October 14, 1927
The Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut
Deir el-Bahari, Egypt
“I told you there was something here!”
As Chanyeol Park nearly vibrated out of his skin in excitement, his partner, Kris Wu, rolled his eyes, long-suffering. “You sure did,” he said dryly. “How about we see what it is, exactly, before you break out the champagne?”
Chanyeol cuffed Kris’s shoulder. “You’re awful. Alright, sourpuss, help me clear this stone.”
They’d come to suspect something was hidden behind one of the walls while they were studying the mortuary temple of Pharaoh Hatshepsut, but it had taken a bit of work to convince themselves that it was worth dismantling a section of the wall to find out. As it turned out, it was completely worth it. When the crew had worked several of the massive sandstone blocks free from the wall, it had revealed a hidden archway, covered in carved hieroglyphs and filled up with loose rubble.
No one in the crew had to be told what an incredible discovery this could be. Structurally speaking, there was no reason to fill this doorway with stones, no reason to block it off - unless there was something on the other side worth hiding, worth protecting. The prospect that they might have discovered an untouched chamber made Chanyeol, Kris and their six-person dig crew energetic, and it wasn’t long before the irregular boulders were cleared out enough to pass through.
“We’re going in,” Chanyeol said to the crew chief, impatient. “Finish clearing this doorway, and make sure you take the rubble outside the tomb and pile it somewhere. We’ll look at it later.” Double-checking that his pistol was still securely holstered, Chanyeol flicked on a flashlight and held it up to the opening.
Chanyeol and Kris were both rather large men, tall and broad, but this was hardly the first time they’d squeezed themselves into some dark, unknown hole, so with a little bit of ungainly clamboring they managed to get over the half-cleared rubble and into the dry, stale, but open air of the passageway beyond. Kris had his own pistol out and ready in his hand, looking around warily, but Chanyeol was too busy looking at the walls around him to worry about whether some desert animal had made this passage its burrow.
“Christ, look at this,” he murmured, sweeping his flashlight around. The walls were carved floor-to-ceiling, hieroglyphs and artwork. The timeworn paint on the carvings was still visible in places, giving hints at how brightly colored the mural once was. “This is a burial procession, look.” He pointed out the representation of the Book of the Dead, the carving of Anubis welcoming the procession to his realm.
“A tomb?” Kris murmured, staring. “But whose? It can’t be Hatshepsut.” The Pharaoh Queen’s tomb had been found years prior, in the Valley of the Kings nearby, but though the walls had decreed who was meant to be buried there, the body was gone, looted by grave robbers centuries ago.
“Let’s find out.” Chanyeol turned to continue down the passage.
Kris hurried to follow him. “You don’t want to translate this first?”
“We’ll have time to study it later.” The tunnel was short and sloped sharply downward. At the end was a small clearing and another stone archway, this one fitted with a single, massive stone block, carved exactly to fit.
“Shit,” Kris said. “There’s no way we’re going to move that thing ourselves, it’s gotta weigh a couple of tons at least.”
Chanyeol was already examining the stone door, his lantern on the floor at his feet. The hieroglyphs here were not rows and rows of complicated carvings as they were in the hallway, but rather two simple, oversized vertical lines, only a few characters each. He carefully sounded each one out, consulting his pocket notebook when necessary.
“Turn away,” he said aloud.
“That’s what it says. Turn away.” Chanyeol glanced at Kris, his heart rabbiting excitedly in his chest. “A warning to tomb robbers?”
Kris snorted. “Or to nosy archeologists.” But he came up next to Chanyeol anyway, running careful, delicate fingers around the edges of the stone door. “Hey, look. There’s marks on the floor.”
Chanyeol looked where he was pointing. Scratch or scuff marks, in an oddly perfect curve, as if…
“Turn away,” Chanyeol said out loud again. “Turn away?” He moved to the opposite side of the door and followed the edge down to the floor. Sure enough, once he brushed away the accumulated dirt and gravel, there was a tiny gap between the stone and the floor. Light from the flashlight passed underneath easily, except in the very center, where something cast a shadow. A post… a hinge?
