My body hit the ground with a soft bump. Apparently I had been lucky in my misfortune, dunes of sand dampened my fall, like warm pillows that sent their shiny grains flying everywhere around my tired body.
Where did I fall from? I couldn’t remember. Last thing I did remember was falling asleep, in my very comfortable canopy bed with its soft cotton sheets, in a place quite far away from any accumulation of sand.
Now, the boiling golden orb in the clear blue skies was heating painfully the pale skin my short nightgown exposed, and I had to lift my head slightly to spit all the sand I just ate. Don’t tell me I spaced-jumped while I was asleep… It wouldn’t be the first time, though.
I didn’t have much time to consider the situation before I heard the echo of gunshots, a jumble of war cries, screams of agony and thunderous hoof-beats, and then rapid footsteps getting closer to me.
Next thing I knew, a strong hand was grabbing me by the collar and someone was half-dragging me across the burning sand. I struggled until they finally let me free and got on my feet, stumbling slightly, still not perfectly awakened.
The motion made me stand face to face with a man, probably in his late 20’s, clearly a soldier, and who was looking at me with an utter confusion written all over his face.
“What the Hell?!” I yelled at the man standing in front of me, eyes wide and panting.
He was wearing clothes clearly adapted to the desert, though not exactly modern ones, just white linen shirt and pants with a tan coat on top of it, a bandoleer and shoulder-holstered revolvers criss-crossing his rather muscular frame. He stared at me, his blue eyes reflecting the desert skies, clearly perplexed, but new gunshots resonated near us and he suddenly seemed to decide that it wasn’t time for questions. I most definitely agreed.
He seized my right hand as a reflex, and ran in direction of what looked the entry of an ancient Egyptian temple, with his crumbling sandstone walls covered with hieroglyphs and images of Gods and Pharaohs, while screaming at someone in front of us:
“Run, Beni! Run! Get inside, get inside!”
I saw the weasel-looking man he was screaming at panic, run towards the temple even quicker than before, so fast that his boots barely touched the sand, and get inside the cool entry before beginning to close on us the heavy sandstone panel covered with hieroglyphs that served as a door, his unattractive face deformed by the effort his wiry muscles didn’t seemed they could make.
“Don’t you close that door!” The man beside me yelled twice, still holding my cold delicate hand tight in his burning and calloused one.
But it was no use. The blue-eyed soldier just had time to throw me with a surprising force through the interstice left before his colleague – I supposed, by their clothes and interactions – finished to close the door on him. I struggled to get back on my feet, head spinning, as the guy just took a frightened look at me before running away, farther inside the underground ancient temple. I tried to push at the heavy panel to let my savior in, but to no avail. I heard a few bullets hitting the stone and the soldier's unsure footsteps fading away, still followed by Arabic war cries and hooves pounding the sand.
I panted a little, resting my back against the nearest wall, only able to see in the darkness of the temple because of a few old torches lighting a downward path to where the coward had ran. There was a dead body next to me, I realized suddenly, the putrid smell hitting me at once, a man who had probably tried to drag himself to safety before he collapsed due to blood loss, if the large crimson markings that stained the sands were of any indication. I swallowed slowly, trying to bring my breathing back to normal, before I knelt towards the corpse.
I left my fingers linger gently against his wrist, searching for a pulse I knew wasn’t there, and found nothing. Just a stillness only death can bring. An unmistakable cold.
A better look at the cadaver gave me some new information. He was apparently a simple private second class of the French Légion Étrangère, a young man in his early 20’s, probably Spanish, as seemed to indicate the little red and yellow flag falling down one of his pockets.
I sighed loudly, already hating myself for what I was about to do, before I took his clothes off of his still warm body. I dropped my black night gown on him, covering the half-naked man as much as I could, before putting his beige linen pants on, alongside with his cream-colored cotton shirt. He also had a blue scarf tied around his waist that I took to cover my head from the sun in case I successfully went out of this mysterious place. Everything was stained with large patches of dark, sticky, blood, still wet and already smelly, but it was definitely better than what I had on me seconds ago.
I took a chance at the door again, even if I was certain there was at least one other way to go out from here, and was lucky to finally find a small notch in the stone, allowing my fingers to grab it with more force than before and to move the heavy panel slowly. When it was a few inches apart from the wall, I stopped my movement to listen to the noises outside.
Nothing. Just a burning wind blowing and the decreasing sound of hoof-beats. I opened the door some more, carefully peeking outside, but there was nothing there anymore, just bloodied bodies scattered across the sand – mostly soldiers of the French Foreign Legion, but also what I recognized to be a few Tuareg warriors. I pushed on the heavy hieroglyph-covered stone one more time, until the gap between it and the wall was big enough for me to squeeze through.
I took a few steps outside, still close to the crumbling temple's walls, and listened attentively at my surroundings. I could hear someone panting, and then a man yelled not far from where I was. Without knowing why, I was certain that it had been my saviour's voice. Without thinking, I ran towards the sound, before I stopped dead.
There was a large screaming face slowly forming itself in the sand beneath the soldier’s feet, moving the earth between him and a half-buried statue of Anubis who seemed to look at the intruder with cold, reflexive eyes. I felt flashes of something dark and dangerous crawling on my skin and an other scream, much different from the soldier’s, and reflecting a terrible anger, resonated in my mind.
The man in front of me didn’t look twice at the figure at his feet before he started running away. I shook myself at the sight and shouted, running after him:
“Hey! Wait for me!”
Thankfully, despite the yell of the shifting sands, the echo of the wind, and the weakness of my voice, he must have heard me, because he slightly decreased his pace, looking once behind him, and letting our eyes meet.
For a split second, my panicking mind thought he was going to leave me there to die alone in that cursed place. But the man extended his right hand towards me and I ran even faster to grab it before he quickened his pace again, pulling me harshly away from the ancient temple.
There is nothing romantic about running away hand in hand with someone for both your sakes. Not this time, at least. The contact of our linked hands was just a reassuring touch, a reminder that we were not alone in the middle of this scary desert, trying to get as far away as possible from what was buried beneath those dreadful dunes of sand where that mysterious ancient statue of Anubis was built.
We had to slow down considerably after we felt like we were far away enough from the temple to be safe from whatever was lying in that cursed place, to try to find our breaths back. The man dropped my hand and I clenched it on my hip, where I was starting to feel a burning pain. Adrenaline was still coursing through my veins, so I didn’t really mind it though.
I shot a glance at the soldier beside me, trying to see if he had any injury, but I was distracted by the grim expression on his face. He was looking up, not at the cursed site we just left, but at the top of the rocky cliff to our right. I followed his wary gaze and froze. Didn’t we have enough problems already?
Ten men, clearly nomad warriors from the desert, mounted on proud steeds, were glaring at us from afar. They were wearing thick dark loose-fitting robes and their faces were buried beneath large turbans from the same material. There was something definitely menacing that emanated from them, and I instantly understood what they were doing, my blood turning a little colder in my veins.
Those grim warriors were evaluating whether or not they should kill us on the spot. Even from this distance, they would have no problem reaching us with their horses. I gritted my teeth and reached for my travel buddy again, and he took my hand with a gentle, comforting, squeeze.
But our mysterious observers didn’t move from their cliff, in the end, and only their burning stares followed us as we started running towards the open desert again. Something inside me whispered that they would come to regret it sooner or later, and this was my last coherent thought before all my strengths were put on behalf of surviving the deadly desert.