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.
According to Ranke’s Personennamen, Hani is an attested Egyptian name -- well, Hani the Younger is, anyway -- but he wasn’t a king.
Yes, the Cannibal Hymn is a genuine piece of ancient Egyptian funerary literature. My translations are based on those of C.J. Eyre in The Cannibal Hymn: A Cultural and Literary Study, Liverpool University Press, Liverpool 2002. An online version of the Cannibal Hymn, and the other Pyramid Texts, can be found at this wonderful site: http://www.pyramidtextsonline.com/
Yes, they are still finding pyramids in Egypt. One turned up earlier this year, in fact. See e.g. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/new-pyramid-discovered-egypt-180962813/
No, Will’s actions does not reflect best practice for working on an archaeological site.
Beverly Katz doesn’t speak Arabic as well as she’d like, she’ll freely admit it. But she’s not used to navigating words like cardiology and orthopaedics, and something that she thinks might be gynaecology -- she can’t quite read the sign, and the tension twists and roils in her gut as she realises she’s taken a wrong turn somewhere along the line. This corridor looks exactly the same as the last one, and the one before that. She’s got a nasty feeling that she’s going round in circles, and she doesn’t have time for this shit. There must be someone around: a doctor or nurse, or even an orderly.
She stops for a moment, wiping her forehead and pulling her blouse away from the damp skin of her stomach and her back. There’s a sweet rush of air, then she feels fresh sweat begin to trickle down between her shoulder blades, and the moment she lets go of the fabric it clings to her worse than before. It’s a typical Cairo afternoon, hot and smoggy, and the whine and buzz of the fluorescents is starting to give her a headache. Her mind jumps ahead to her destination, to what she’s going to find there -- jumps ahead to Will -- and sudden, surging panic tightens around her throat. She sucks in a lungful of stale air and forces herself to hold it for a moment, to let it ease back out with at least an illusion of calm. She takes another breath. She closes her eyes.
She opens them again, and there, finally, at the T-junction up ahead: a man in scrubs wheeling a trolley. She calls out, and his head whips round, startled, but he stops and waits for her, and he can’t be any worse at giving directions than the woman on the reception desk. Bev recites her carefully practised words, but the man just stares at her blankly. She’s pulling out her phone, about to type what she can’t seem to speak, when the man’s face brightens with comprehension. Beverly’s Arabic may be basic, but it’s fine for left and right, forward and back, the practicalities of everyday life.
“Thanks,” she says, already striding away, back the way she came, past the water cooler and the bulletin board, back to the stairs that aren’t an emergency exit, after all. She sprints up them, two at a time, fired by the adrenaline churning in her system. Through the double doors, and she finds herself not in another corridor but a ward, a ward with a desk and a nurse behind it, and she thinks -- she hopes -- that she’s found the right place at last.
“Is this the psychiatric ward?” The man doesn’t look up, just keeps on rummaging through the papers spread out in front of him. “Excuse me, sir.” Even if her pronunciation isn’t perfect, the annoyance in her voice comes across loud and clear.
The nurse lifts his head, making it clear that he’s a busy man, a man who has better things to do than run around after visitors. Bev has seen the same expression on the faces of health professionals the world over, and normally she’d cut the guy some slack. But nothing about this situation is normal, and she’s fought her way through the gridlock that is Cairo at rush hour to find this place. Now all she wants is --
“Will Graham.” She fixes the nurse with a look of her own, and it tells him precisely how much of a fuck she doesn’t give about his problems. “He’s a patient here. I want to see him.”
“Third door on the left.” She doesn’t like the smirk that’s spreading across his face, but at least he’s talking. “If he gives you any trouble, pull the alarm cord. I’ll come and rescue you.” She refuses to react to him, to the way his eyes devour her body, to the toothy grin that has nothing friendly about it. She refuses to react, because this man is going to be looking after Will when she leaves, and she doesn’t have the luxury of antagonising him. Not yet.
Bev starts walking. She reaches the first door, and feels herself tensing, bracing for something -- someone -- to come bursting out, but the door remains closed and the room quiet, and she keeps on walking. As she passes the second door she hears a voice, low and mournful, repeating a handful of words over and over, but she can’t quite make them out, can’t even tell if it’s a man's voice or a woman's. She keeps walking. She reaches the third door, but now that she’s here a sudden panic seizes her, urging her to turn around, to run away, to get out of this place of whispering madness. But Will is in there and he needs a friend right now, so she opens the door and steps inside.
There’s no reply, and she thinks that maybe he’s managed to fall asleep like that, with his eyes half open. Then he shifts beneath the sheets, and his head turns lazily in her direction, and as she watches his eyes struggling to focus she realises that they’ve given him something. Her anger reawakens as she wonders whether it’s more for the nurses’ benefit than for Will’s, but there’s not much she can do without a doctor, and Will needs her to be calm right now. She puts her anger to one side, parked but not forgotten, and she pulls up a chair.
“Well, this is weird,” she says, because that’s the way she is -- that’s the way they are -- and Will’s always been touchy about being coddled, even when he needs it. Especially when he needs it. “You look like crap.” Now that she's close she can see how pale he is. It's only the golden afternoon light that's lending his skin a little warmth. She can also see the restraints, broad cuffs circling his wrists, and fastened to the rails of the bed with nylon straps. “Kinky,” she teases. “I didn’t know you were into this sort of thing.”
