The airship shot upward, buffeted by the maelstrom of sand and leaves displaced by the collapse of the oasis, then shot blessedly free into clear air. Rick collapsed to the deck, gasping for breath, and finally unclenched his fingers from Jonathan's ankle. Evy's brother was still curled around the gold-diamond thing he'd insisted on taking from the top of the temple; Rick still couldn't believe he'd risked his life for it, but maybe he'd figured what with all the other miraculous escapes they'd made that day, one more wouldn't be too much to ask for. Pretty damned optimistic of him, really.
Miracles there had been, though: they'd saved Alex and Evy; he'd defeated the Scorpion King; and Anubis and Anck-su-namun, ironically enough, had taken care of Imhotep for them. Rick hadn't seen the jackal-headed Army vanish, but he'd felt Anubis' anger and a flash fire moment of searing pain as something vast and merciless rushed through him; he was pretty sure they'd been disbanded in time to save Ardeth's people. His people, too, if he believed the Medjai chieftain. Strange to think about, after all the encounters he'd had with them over the years.
A jubilant shout from the front of the airship snapped his focus back to the present, and Rick chuckled hoarsely, looking up at his old friend. Izzy had really come through for him this time; he'd have to make sure the guy got a generous compensation out of Jonathan's treasure. Especially since Rick had left the gold stick-spear he'd asked for somewhere under the dunes that now covered the oasis.
Hell, maybe he should give Jonathan a little more slack about his acquisitive tendencies in general. If they hadn't had the Spear of Osiris with them back there, he didn't like to think what might have happened. No one should have to face the end of the world twice in his own lifetime; Rick was going to have to put some serious effort into keeping his family out of Egypt after this.
Speaking of family. Where were they? Rick brushed palm fronds out of his hair and sat up, glancing around the leaf-strewn deck. He'd put Alex and Evy aboard first; he wanted to touch them again, wrap his arms around them both and never let them go. There was only so much one man could do to protect his family, especially against such powerful enemies; he'd failed them several times in the last several days, and it was only by the grace of the gods that they'd all made it out of the temple alive.
He spotted Alex first, kneeling on the deck with a mantle of fronds over his shoulders and back, staring down at something in front of him. That was his first clue that something was wrong; he'd seen that look on Alex's face once already that morning, and didn't want to think about what might put it there again. A sudden weight of dread settled into his stomach.
Above him, Izzy's hysterical laughter trickled to a halt. "Uh, O'Connell?" he asked. "Is something wrong with your wife?"
No, Rick thought. No, no, no; not again. He was hardly aware of stumbling to his feet, his full attention on the heap of leaves and sand in front of Alex and what it concealed.
"Wait, what?" he heard Jonathan say, off to his right; something thudded to the deck, and then there was a presence at Rick's elbow, stumbling forward with him. "Did something happen to Evy?"
Rick fell to his knees again across from Alex, mirroring his son's posture as he stared down at his wife. She looked-- She looked--
He refused to think the word. He brushed leaves from her face, then her chest and arms. His heart faltered as he saw the way she had her hands clasped over her abdomen, just like before, and he resolutely drew his gaze back to her face.
"Evy," he said, brokenly, cupping one rough hand against her too pale face. "Evy, don't do this to me again. Please wake up."
She'd been so vital, so magnificent just minutes before. He remembered the way her blades had flashed as she'd fought Anck-su-namun, and the determined set of her jaw as she'd charged through the falling spears of rock to rescue him despite his efforts to dissuade her. How could she be-- how could she have-- how could this have happened? He hadn't seen any sign of a wound when he'd lifted her into the airship--
"Evy," he said again, dropping a hand to her black clad shoulder and shaking, sharply. "Evy!"
She didn't stir.
Her eyes were closed; her lips pale as milk; her chest unmoving. She really was--
He moved shaking fingers to the pulse point in her throat, and left them there a moment, waiting, as the chaotic swirl of rage and grief and denial surging through him crystallized into ice in his veins. Finally, moving with a slow, deliberate calm, he reached down and nudged her hands aside.
"I thought you healed her," he growled at the man standing silently at his shoulder, staring at the dark mouth of the wound exposed in her stomach.
"I thought we had," Jonathan stammered behind him. "We brought her back; she seemed fine!"
"I read the right spell, Dad," Alex said, quietly but firmly. There was something distant in his voice; something that sounded a lot like the way Rick felt at the moment. As though he had to hold the whole world at arm's length just to be able to function. "I know I did."
Brought her back. Brought her back still wounded? The idea percolated slowly through Rick's frozen thoughts.
They'd brought Imhotep back with that book the first time, and he'd still been a mummy. Then, after they'd neutralized his powers with the Book of Ra and stabbed him, he'd stumbled back into a pool of dark liquid and decomposed back to the condition he'd been in before. What if it hadn't been the liquid, whatever it was, that did that to him? What if it had been the collapse of the power that kept him going?
Evy wasn't an inherently supernatural being, aside from her reincarnation, not like Imhotep had been. What if the collapse of the temple-- and her separation from the sacred books-- had been enough cut to off the spell that had brought her back to her body and given her the appearance of health?
