Somewhere in the Western Desert, Egypt
The heat of the day has reached its peak. Hot as hell, the midday sun sears the back of Nicole’s neck where it looms above her, oppressive and overwhelming in the centre of the barren sky. Frustrated, she sweeps her hand across her burning skin and succeeds only in brushing sweat over the blisters, making them sting all the more.
Pale skin and red hair don’t exactly do well in the sun, let alone a sweltering desert heat. Still, she marches on without complaint.
As the only woman in the group, complaints are not a luxury she can afford.
They all march along in silence, wading laboriously through sand like it is treacle. They are each too hot and too tired to make any conversation.
She thinks that they should try to rest soon, but once again it is not a thought she can voice. Any suggestion of rest will give most of the men cause to think her weaker than them.
Ordinarily, the group would move during the night when the temperature drops low, so low that it is almost beyond belief when your fingers feel as though they're going to freeze. Today though, their targets are on the move and they cannot afford to lose them now.
They had been sent to track a group of suspiciously well-equipped insurgents stirring up trouble at the Libyan border. Predictably enough, it wasn’t the insurgents so much as their tech that interested Nicole’s commanding officers, so the initial mission parameters were simple: track and observe, keep a distance, do not be seen.
Then, without warning, the insurgents had started moving eastwards just as Nicole’s division was deployed and suddenly their instructions had shifted, now unrecognisable from the original plan. They find themselves trying to stop their targets wreaking whatever havoc they could and whatever small settlements they could find.
Nicole and her team set out without delay from a town just outside of Cairo, taking a hastily re-planned route intended to intercept the guerillas.
Even with the change in objectives though, the mission was still supposed to be relatively short. Yet every time the group had thought they’d be pulled out, their sojourn in the desert was extended, and the only time they so much as see a military vehicle is when additional supplies are airdropped in.
It would be fair to say that no one had underestimated the mission, but with no end date in sight it was tough to adapt emotionally to the conditions they faced. Tempers were always slightly frayed and everyone felt on edge to some degree or another.
The desert is unforgiving.
This they knew before they arrived, but they have experienced it firsthand in the past weeks.
They haven’t seen a sizeable body of water since they left Sanhur. Even the town seemed brash and tough but it had, at least, been preferable to the unnerving silence of the whale graveyard.
Admittedly, Nicole had been entranced by the trek through Wadi Al-Hitan but the odd spectacle of countless, herculean skeletons marooned across the sand was perturbing to say the least. Most of the men had seemed unsettled amongst the bones too. Old soldiers had their superstitions.
And the visions didn’t make it any easier, either.
Since the oasis at Sanhur, most members of the group had succumbed to at least one mirage. They were dangerous, damnable things. They called to each of them like hazy siren songs, beckoning them off a safe path with the promise of cool water and plump fruit. Worse than goblin men, they could lead even the most hardened soldiers astray.
Still, all of this had seemed like a dream compared to the storm that had hit a few miles out of the graveyard, leaving them stranded and vulnerable amongst the pale limestone towers of the white desert. There wasn’t a single person in the division who didn’t feel as though the sand clouds hadn’t flayed the very skin from their bodies, in spite of their best efforts to shelter from the worst of the squall.
Frankly, it is a wonder their downtrodden, single-file caravan has made it even this far.
Worse still, although no one really wants to admit it, they seem to have partly lost the scent of the group they’re supposed to be tracking. Even Jeremy was struggling to pick up stray radio signals, well equipped as he is with the best technology the government could supply. The best they could do now was to follow an uncertain route through a stifling and rocky valley, craggy brown rocks dwarfing them on either side.
It is a vulnerable position but it is the only route that doesn’t involve blindly ploughing through an unnavigable sea of towering, shifting sand dunes. So they take their chances, hoping the echoey canyon doesn’t give them away entirely.
There is something eerie about the sounds of the valley; the way their footsteps echo as they slip on piles of loose slates and stones, their shadows casting out like silent vigils at their feet. It is not just Nicole who is wary here, everyone seems tense as they traipse along. She can practically feel Jeremy’s nerves as he struggles to keep the pace a few feet behind her. He was not built for the field, but they can’t apply his science remotely on this one - the conditions are too extreme.
These are all albatross thoughts and Nicole knows it, shaking her head to banish them.
A broad figure appears beside her, momentarily blocking out the sun.
“I know,” Dolls murmurs kindly, nudging her shoulder with his arm. “I don’t like it either.”