“Yeol, what the hell are you - ”
“It’s not a warning, it’s an instruction.” Chanyeol breathed, scrambling to his feet. He pressed his shoulder to the farthest edge of the block and pushed. There was a horrible grinding noise, but the stone did give way under his shoulder just a little. Just enough. “Help me!” he demanded.
“Shit,” Kris muttered, hurriedly setting down his flashlight and reaching over Chanyeol’s body to add his own strength. The ancient stone slab protested, but it gave way, pivoting open on the post driven up its center. It scraped to a stop just a little shy of 90 degrees rotated, adding a new scratch mark to the ones on the floor.
Chanyeol picked up his lantern and held it aloft. Immediately, he was nearly blinded by the reflection of gold.
A lot of gold.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” Kris breathed behind him. “This is… Yeol, this is the find of the decade.”
As his eyes adjusted, Chanyeol started to make sense of what he was seeing. It was a royal burial chamber, no doubt about it, and it looked completely untouched. Sacks of grains, bolts of cloth, and elaborately carved furniture lined the equally elaborate walls. Gold, gems, and other treasures were arranged artfully around the room, plus several beautifully decorated chests that likely held even more riches. And there, in the very center, upon a raised dais, was an utterly fantastic gilt sarcophagus.
“Don’t touch anything,” Kris warned, as if Chanyeol was stupid enough to ruin a find like this with his own enthusiasm. Ignoring him, Chanyeol carefully picked his way towards the center of the room, standing before the sarcophagus.
It couldn’t have been longer than about five and a half feet end to end, completely covered with gold leaf and inlaid gems. Gingerly, Chanyeol stepped up onto the foot of the dais, looking down at the lid. The face depicted on the top was young and smooth, beardless, with long, dark hair, likely a representation of a wig.
Chanyeol looked over to the corner of the room, where Kris was crouched down, examining something on the floor. “Come here and look at this,” he called.
Standing, Kris brushed off his slacks and jacket and crossed the room. “No pharaonic headdress,” Kris observed aloud, coming up to stand beside Chanyeol. “No scepter shown, either. Probably not a Pharaoh, but still royalty, if this sarcophagus is any indicator.”
“A royal princess?” Chanyeol wondered. “There’s no beard.” He held the lantern closer, studying the painted-on face. The eyes were elongated and catlike, made even moreso by the heavy black eyeliner painted onto the mask, and the carved lips had an equally catlike curve. “Ah, look at her. She’s beautiful.”
Crouching next to the sarcophagus, Kris made a thoughtful noise. “She’s a he,” he said. Chanyeol blinked down at him, and Kris pointed at the cartouche carved along the side of the sarcophagus. “Prince Jongdae.”
Oh. “Still beautiful,” Chanyeol shot back, and Kris snorted again. “We should see if he’s still inside. I can’t imagine a robber would have taken the body and not all this gold, but we should check anyway.”
Kris agreed, and together, they carefully unsealed the sarcophagus and lifted the lid. And there he was - a small, slim human body, completely wrapped in ancient linen, his face covered with an elaborate mask that showed the same catlike features as the outer depiction.
Chanyeol stared at him, his breath coming quick. A man who lived thousands of years ago, buried in darkness and silence for all this time, waiting to be found.
“Hello, gorgeous,” Chanyeol murmured. “I’m going to learn all your secrets.”
They stayed at the hidden tomb for nearly two weeks. First, they cleared out rubble and brought in lights so they could take dozens of photographs of the tomb before they touched anything. Then, they started opening chests, moving treasures, taking more photos as each new layer was revealed. Kris spent most of his time making detailed sketches of anything and everything, filling up an entire sketchbook with drawings and notations, while Chanyeol directed the workers and catalogued pieces as they were removed.
Eventually, everything movable was brought out of the tomb. Chanyeol wished he could take down the wall reliefs as well, pry them carefully off the walls in sections and transport them back to America. He dreamed of setting up the tomb as an exhibit at the Met, reconstructing it behind glass, exactly as they had found it, for the education of the public. There had never been an exhibit like that, anywhere in the world; it would be the first of its kind. But they didn’t have the resources for that right now - it would take a dig crew much larger and more skilled than they currently had, and they currently only had enough money left to pay for transport back across the Atlantic. They would have to come back - but Chanyeol couldn’t bring himself to be even a little put out about that.
