadows cling to the vaulted ceiling, and to his left and right rectangles of deep darkness yawn, beckoning him deeper still.  He moves closer, and sees that the walls are covered in texts, columns and columns of tiny, incised hieroglyphs stretching almost floor to ceiling.  Everything here, from the architecture to the inscriptions, is screaming late 5th Dynasty or early 6th, and there is only a limited number of kings to whom this place could belong.  Will needs to see those texts, needs to see a cartouche, to find a name.  His light darts across the wall as he hunts among the inscriptions, and then he finds a cartouche, and he’s about to read the name, to discover the owner of this place, to make that final, personal connection to someone who died thousands of years ago.

The cartouche is blank -- no, not blank, not unfinished: it’s been erased.  Rough hands have bashed out the contents, leaving only the surrounding oval.  It’s a deliberate act, a violent act, which means that all the other cartouches are likely to have suffered the same fate, and now Will is feverishly scanning the wall, hoping against hope that one of them, just one, is still intact.  And there it is, only inches from the floor, a place where the chisel slipped, gouging out the word below but leaving the cartouche intact -- and Will can see him, that ancient workman, crouched in the flickering torchlight and grumbling about his aching joints as he rushes through his work.  Will drops to his knees to get a better look, and he can make it out now: an H, an a, then something that might be ni.  The hair prickles at the back of Will’s neck, because this is new: not just the pyramid, but the king who had it built, a king unknown to modern historians.

“Nice to meet you, Hani,” he says.

His voice wakes echoes in the chamber, and as they die away the returning silence is heavier than before, gaining weight and presence, an oppressive stillness, and he feels the loom of the masonry above him, pressing down.  As quickly as that, he’s nervous again, and he has to force himself not to turn, not to give into the delusion that there’s something lurking in those gaping doorways, that there’s something watching him from beyond.  Instead he strides to entrance of the long corridor, and he peers down into the darkness until he sees the tiny irregular patch of light -- light and air; his way out -- and he reminds himself that he’s just discovered a new Egyptian king, that he’s going to rewrite the history books.

His curiosity revives, and he needs to know more, to see what else he can discover about this mysterious ruler.  The burial chamber should lie to the west, so he takes the right-hand doorway and what he sees makes him forget his childish fears because it’s so damn beautiful it takes his breath away.  The white limestone is barely dulled by time, the inscriptions as crisp and fresh as the day they were carved.  The vault of the ceiling is adorned with stars, and beneath it, black and hulking, a granite sarcophagus dominates the room -- a sarcophagus whose lid has fallen, battered but intact, onto the floor.  Maybe it was centuries ago, or maybe it was last week, but it’s been looted, and the robbers always destroy archaeological evidence in their search for gold.  He rushes forwards, angling his torch down into the sarcophagus, and apparently the robbers didn’t get everything because there’s something in there, something partly covered by rags.

Will recoils, backing up until his spine connects with stone, and the impact brings him up short -- brings him back to his senses -- because it’s only a mummy and he’s seen plenty of those before.  It’s only a mummy, but none of the others looked so damned alive.  This one is lean, but not in the usual dessicated way.  It’s black, but the blackness has the sheen of living skin, not a cracked and brittle layer of bitumen.  And while death and the mummification process will cause flesh to wither and shrink, he’s never seen fingers so long, so skeletal, or nails so much like claws.  He’s never seen the lips drawn back from teeth so large, so strong, so alarmingly carnivorous.

He laughs, a brittle sound that’s swallowed by the heavy air.  It’s the falsest of bravado, and he’s glad that Bev isn’t there to see this, to witness him going to pieces.  Then he remembers that he’s still recording, that she’s going to watch the footage, so he turns his back on the thing in the sarcophagus, turns towards the wall and the inscriptions.  He needs to focus, to concentrate: to translate.  He scans through the lines of text, looking for a starting point, for something he recognises, and all the time he feels the mummy’s eyes on him, eyes that are watching from behind closed lids, eyes that are going to open, to see --

‘It is the king who eats people, who lives on gods.’  Will knows this text.  His memory of it lies buried somewhere in the depths of an undergraduate tutorial, but he’s read it before.  He skips ahead.  ‘The king feeds on the lungs of the wise.  He is content with living on hearts.’  He was right: it’s the Cannibal Hymn, the funerary ritual through which the dead king takes the powers of the gods by eating them.  It’s only been found in two other pyramids, and never in the burial chamber, this close to the sarcophagus.  It’s as if the incantation had special significance for this particular king.