Nicole glances up, flashing him a brief smile. It barely lasts a second, however, as the quiet around them is shattered by an all too familiar crack of gunfire echoing amongst the rocks.
A belated warning cry goes up as those near the back of the line attempt to pick out the location of the shooter. Nicole catches a glint in the distance and signals imperceptibly to Dolls. He follows her gaze and fires off a shot as Nicole grabs Jeremy by the collar of his shirt and manhandles him behind the nearest source of shelter. They land in a cloud of dust, Jeremy yelping indignantly.
After that, all hell breaks loose. Guerillas suddenly swarm into sight, interspersed amongst the rocks. Each man is armed to the teeth with tech Nicole can barely recognise.
In the time it takes for her to swear between gritted teeth and sling her gun down off her shoulder, the rest of the division dives to find cover. They disappear one by one behind boulders or into shallow caves in the rock face.
Nicole takes a quick shot at the first enemy fighter she sees, but they have all found good cover. Her bullet merely splits the rock behind which the soldier ducks.
She throws a distracted glance at Jeremy.
“I assume you’re sticking around this time?” she asks in jest, recalling how long it had taken them to find him after their group last ran into trouble. She’d feared him dead at the time.
“Yeah,” Jeremy replies, voice a little too high to sound entirely convincing. “Yeah of course I am,” he says as Nicole darts up to fire shots, pell-mell, above them.
She wants to look out for Jeremy but, as she thumbs through her ammunition supplies, she realises that at this point she’ll be lucky to look after herself. Their stocks are recklessly low.
On the other side of the gorge, an insurgent fighter tumbles downward and Nicole catches sight of Dolls drawing back to a safe position, a look of grim relief on his face.
Nicole isn’t sure how long she and Jeremy crouch there as she fires shots at the open rock face before she hears Dolls’ yell.
“They’re sending men to the ground! Everyone fan out! Get yourselves to betters positions, we’re sitting ducks out here right now. You know the formation. Move. Now!”
Nicole barks an order to Jeremy to run back the way they came. All she can hope is that they’ll put enough distance between themselves and the guerillas to give her some time to think of a few half-decent tactics.
Once the two of them stumble out of the valley, they are left facing only miles of blank desert, the dunes all rising upward in slopes. Behind them, the sound of shooting intensifies.
“Jeremy! That way,” she points eastward. “Let’s see if we can get above them, I can try and help the others if I can get higher up than the insurgents.”
They run blindly, hardly sure that they are heading in the right direction amongst the uniformity of the orange sand. Eventually however, they are caught as a group of fighters appear from nowhere in front of them. They are critically outnumbered.
They change direction, dodging bullets and barely looking where they are running.
Nicole risks only the odd glance over her shoulder, occasionally swivelling round and pausing to take a few shots at the insurgents. Eventually, however, she runs out of supplies for her rifle and launches the whole thing in frustration at their ever-nearing assailants. Improbably, it does actually hit one of the men but he barely registers when it glances his arm.
Nicole unholsters her shotguns, eventually emptying them both too and still the men seem to grow in number, rather than shrink.
Both of her pistols go the way of the rifle as she and Jeremy are pushed further into the desert. They run, only half-watching where they are going, until Jeremy stumbles over the corner of a large, flat rock, just barely poking out of the sand. He goes flying completely, scrabbling away in her periphery.
The rock that tripped him is too smooth to have been shaped by desert winds, but it is only when she glances outwards to call for Jeremy that she registers her wider surroundings.
They have, somehow, come across the crumbling ruins of an ancient temple.
Nicole could almost swear that it must have risen out of the sand around them because neither of them had spotted it before.
She wants to stop and wrestle Jeremy to his feet, but the enemy fighters are hot on her heels and she knows that the best thing they can do right now is split up. It is not so much divide and conquer as divide and outrun and it is a terrible plan, but there is no time for anything better. Besides, she has already managed to lose sight of Jeremy amongst the ruins and she prays to any number of deities that he has found a place to hide.
All jokes aside, she’d rather spend an hour tracking him down later than have him risk his life any further.
Focussing as best she can on her own survival, she darts blindly around the old ruins. In an attempt to throw off those in pursuit, she zig-zags at random around the old, shaky pillars. Bullets ping off them with such noise and force that she worries that some of the structures might fall. She has no plans to be crushed by huge hunks of sandstone tumbling down onto her, especially not when she already has more than enough to contend with today.