The excitement of the find permeated everything they did. Even Kris, who usually was pretty nonchalant about most everything, seemed intensely devoted to making sure this discovery was handled well, and in particular that the sarcophagus and the mummy inside were safe. He’d even taken to sleeping near it on the last few nights before they left, as if to protect it. It was unusual, but then, this was an unusual discovery.
The last thing the team did before leaving Thebes was replace the stone wall over the entrance archway, so their discovery would remain secret, for the time being. Grave robbing was still a real threat to archeology, and even within the field itself there were other practitioners who weren’t as thorough or responsible. Chanyeol didn’t want to give anyone a reason to rip more holes in Hatshepsut’s tomb, and he definitely didn’t want anyone to get the wall reliefs before he could return with more resources.
Then, they began the long trip back to New York.
November 9, 1927
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York City, NY, USA
The Metropolitan Museum of Art was more Chanyeol’s home than the tiny flat he rented. Half the time, he even slept there, especially when he had a project.
And right now, he had a project.
The Egyptian dig team’s silence had been purchased with a promise of a place in the history books and a large sum of money. An equally large sum was paid to the captain of the ship that took them across the Atlantic, buying his no-questions-asked assistance in getting the large crates of fragile cargo on and off the ship.
The Director of the Met knew what Kris and Chanyeol were working on. They’d had to tell him, to secure the funds to bribe everyone, and since they were both employed by the Met, the find technically belonged to the museum anyway. Other than the Director, though, no one was told about the find. Their basement workshop was cordoned off, and the only people allowed inside were Kris and Chanyeol.
Unfortunately, this meant that they had to move all the cargo into the museum themselves, under the cover of night. Which is how they ended up running afoul of the Met’s Head of Security, one Officer Kyungsoo Do.
Well, no. How they actually ran afoul of him had more to do with Chanyeol walking right into a table of excavation tools and knocking most of them to the floor. The loud clatter made both of them wince, but thankfully, they didn't drop the heavy stone chest they were currently carrying into the workshop.
"What in blazes?"
At the sound of Kyungsoo's voice, Kris nearly did drop the piece. Swearing under his breath, Chanyeol readjusted his grip to take more weight and hurried to get the chest settled in a corner of their shop. Kris dropped his end a bit too quickly and rushed to dust his slacks off as the Head of Security came around the corner.
When Chanyeol had first been introduced to Officer Kyungsoo Do, he'd scoffed at the idea that he could secure a milk truck, let alone the most visited museum in America. That was before he'd seen the man take down a would-be art thief with a single shot, carefully aimed so it didn't even come close to harming the painting.
Officer Do was tiny, quietly dapper, and terrifying. Chanyeol had a healthy respect for him. Kris, on the other hand, had a bit more than a healthy respect.
"S-sorry, Officer," he stuttered, as Chanyeol ducked his head to hide his smirk. "It was an accident. Dr. Park, he's, you know, a butterfingers."
One thick, dark eyebrow raised appraisingly. "You know," he said conversationally, "usually when I catch idiots in here in the middle of the night, it's because they're trying to sneak something out, not sneak something in."
"We've got permission, Kyungsoo," Chanyeol said, saving Kris before he stuttered himself into the next age. Man was carrying a torch something fierce. "Or you gonna pinch us?"
"I'm gonna pinch something," Kyungsoo grumbled. "If you've got permission, how come I ain't heard about it?" He leaned around Kris's broad shoulders to peek into the workroom, and whistled. "What've you gotten yourself into this time, boys?"
Kris and Chanyeol glanced at each other. Kris's eyes said tell him. Chanyeol's flattened lips said not on your life. Kris's eyebrow pointed out that he was bound to find out anyway; Chanyeol's lips flattened further, but he looked away.
"Hey, Kyungsoo," he said. "Can you keep something under your hat?"
Kyungsoo jerked his chin at the cloth-wrapped stone. "Might be a bit large."
Kris's snort was too loud. Chanyeol rolled his eyes and contained his grin. "We found something this time. A big something. A lot of somethings."
Immediately, Kyungsoo snorted. "Lay off. You two never bring anything exciting back."
He was clearly teasing, but it stung anyway. Chanyeol raised an eyebrow and pulled the sheet off their high prize - the sarcophagus.