My fault, he thought, numbly, deaf to the conversation Jonathan and Alex were carrying on over his head. If he'd done anything else-- if he'd given a different order when he'd stabbed the Scorpion King with the spear-- Anubis' tool might not have taken Rick's command so literally, sucking everything between his position and his warriors down into the desert. If the temple had still been standing-- if they'd been able to save the Books this time, and carry them away--
"No," he said, firmly. "No, this isn't right; this isn't how it's supposed to happen." A new resolve, a desperate hope, took root in his heart; he struggled back to his feet, sliding his arms under Evy as he stood and cradling her body against him.
"Rick--" Jonathan said, staring at him, eyes wide with grief and shock: Rick wondered briefly what his own face looked like.
"Dad--" Alex said, shakily, tears leaving dark streaks through the sand on his face.
"I love you," he said gently, managing a wobbly smile for his son's sake. "Don't give your uncle any trouble." Then he turned to his brother-in-law. "I don't want to see him back here before he finishes his schooling. Understand me? Evy will kill you if you let him come back unprepared."
Jonathan's eyes dropped briefly to the still form in Rick's arms. "Rick, I don't think--"
"Just do it," Rick growled, then turned and took two long strides across the deck. It was enough to bring him to the railing; he took a deep breath, then coughed through the sand still in his lungs, and raised a boot to brace against the wooden barrier.
"Dad, no!" a voice called behind him, followed by others.
"O'Connell, what do you think you are doing?"
"Rick, don't do this!"
Rick ignored them all and vaulted over the railing toward the sand below. It wasn't all that far. Okay, far enough to probably kill him if he was wrong, but if he wasn't-- well, he wouldn't care either way, whether he was wrong or not.
For a long, endless moment he hung suspended between sand and sky, his world narrowed down to the still form clasped in his arms. The wind of their passage whipped at his hair and tugged at her flowing black sleeves; his eyes stung, but he refused to look away. She smelled of heat, sweat, and dirt, like all the archaeological digs they'd ever been on, and a metallic tang where her lifeblood had soaked into her clothes; in that, as many things, they were a matched pair. And if he had anything to say about it, they'd go on being a matched pair for a whole lot longer.
In the distance, he vaguely heard the voices of horse and man raised in exclamation-- one of the Medjai must have stayed to see them off. He smiled absently at that, remembering Ardeth's complaints about them never keeping their feet on the ground, and wondered what he'd thought to see Rick jump.
Then the sand came up to meet him, and another of Rick O'Connell's lives came to an end.
The desert rose up and struck him like an anvil. Rick closed his eyes as his boots hit the sand; he tried to hold onto Evy, but the force of his landing jarred her from his arms, and he collapsed over her body. Molten fire surged through his limbs; not the mortal pain he'd half-expected, the crushing, tearing consequences of a human body attempting to defy gravity, but something altogether else that seared through him like the hot breath of Hell-- or the touch of a god's hand.
Just like the flash he'd felt when he'd killed Anubis' champion. Or, more accurately, he supposed: Anubis' previous champion.
"Evy," he whispered, as the swell of power began to ebb and he regained the ability to breathe. Had they travelled too far? Were the relics too deeply buried for their power to touch her here? Was the spell completely gone?
"Evy," he said again, struggling back up to his knees, staring down at the still face of his beloved. His princess. The one, above all others, he was supposed to protect-- at least, according to legend.
He wondered what legend they'd tell of this adventure in a few thousand years' time.
"Evy," he said a third and final time, reaching out to touch her face.
His fingertips brushed against her soft skin, and he almost despaired; but then it registered-- her skin was warm. Her skin was warm, and there was color in her lips again--
Her eyes flew open, and she sucked in a desperate breath, back arching against the sand. "Rick?" she cried, wildly.
"I'm right here," he said thickly, as he finally allowed the tears to come. "I'm right here, Evy."
Her eyes settled on his face, and she reached up to touch him, fingers shaking as badly as his had earlier. "You brought me back again," she said, in wondering tones. "But I thought the Book--"
"Look around you, babe," he chuckled, morbidly. "I threw us out of Izzy's airship. Looks like contact with Egyptian soil was enough to do it."
"But that might have killed you!" she objected, struggling upward. "How did you know it would work?"
She clasped one hand over her stomach as she sat up, then lifted it again and tugged torn fabric aside, staring at the still torn skin beneath. It didn't bleed, nor did it seem to pain her; no wonder they hadn't noticed that the spell hadn't actually healed her amid all the chaos in the temple.
"I didn't. I just didn't know what else to do." He reached out to touch the edges of the wound, then cupped his hand over it and reached out, clumsily, to the power he could still feel licking at the edges of his mind. He wasn't sure it was a good idea-- he really, really didn't want to end up like the other guy, stuck in a temple in half-scorpion form while he waited for someone else to come and kill him, and he wasn't even sure it would work-- but he couldn't just sit by and do nothing.