Sweat soaks through her shirt as her body protests against the combined heat and exertion, and the blisters on her neck sting more than ever. Her chest heaves and her eyes burn in response to the sand she kicks up as she pelts onwards. Her legs, used to hours of hiking, are the only parts of her holding up okay; the heatstroke will probably get her first.
Still, she runs and, for a few brief moments, she dares to hope that she might be breaking away.
But in spite of the loose stone, the shrapnel, and the pounding in her head, it is the ancient city that proves to be her downfall. She gets losts amongst the pockmarked walls and almost crashes into a dead end: a set of stone barriers that have endured better than their counterparts.
She skids to a halt in the shadow of a large stone jackal, aged by the sun and so eroded by the sand that it was missing an ear. Defeated, she knows the guerillas are only seconds away and she turns to face them, heart still hammering against her ribs.
She cannot engage the men in hand-to-hand combat, not as they appear to surround her in a semi-circle, all a good eight feet away and brandishing their weapons. There are too many of them, and they are all armed to the teeth with weapons the likes of which she has never seen before, even in the most covert Black Badge testing room.
She winces but keeps her eyes open and her gaze steely. She wants to be brave, even as she braces herself for the shock of bullets slicing through her.
She has been shot only once before, merely a glancing wound to the flesh of her arm. It had hurt, and she can still vividly remember the sensation of pain it caused, but it will be nothing compared to this.
All the books had lead her to believe that your life was supposed to pass before your eyes at a time like this, but all Nicole knows is the burning of her skin and the sick, exhausted feeling deep in the pit of her stomach.
She watches, fearful and fatigued, as the men brandish their weapons. One in particular catches her attention when he turns to look at the stone jackal and, had Nicole been in a position to fight, she knows she would have used such a moment against her opponent.
But then, to her surprise, all of the men turn to look first at the statue and then to the sand beneath Nicole’s feet. Without a single word passing between them, they all promptly turn on their heels and speed away.
Stunned with disbelief, she wipes the sweat from her brow with a shaking hand.
Her brain feels sluggish and slow, the tail end of her adrenalin rush fading to nothing and making her feel weak. She cannot even begin to turn her thoughts to why her attackers had run, and focuses instead on her next mission - namely, finding Jeremy.
She wonders, dimly, what weird and wonderful space he has - hopefully - managed to conceal himself in this time.
It is her only moment of calm and relative normality before a strange, garbled roar starts up, echoing amongst the ruins. She doesn’t even get the chance to move before the very volume of it makes it feel as though it is rattling the very foundations of the ancient town. Then she glances down and realises that, impossibly, the sand beneath her feet is moving.
She darts aside, onto an old foundation stone much like the one that Jeremy had fallen over. All she can do is watch, aghast, as the sand where she had stood launches itself upwards as though controlled by some invisible force.
It reminds Nicole of seafoam, like waves breaking on the cliffs as white horses scatter themselves about. But right now, in the middle of the desert, there is no seawater, much less a single breath of wind to stir the hot, dry air. Every movement the sand makes is impossible - it should be impossible and Nicole suddenly understands what it means when people say they almost pinched themselves to ensure something was real.
Reasonably, this could be a mirage but the instantaneous fear coursing through her tells her otherwise. She isn't sure exactly what she has to be scared of, only that she has seldom known a cold, shivering fear like this one. Something here, something in this ancient city, is simply wrong.
The rumbling cry continues all the while and the possibility of sinkholes or caves-ins darts vaguely across the back of her mind, but it is not that which has her running away, on instinct, from where the sand slithers about in great trails.
Her fear settles uncomfortably in the pit of her stomach, greater and more urgent than the fear that had propelled her from the guerilla soldiers. And as she steps urgently away from the patch of moving sand, her insides knot even tighter.
Only from a distance is it possible to see that the sand has formed a pattern. The unmistakable outline of a man’s face protrudes out of the ground.
He stares skyward, his large mouth parted and, somehow, Nicole knows that the roar she can hear is coming from this strange spectacle.
Not easily perturbed or startled, Nicole is not ashamed to admit that her heart flies into her mouth and she can think of little more than distancing herself from the sight before her. Again, her brain is sending garbled signals that this place isn't natural.
She runs, calling for Jeremy as she retraces her steps back towards the city’s entrance.
Heart still pounding, she searches high and low but Jeremy is nowhere to be found.