Will grimaces, his face contorting in a way that has Beverly halfway out of her chair and reaching for the alarm before she remembers that Will is fine -- physically, at least. It takes her a while to realise that Will is smiling, or trying to, but he’s falling a long way short. If he’s trying to reassure her then he’s doing a lousy job. She settles back into her seat, and the silence congeals around them, and for the first time in a long time Bev finds herself having to filter what she says to Will Graham. She considers the words of the doctor that she spoke to, the one who phoned her with the news, the one who gave her the instructions that are simple in theory if not in practice: avoid saying anything that might upset Will, anything that might set him off.
“What happened, Will?” she asks, because they’re going to have to talk about this sooner or later, and she’s really not sure how she can make things any worse, not when Will is already lying sedated in a hospital bed.
“Didn’t they tell you?” He sounds the way he does after a few whiskies: not slurring, just not quite as sharp as usual. It’s better than she feared.
“All I know for sure is that something happened and you ended up in this place.”
“Did they tell you about the mummy?”
“Yes.” She hadn’t wanted to believe it. She still doesn’t. “Tell me what really happened, Will. All I got was some crazy story about --”
“You think it’s crazy?” Anger flushes across Will’s corpse-white features. “You think that I’m crazy?” He’s fully awake now, but Bev doesn’t want to see him like this, with his jaw clenched, a scowl darkening his expression as he glares at her. “That mummy is real.”
Bev has no idea what’s brought this on. Will’s always been a little different, a little sensitive, but there’s never been anything like this before, and it’s all so sudden. Unless, perhaps, it isn’t. Her mind sets off down a path that’s becoming painfully familiar, hunting back through the last few days and weeks, looking for a clue, a symptom, for something that she missed.
“Will.” She looks him square in the face, waiting until she’s sure she has his attention. “I need you to stop and listen to yourself. Do you really think a mummy came to life and attacked you? A cannibal mummy?”
“Thanks for stopping by.”
She knows Will well enough to recognise the signs, to see the walls going up, to know that he’s shielding himself against the rejection -- against her rejection. Guilt flares painfully, and smoulders on through the silence that settles between them. This isn’t the way things are supposed to go. They’re a team; they have each other’s backs. They’ve been through scrapes before, and they’ve always come out on top. But all of that, from the morning they found the scorpion in the shower to the time their jeep broke down in the desert, it all seems so small now, so mundane. What they’re facing now is so much bigger, and she doesn’t know what to do.
“Okay, then,” Beverly says, and maybe she’s out of her depth here but she knows that she won’t do Will any favours by humouring him. “Tell me this: if there really is a mummy running around, and it really is hungry for human flesh, why didn’t it just kill you when it had the chance?”
He doesn’t have an answer to that. Bev sees the confusion on his face, the uncertainty, and, in this at least, she knows exactly what he’s going through. She doesn’t exactly feel proud of herself, and the sensation of helplessness is rising again, a creeping inertia that threatens to smother her. Beverly sighs. She needs to speak to the doctor. She needs to speak to a doctor, one she can trust. She ought to leave before she does some real harm.
“The pyramid.” Will’s sitting up in bed now, or trying to, panting with the effort. “Are you going back there?”
Bev reaches for her purse. She’s not going to play along with Will’s delusions, and she only seems to be making things worse.
“Are you?” Will’s voice is high and tight, and there’s a kind of desperate ferocity about him that she’s never seen. “Tell me.”
“I’m going now, Will.” She stands.
Will lunges at her and she recoils, the chair screeching on the tiles and and clattering to the floor as she backs away. But Will stops, frozen in place, arms motionless in mid-air, fingers reaching for her like claws. She thinks that maybe he’s had some kind of seizure, but then she realises it’s the restraints that are holding him in place, holding him back, preventing him from grabbing her. The straps are taut, but they’re standing up to the strain.
“Bev, please --” Panic swells in his voice, and she realises that his ferocity, his savagery, is actually fear. “I know it sounds crazy, but you can’t go in there.” He’s afraid for her.
Bev takes his hand. His fingers tighten around hers, tighten painfully, but she doesn’t let go. He heaves out a shuddering breath, and relaxes, sinking back onto the mattress, the pressure of his grip relenting. He looks like her friend again.
“Get some rest,” she tells him. She sets the chair back on its feet and fishes her purse out from under the table where it fell. “I’ll be back soon. I promise.”
“Bev,” he croaks, sounding drained, sounding shattered. It’s the hollow emptiness that follows an adrenaline rush, and Bev could do with a good eight hours herself. Will rallies when she reaches the door, finding some reserve of energy, lifting his head off the pillow to fix her with a stare. “Promise me you’ll keep away from that pyramid.”
Bev’s tired -- she’s beyond tired -- and she’s not sure that she’s thinking straight any more. Will’s calm now, his eyelids drooping towards sleep, and she can’t bear the thought of provoking him again. She opens the door and pauses, on the threshold.
“I won’t go anywhere near it,” she tells him. It’s only a little white lie.