A soft sound sighs into his ear, and he whirls, adrenaline screaming at him to run even as he fights to hold still, to slow his breathing, to listen.  It might have been a hiss, and it dawns on him that it wasn’t the best idea to come in here alone.  This would be about the worst place to get bitten by a snake, or even to slip and crack his head.  He directs his light onto the sarcophagus, alert for any sign of movement, straining to listen over the pulse roaring in his skull.  But there’s nothing, no repetition of -- whatever it was, if it even was something other than nerves and an overactive imagination.  So he turns back to the inscription with the idea of making a quick copy of the text, but when he reaches for his pen and notebook he finds that his hands are shaking.  It’s not a problem: they have time.  Looters might be able to get in here, but they won’t be able to strip the place, not without a considerable amount of time and a lot of heavy lifting equipment, and he’ll be back here with Beverley and the others just as soon as the jeep is fixed.

Will skims the text as best he can, although he’s a little rusty with some of the vocab.  He’d never appreciated just how violent it was, how graphic it was in its descriptions of killing, not to mention the cooking of human flesh.  Modern Egyptologists are usually quick to point out that the cannibalism was metaphorical rather than literal, but the Egyptians certainly included a lot of detail in their metaphor, a lot of realistic detail.  Will wonders what sort of a man would choose the Cannibal Hymn to be his reading material for eternity.  He wonders what crimes that man must have committed in his lifetime to get himself erased from history -- and whether he hoped to keep on going after death.

“He cuts their necks.”  He finds himself reading out loud, but if he’d hoped the sound would ground him, would bring a living, human presence into the room then it fails.  “He has broken backbones,” Will goes on, but he’s not longer listening to his own voice.

His sense are directed outwards, out into the shadowed corners of the room -- and then he hears it, the faintest rustle, but it’s enough to set his heart pounding painfully, and this time he’s sure of it.  It came from the sarcophagus.  And that impossible, because there’s nothing in the sarcophagus, nothing but that thing, so it must have come from behind the sarcophagus, or from underneath the lid: a snake or a scorpion.  He turns slowly, his light wavering across the massive block of granite, pulled between the conflicting terrors of seeing nothing and seeing something.  But whatever it is Will doesn’t doesn’t want to be in there with it any longer; whatever it is, it means him harm.

All he wants is for his light to drive it back into some shadowy corner, long enough to allow him to escape.  Because he’s going to leave now -- to hell with pride, and to hell with Bev.  He should never have come here in the first place, should never have read from the Cannibal Hymn, not when he was already twitchy, and not with that black thing lurking in its coffin just a few feet away.  Will wants to run, but some trembling instinct forces him to move slowly, to tread lightly: the ancient instinct of prey that’s sensed a predator.  He keeps quiet, trying to merge with the silence and the darkness, trying to pass unnoticed.  Then some deeper urge, an impulse beyond sense or fear, pries apart his jaws and forces him to speak, pushing out the words he read just moments before.

“He whom he find in his way, he eats him piecemeal.”

There’s a creak like leather, the sound of bare feet hitting stone, but Will only hears it.  He doesn’t see it -- he doesn’t need to see it because he knows: he knows that those withered lips are pulling back into a grin; he knows that those lids have lifted, revealing eyes that were never entirely human, even while the thing was alive.  He runs back through the antechamber, then into the corridor, bouncing off the wall as he takes the turn too quickly.  He runs, but the passageway goes on forever, and all he can hear are his own boots thudding on stone, thudding too slowly.  He needs to be quicker, because it’s behind him and he knows that it’s hungry.  He runs, and the corridor begins to brighten around him, and he’s close now -- so painfully close -- to light and air and sanity.  He runs.

He almost makes it.