She hurries further outwards, sand giving way to stone and stone giving way to more sand and dust again. In one moment of haste, Nicole’s foot catches on an old foundation stone where it once would have divided one room from another. The remnants of some walls still poke faintly out of the heaps of sand and dirt.
She skids to a stop, taking a moment to steady herself. She is quite sure that she is not being pursued by anyone or anything, but nonetheless she is in no hurry to linger in this ghostly space any longer than necessary.
She swivels her head and glances about, checking for any sign that Jeremy has been here and, in doing so, something on the ground catches her eye. It is a small, dark shape, much darker than the pale stone and paler sand of this place.
Something in it whispers to her, beckoning her closer. Something in it dampens down her basest instincts, the ones telling her not to touch anything here. It is like water to a flame of caution and, in spite of herself, she finds herself drawing closer.
She barely pauses to consider picking up the tiny object, and in the days and weeks to come she will only marvel at this lack of caution. But in that moment she doesn’t give weight to curses or poisons or ancient booby-traps, she simply scoops the object into her hand.
Her knowledge of ancient artefacts is fairly rudimentary but even to an untrained eye it is clear that the object is from antiquity.
It looks, for all intents and purposes, to be an old, carved stone box.
She turns it over on her palm once, then twice, before tucking it into a free pocket of her utility belt. She is sure there is probably something wrong with filching a piece of the past like this, but in the moment all she can think about is the comforting realness of it.
In the hot, feverish days to come that one piece of solid stone will be enough to remind her that none of this was a dream or a mirage.
She continues calling for Jeremy as she searches, but she is met only with silence. She wonders if he has made his way back to the open desert and feels a prickle of fear at the thought. It is easy to get lost out there and, with her division scattered, it would be close to impossible to regroup fully.
Against all odds, Nicole eventually finds her way back to the ravine where they’d been ambushed and expects to find pockets of fighting still in full flow.
Instead, she is met only with empty space and barely any signs of a disturbance, aside from a few bullet casings and scattered shards of rock, blown apart by gunfire.
She is, without a doubt, completely and utterly alone.
Immediately she reaches for her belt and finds the box in there, solid and real - the only assurance she has that she hasn’t lost her mind in the cruel heat of the desert.
Some months later.
Waverly Earp stands amongst what can only reasonably called carnage, the shouts of the museum curator still ringing round the room.
She’d never purported to be confident on the rickety old ladder they used to reach the top of the towering bookcases - they did not need to be that tall! - her strengths lay more in the actual content of the books themselves.
Granted, it had taken a very special kind of mishap to knock down six full bookshelves but somehow, she had managed it.
One minute she was reaching out to retrieve a misfiled text on Tuthmosis III, and the next she was falling backwards, still clinging to the ladder, towards the bookcase behind her. The unit fell, because of course it did. Ten feet tall and made of sturdy wood, somehow it still toppled over on impact, taking out a further five shelves on its way.
Waverly, naturally, fell to the ground too, landing right onto a pile of hard-backed books.
Given the rest of the damage done to the room, the curator hadn’t seemed to bothered about the shock of bruises no doubt already blooming on Waverly’s backside.
He’d come running at the sound of crashing, had thoroughly told her off and ordered her to straighten everything out, with no concern to her own well-being and certainly with no offer of help.
Working alone, it was going to take quite an effort to get everything put back together again. She sighs, understanding that there is no use laying around and contemplating the task at hand. Instead, she blows a stray wisp of hair out of her face and gets to work, sifting despondently through the nearest pile of books.
She doesn’t know how she’ll get the bookcases upright again, but she knows this library like the back of her hand, and she can at least put all the books back in their right order.
There is a suitable type of aesthetic to this place and although Waverly can’t say for sure whether it is by design or not, it simply looks a certain way one imagines libraries should. The dark wood desks and their green-shaded reading lights look right , the chipped old ladder for the tall shelves looks right, and even the oversized, heavy old tomes look right .
Nonetheless for all the knowledge they contain and for all their pleasing aesthetics, lugging them around is sweaty, thankless work in the Egyptian heat. Waverly is sporting an unattractive sheen by the time she has sifted through the contents of just one set of shelves. She leans back against an old table for a quick rest when a voice from behind her nearly has her jumping out of her skin.
“What the hell is going on here?”
Waverly can hear Wynonna’s smirk before she even turns around to see her sister standing in the doorway, taking in the mess on the floor. Wynonna has arranged herself into a casual lean against the doorframe, and Waverly can see immediately that her sister’s position is quite intentional.