Energy rushed up through him, accompanied by half heard laughter; it poured up through his knees, his thighs, his chest, and down his arm, flooding him with heat and washing down into her wound.
Anubis was a god of the dead: of judgment, of embalming, the keeper of the gates. But he'd listened to Evy's lectures often enough over the years, and he remembered something else about him:
--Anubis' jackal head was black because of the association Egyptians had between the color black, and the ideas of regeneration, death, and the night--
Regeneration, he repeated to himself, focusing: and beneath his hand, the edges of the sai wound pulled together, sealing shut with only a thin scar to show that anything had happened. Then he let the power go, breathing deeply of the dry desert air.
You learn quickly, the laughing voice added, before Rick could push it out of his mind.
"What-- Rick, what did you do?" Evy asked, tangling her fingers with his.
He turned to her with a pained smile. "You remember how the guy who killed Anubis' champion was supposed to take his place at the head of his army?" he asked.
She stared back, eyes solemn. "What does this mean?"
He shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine," he told her. Probably better; she knew a lot more about Egyptian myth than he did. "It didn't even occur to me until we were flying away, and I realized what happened to you. You remember that American professor, back when I first took you to Hamunaptra?"
"Yes?" she said, hesitantly. "What does he have to do with this?"
"There was this saying he was fond of," Rick replied, reaching up with his other hand to stroke her lips, her eyebrows, her chin. That was twice in one day he'd lost her-- and he didn't fool himself that his little trick with the regeneration would have changed anything. She was still as dead as she'd been since the moment Anck-su-namun had stabbed her; the incantation only made her seem alive, and anchored her spirit to her reanimated body. In retrospect, it made perfect sense; Alex and Jonathan had used the Book of the Dead to do it, after all. They'd have to find some way of changing that, of truly bringing her back to life, if they were going to travel very far from this place.
So much for ever leaving Egypt again-- at least he'd got Alex out.
"On these hallowed grounds, that which was set forth in ancient times is as strong today as it was then," he said aloud, repeating the professor's words. "I thought, considering we were pretty much still at the oasis, even if it was buried under a ton of sand--"
"Oh, Rick." She smiled sadly, dark eyes swimming with tears. "What would I do without you."
"I hope you never have to find out," he replied. "When I lost you back there-- when I lost you just now--"
"Hey," she said, tremulously. "Don't think about that. I'm back, and I'm not leaving again."
Rick bent down and stopped her mouth with a kiss.
He wasn't sure how much time had passed when he became aware of the outside world again. A jingle of harness, a stamping hoof, a clearing throat: the sounds seemed to strike his ear all at once, and he pulled back, glancing up the nearest rise of sand.
The Medjai chieftain stared back at him, his eyes more troubled than welcoming. Rick wondered how much he'd seen. "Ardeth," he said, nodding a greeting.
"O'Connell," Ardeth replied, acknowledging him. Then his eyes settled on Evy. "Princess."
Most of it, then, to make him so formal. Rick winced, then got to his feet and tugged Evy up after him. "I think we have a lot to talk about," he said.
Days later, a party of men arrived at Ardeth's camp, messengers of Medjai descent whose families lived in Cairo. Neither Jonathan nor Alex was with them, though they carried a letter for the chieftain bearing the Carnahan seal; it looked like Evy's brother was taking Rick's parting command seriously.
"He wishes to know whether you are alive," Ardeth said after reading the letter. "Izzy would not return to verify your survival, but he saw my horse in the distance, and knew I would have found you."
There was a challenge in his dark eyes, one Rick knew to take seriously.
"Tell him I was seriously wounded, and that I'm healing slowly," he finally said, shrugging. "Don't say anything about Evy. They've probably told half the world by now that she died and I went crazy with grief; that's probably for the best."
"You would deprive the boy of his mother? A brother of his sister?" Ardeth asked, coolly.
"Jonathan can take care of himself," Rick replied, setting his jaw, "and he'll do right by Alex. By the time Alex finishes his schooling and comes back, we'll have a better handle on what's going on. We can't send that kind of news by letter; we can't afford to let it be intercepted. Besides, it's going to become pretty obvious in a few years that we've stopped aging. It'd be best if we let our trail end here."
He'd already talked it over with Evy. She hadn't taken it well; she didn't want to be separated from her family any more than he did. But it would be necessary.
The Medjai chieftain nodded. "That was my thought as well," he said, approvingly.
"Just-- put in a postscript, would you? Say 'Death is only the beginning'," Rick added. With luck, Jonathan would guess what that meant.
Ardeth frowned, but did not object. "Very well. I know this is all very difficult for you, but the consequences of your recent actions will take years to fully understand, and there is no one who can better help you than my people. In time, we should be able to find some other arrangement; you will not be required to remain here for all eternity."
"I should hope not," Rick said, wryly. "From what I've seen, eternity's not all it's cracked up to be, anyway."
"You think like a Medjai already," Ardeth replied, in the same vein.
Rick stared past the half-open tent flap, to where his wife practiced with her sais in the cool morning air. "Maybe so," he said. Whatever else had happened, whatever else might come-- they were still here, still together, and still fighting.