“Nothing,” Waverly says, turning back to her task. “I just had a bit of an accident.”
“Babygirl this isn’t just a bit of an accident,” Wynonna says, putting two and two together quickly. “Although I can’t say I’m surprised that your sense of balance on that ladder has finally been your literal downfall. You’re an Earp. We’re not made for heights.”
Waverly bites back a sigh. Normally, she’d be up for a playful back and forth with her sister. Today, however, she is really not in the mood.
It is barely midday and she has already managed destroy half the library during the height of summer. The library’s feeble metal ceiling fans do little more than move hot air and dust in lazy currents around the room. She is hot, she is tired, and she’ll be lucky to catch up with all her work before the end of the week thanks to the delay she has caused for herself.
“Do you really have nothing better to do than disturb me at work today Wynonna?”
Wynonna scoffs, feigning shock.
“Nothing better to do ?” she mimics, trying and failing to sound wounded. “I’ll have you know that right at this moment my career is at an all-time high. Frankly, sis, you’re lucky I’m still bestowing you with my presence.”
Wynonna draws herself up to her full height, aiming for dignified and impressive.
“I wish you wouldn’t.”
Waverly feels satisfied with her response; no accidental smiles at the joke response, her voice solid and even. Anyone else might actually have thought she meant it.
“But then you’d never hear about my amazing discovery,” Wynonna points out, as though this means much of anything to Waverly who cannot help but laugh derisively.
It’s not that she is trying to be unkind, but any suggestion that either of their careers is flourishing is the best joke she has heard in a fair while. It is, at least, a grim comfort to know that they are both in the same boat, rowing ineffectually against the current of ultimate defeat.
This unfortunate lack of success has long been one of the only similarities in their chosen paths.
And, if they have both kept broadly within the confines of the proverbial family business, then that is simply because both the name and the legacy of Earp make it hard to deviate sometimes.
You would have thought that being an Earp would actually be an advantage in the world of antiquities, but this has never really proved to be the case.
(Not that Waverly has ever wanted success through anything but merit, but sometimes it would be nice to feel that not absolutely everything was against them).
Their great-great grandfather, Wyatt, had been a famous explorer and treasure-seeker, travelling far and wide in search of lost valuables and rare antiques. He was part of the first large wave of Western scholars who had sought their fortune in the remnants of the ancient world, and his escapades had paved the way for the twentieth century archaeology boom. He had even been cited as an inspiration for the likes of Carter and Leakey themselves.
Wyatt’s methods had been anything but scholarly, and it made Waverly cringe now to think of how he went about unearthing objects of the past.
Treasure and not knowledge, Waverly understood, had been the currency in Wyatt’s day. And, by those mores, Wyatt had found remarkable success; uncovering an unprecedented swathe of ancient Egyptian tombs.
Most remarkably, all of his big finds had been mercifully untouched by the grave-robbers that were common to the ancient world. While Wyatt’s success had come at a price, it had deterred very few of his progeny from following in his footsteps.
Since Wyatt’s day, the Earp name had become synonymous with antiquity in one way or another, and, either by choice or by circumstance, almost every one of Wyatt’s heirs had fallen into a similar line of work.
Much like Edwin Earp (known somewhat unfairly as the ‘One-Year Wonder’ because he only made a single truly significant discovery – albeit one that sustained the rest of his long career), Waverly had chosen the academic route, dreaming of making a name for herself as a scholar and an archaeologist.
Unfortunately, things were moving much more slowly than Waverly would like. Her undergraduate and postgraduate degrees had been financially crippling, especially given that there were very few funds left in the proverbial Earp coffers by the time their father had passed away. More than that, her father’s time as Earp heir had left something of a black spot on the Earp name with his brazen hostility to an academy he had never remotely respected.
Very few scholars worth their salt had thought that one of Ward Earp’s kids was acting genuinely in trying to take the academic path; very few people would give Waverly’s research proposals a second glance. They keep going on about ‘experience in the field’, and although Waverly tries her best nothing seems to be enough.
Work at the museum-slash-library might be slow and poorly paid, but at least it is relevant to her interests and gives her a modicum of experience.
Then, of course, there is Wynonna.
As much as she loves her sister, Waverly is also aware that Wynonna isn’t exactly helping her mission.
Never one to even so much as skirt a conventional path, Wynonna follows more directly in Wyatt’s footsteps. As more of a treasure-hunter than a historian, Wynonna tended to ‘find’ artefacts at the behest of clients, some more unscrupulous than others.
Their father had also shown what Waverly termed a flagrant disrespect for history, but in Ward Earp’s case this was actually more accurately a flagrant disinterest in much of anything but a bottle of whiskey and the hunt for the kind of history most people said was pure myth.
This, Waverly still assumes, was the reason Ward hated scholars so much; because his own, admittedly rather wild, theories had been cruelly laughed into obscurity one too many times. Her father’s drinking – and his continued vocal belief in the existence of pretty much anything the academy deemed hokum – had only thrown the Earp name further down the pan.
After all, the real legacy of the Earp name was the high expectations it brought with it. Ward had never really lived up to them, and it seemed that his surviving daughters were cursed to follow in his footsteps. While Waverly worked for a pittance at the library, Wynonna had been struggling to meet her clients’ demands for rare artefacts for a while now. The black market on antiquities was kind of stalling at the moment.
So, all told, Waverly can’t really be blamed for finding amusement in the merest suggestion that either sister might be finding any kind of career success.
Rather than reply, Wynonna simply tosses a battered paper bag across the room. Somehow, Waverly manages to catch it deftly, noting the weight of its contents in her hands.
“Sorry, is this thing you just threw carelessly at me meant to be valuable?” she asks in jest, glad she managed not to drop whatever Wynonna has managed to unearth. “Do you normally just launch artefacts across a room?”
Wynonna ignores the joke, rolling her eyes instead.
“Just open it Waverly.”
As Waverly opens the bag, she tries to be at least borderline stern. This isn’t the first time Wynonna has brought mysteriously-sourced and totally valueless items to Waverly’s place of work.
“Wynonna I swear to God if you’ve just handed me yet another piece of crap that you want me to try and sell to the curator for you, I’m going t- ”
She breaks off, looking down in surprise at the object in her palm as it tumbles out of its inadequate packaging. Moving to stand beside her, Wynonna smirks again even if Waverly is too distracted to notice.
Waverly’s statement hangs without weight between them - they both know she didn’t have a decent threat at the ready either way.
“Wynonna,” Waverly breathes, almost scared to speak too loudly. “Where on earth did you get this?”
Wynonna hesitates, scuffing the toe of her boot on the wooden floor.
Waverly narrows her eyes, finally tearing her eyes away from her hand. “ Wynonna, I swear to God I am not in the mood today.”
Looking guilty Wynonna holds up her hands.
“Okay, okay. Look, I helped out on a dig. Down at Thebes.”
Waverly’s feels her jaw tense on instinct and she brandishes the object at her sister.
“And you didn’t log the find? This is stolen, Wynonna.”
Waverly looks down at what she assumes is a little box, given the small hinges on some of its edges. Dark in colour and octagonal in shape, it is covered with inscriptions on every available face. They’re written mostly in hieroglyphic form, so she can surmise that the box came from someone rich – everyday ancient Egyptians couldn’t read the religious language any better than most people today.
Without translating everything, Waverly can’t know exactly what the object is or what it was used for. What she does know, however, is that the box is like nothing she has ever seen first-hand before.
She has to grudgingly admit that Wynonna has a good eye.
“So it fell into my bag. So what? Why shouldn’t my baby sister have a chance at the find of the decade?”
Waverly is mute for a second, unsure of what to say. Wynonna had taken the box for her and she appreciated the gesture, but building a name off of something stolen violated every code of good practice in the book. Plus, she could hardly say she produced this thing from thin air.
She supposes, technically, it could appear as some long-lost, unlogged item from deep in the museum’s storage room…
Waverly catches the thought and puts the brakes on before it can go any further. She is absolutely not considering this.
Her silence as she grapples with her conscience says enough to Wynonna, whose face splits into a wide grin.
“See ? I knew I’d really found something this time. Say it. Go on,” she beams and it is almost infectious. Wynonna knocks her elbow in Waverly’s arm. “Wave, say it. Say I found something.”
Waverly can’t help but let a small smile slip; her sister has always managed to have this effect. She examines the box again before answering. With a practised hand, Waverly smooths the tips of her fingers across the box, looking for a catch.
Her hunch pays off, and the top of the box springs open. The little chamber beneath is shallow, much less than the overall depth of the box and this tells them that the object still hides further secrets.
In spite of themselves, they both inhale audibly. Waverly dives for a pair of gloves and, once adequately equipped, gently fishes out a thin scrap of folded papyrus, on which can be found a faint but unmistakable outline of a map.
“Wynonna. I think you’ve found something.”
The library is adjoined to a deceptively small museum.
Space might be at a premium but they have truly made the most of it. The place is packed to the rafters with artefacts. Most of the exhibits and the corresponding information cards were designed by Waverly herself, and it is a certain point of pride that the guestbook is always filled with glowing reviews.
Although she practically manages the place on her own, the official title of curator goes to Mr Elmasry, a short, greying man with exacting standards and a sharp tongue to match them.
Both Waverly and Wynonna watch closely, hardly daring to breathe, as he sits at his desk and examines the box. He does not ask where it came from; he has learnt enough of Wynonna’s magpie tendencies to know that the odd information deficiency is worth a degree of plausible deniability.
His glasses periodically slip down his nose and he turns the box over and over, looking for something Waverly isn’t privy to. There is a slight sheen on his skin from the summer heat, sending the glasses downwards more quickly.
Waverly’s heart is racing with a mixture of nerves and excitement and as a result she can’t seem to keep her mouth shut.
“I’ve gone ahead and dated the box already. Based on the forms of each of the languages present and the state of the papyrus, it has to be at least three thousand years old. Of course, carbon dating will give us a better indication.”
Waverly pauses, she is pretty sure her mention of carbon dating is a completely transparent hint at the curator to put some of the museum’s funds into researching this item.
Always with a tight grip on the purse strings, Mr Elmasry’s response would never have been anything less than reticent but he seems absolutely bent on seeming deliberately underwhelmed by the box in his hand.
When he merely huffs in response, Waverly continues speaking, unperturbed.
“And, have you seen the cartouche on the lid? I’m certain it’s the royal seal of Seti I .”
“Hm. Perhaps .”
Waverly feels a prickle of irritation at this continuous feigned indifference. She assumes that the curator is annoyed that such a fine discovery was made by Wynonna, who clearly attended the dig by complete chance. This doesn’t change the fact that this artefact is extremely exciting; under any other circumstances he’d be as impassioned as Waverly.
“And look here,” she points to a part of the map. “You see the Hieratic there? It says ‘Hamunaptra'.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Waverly sees Wynonna’s mouth drop open inelegantly. She snaps it shut a split second later.
“Wait. Hold up. Are you talking about the Hamunaptra?”
“Is there another?” Waverly says with a shrug then, feeling as though she has been too abrupt she adds, “it’s the one you’re thinking of, yeah. City of the Dead, the resting place for all the wealth of Egypt that never made it to a Pharaoh’s personal tomb, you know the stories...”
She does not add that they know them from their father, but both people present fill in the gaps perfectly well. Mr Elmasry had known Ward personally, although the two seldom saw eye to eye, and Waverly often wonders if some strange sense of beleaguered responsibility had lead the curator to give Waverly a job in the first place.
From his desk, Mr Elmasry scoffs. “Ladies will you please retain even a bit of sense? Hamunaptra was a myth started up by the locals of your great-great grandfather’s day. They designed the tale to amuse tourists and to keep men like Wyatt busy and far away from the real treasures of the past.”
“Our father believed it existed,” Wynonna grumbles indignantly, thinking Mr Elmasry wouldn’t hear.
“Yes well your father was -” he begins, tone scornful, and Waverly thinks it best to cut off that particular argument before it can begin in earnest.
“Putting all the nonsense stuff about the curse to one side for a minute,” Waverly cuts in, ignoring Wynonna when she asks ‘ what curse?’ , “much of my research on Seti’s dynasty has actually lead me to believe that the city itself could have existed. Perhaps the legend has been embellished over the years, but it’s perfectly possible some kind of ancient storage site could have been built. After all, we all know that a Pharaoh’s wealth couldn’t all fit in their tombs.”
She speaks reasonably, plaintively, and her voice stays measured and even but it is to no avail.
“I find that very hard to believe, Waverly,” Mr Elmasry says with a patronising look as he reaches out to pick up his mug of coffee. He promptly proceeds to knock it over, covering the aged map on his desk with its entire contents.
The poor paper had survived a lot, but a full cup of boiling coffee proves too much and, surprisingly rapidly, it turns to a brownish mulch before their eyes.
For a moment, they all stare at the sad puddle in silence until Wynonna speaks, her eyes flashing dangerously.
“Dude. What the hell ? You’ve just swamped the goddamn Lost City.”
The curator sighs and finally removes his wayward glasses before pinching the bridge of his nose.
“Yes, well. No doubt you’ll thank me eventually, given how many foolish explorers have met their demise trying to find the city. Or, more aptly,” he adds gravely, fixing a pointed look at Wynonna, “the treasure.”
Wynonna opens her mouth to argue, but before she can say anything Waverly drags her away by the arm, snatching the box from Mr Elmasry’s hand before he can think to protest. She mumbles a cursory thanks for his time, then shuts the door firmly behind them.
Wynonna protests all the way back to the relative privacy of the library, keen for Waverly to let her go back and have it out with the curator.
Directing them to the very end of the room, still completely trashed from earlier, Waverly positions herself between Wynonna and the main exit route. When she feels certain Wynonna won’t dart, Waverly finally loosens her grip on her sister’s arm.
“Wynonna, listen to me. Something is up,” Waverly’s gaze darts about as she speaks, as is so often the case when she is thinking hard, her brain moving thirty paces ahead of her mouth.
“You’re damn right something is up - that dude’s attitude for a st- ”
“No, you’re not listening. The curator just destroyed a rare and historically valuable artefact and he didn’t even flinch. I’ve seen his eyes water when someone brings something in that’s been mildly scratched. That was not normal behaviour,” Waverly says, words tumbling out fast and Wynonna - recognising this kind of million miles an hour thought process - softens.
“Did you hear the way he dismissed me the instant I mentioned Hamunaptra?” Waverly continues, feeling heated at the mere memory of Mr Elmasry’s patronising tone. He had a tendency to be pompous, something of a peacock in nature, but he had never behaved in such a way before.
“I heard it,” Wynonna says firmly. “Almost like he wanted you to stop talking about the box and about - ”
“Hamunaptra,” they say in unison, their voices weighty.
“But,” Waverly says, going back to musing aloud and having absolutely no idea where this is leading, “that wouldn’t make sense. Not unless - ” she hesitates, unwilling to speak such an illogical idea aloud.
Wynonna, however, has no such misgivings.
“Unless he believes it exists too?”
Waverly thinks about it, worrying at her lower lip with her teeth. It is a long shot, so unlikely it is practically laughable, but stranger things have been proven real.
“I don’t know about that for sure, but he would never have been so blasé normally. This,” she holds out the box, “is incredibly exciting. And, annoyed at us or not, he would have cared about history being needlessly destroyed. In fact, I don’t know why he examined that map at his desk anyway.”
There is an excitable glint in Wynonna’s eye. “Are you suggesting what I think you’re suggesting?”
Waverly takes a breath to try and steady the rapid beat of her heart. Believing in the existence of a lost treasure city, the goddamn City of the Dead no less, goes against every code of good practice that she’s ever been taught.
But there is something swirling in her gut which tells her to press this further. She doesn’t know what it is exactly, has never actually felt an instinct like this, just how people describe in stories. It is like something has settled beneath her skin, a quiet certainty that this little box really does mean something.
It is more than that though, and she knows it even if she doesn’t want to admit it.
Somewhere in a space locked down with remarkable efficiency, Waverly longs for adventure and for the thrill of discovery. Maybe it is the Earp blood in her, maybe it is something else entirely, but deep down she wants to believe in lost cities and maybe even some kind of ancient secret magic.
Plus, if she can prove something, anything, about the real Hamunaptra then it could be her big break. It would be an unmissable chance to impress the academics who keep denying her valuable research grants. There would be no harm in doing some metaphorical digging, because her work at the museum wasn’t getting her anywhere and a little side job couldn’t hurt, could it?
“I don’t know what I’m suggesting yet,” Waverly says eventually. “But it can’t hurt to look. I’ll need to get my notes on Seti out and see if I can find anything of use. Then, we’ll need to translate the writing on the box to help us find Hamunaptra. You know, assuming it’s even real.”
“It is,” Wynonna interjects evenly. “I remember how Dad used to talk about it.”
She doesn’t voice it aloud, but Waverly rather thinks that their father’s certainty is a mark against, rather than in favour of, the city’s existence. Besides, even if it did once exist, without the map they’ve got a snowball’s chance in hell of finding its ruins. It would be impossible even to know where to start looking, in terms of which books and ancient texts to use.
She says as much to Wynonna, who immediately starts scuffing at the floor with her boot again. It is one of her tells.
“Yeah so I, uh. I might be able to help with that.”