Watching Kyungsoo's eyes go wide was completely worth it.
November 12, 1927
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York City, NY, USA
Kyungsoo agreed to help cover their late-night comings and goings on one condition - that he be in the room when the sarcophagus was opened and the mummy examined. Kris and Chanyeol agreed readily, and a few days later, after their entire collection was carefully catalogued and stored for later examination, they called Kyungsoo into the workshop to watch.
Inside the stone sarcophagus, the casket itself was wooden, painted with once-brilliant dyes and inlaid with tarnished gems and gold. It took a little engineering to figure out how to get the mummy out without damaging him; in the end they maneuvered a wooden plank underneath him, looped cloth underneath that, and carefully lifted him out.
"Easy, easy," Kris breathed, as if Chanyeol needed the reminder. They lowered him onto the table, leaving the board and sheets under him in case they needed to move him later.
"There. Comfy?" Chanyeol asked the mummy.
Kris shook his head, used to Chanyeol's clowning by this point. Kyungsoo, however, only crossed his arms. "Stop cooing at the fossil," he muttered. "Gives me the creeps."
"You're the one who asked to be here," Chanyeol shot back. He was used to people thinking he was screwy. Most times, when people said they were into embalming, they meant heavy drinking, not the actual kind done on corpses.
"I've a fascination with the morbid," Kyungsoo said dryly, leaning against the wall. "Doesn't mean I'm about to take that thing out on the town."
“Yeol would,” Kris mumbled, and Chanyeol didn’t resist the urge to sock him. Ignoring the punch, Kris grinned at him. “You would, you can’t deny it! If you weren’t worried about it getting damaged or stolen, you’d take that thing with you everywhere.”
As they carefully removed the burial mask, working together, Chanyeol sniffed haughtily. “He’s a human, not a thing. And he’s older than most of the Bible, so show some goddamn respect.”
That seemed to catch Kyungsoo’s attention. “Older than how much of the Bible?”
As Kris settled the heavy, gilt burial mask in a protective shadowbox for later study, Chanyeol started taking measurements of the body and noting them down. “Well, Howard Carter dated Hatshepsut’s tomb to the early 18th Dynasty,” he said, “which is a few hundred years before when Bible scholars think Moses’s plea to the Pharaoh and the Exodus from Egypt took place. That’s the second book of the Bible, right? Exodus?” He stopped, smiling fondly at his prize. “So he’s older than all of the books of the Bible, except Genesis.”
Kyungsoo whistled. “Do you have an actual date?” he asked. “Does it say, somewhere in all that fancy chicken scratch?”
Kris was the one who pointed to the line of hieroglyphs around the side of the sarcophagus. “Royal Prince Jongdae,” he read. “Born in the last year of the reign of his father, Pharaoh King Thutmose II.” They’d translated as much as possible on the long trip across the ocean, beginning with the sarcophagus itself. “Left this existence in the 18th year of the reign of Pharaoh Queen Hatshepsut.” He looked up. “So Our Royal Princelyness here probably lived 1480 BC to 1461 BC.”
Gently, Chanyeol touched the prince’s wrapped forehead. “Nineteen. He was only nineteen.”
“Too young to become Pharaoh, then,” Kyungsoo noted.
“He wasn’t the crown prince,” Kris explained, warming up to the topic. “The sarcophagus indicates that he was Thutmose II’s son, but not that he was Hatshepsut’s. Since Hatshepsut was Thutmose’s main wife, he must have been born to a secondary wife.”
“We know who the crown prince was,” Chanyeol added, pulling on a freshly cleaned pair of kid gloves and picking up some padded tweezers. “Thutmose III’s tomb was discovered years ago. This young man would have been a secondary prince.” Very, very slowly, he began pulling away the brittle bandages that bound the mummy’s arms down over his chest. “Perhaps he would have become a famous general. Or a scribe in his brother’s court, recording history as it happened. An architect. A scientist. A diplomat.” He dropped sections of bandage into the metal dish Kris held out for him. “With luck, something inside his tomb or even on his body may tell us who he was, what he wanted, what he loved.”
“How he died,” Kris added. “That’s the one I’m interested in.”
Kyungsoo laughed, which made Kris flush a little, hiding a smile. Chanyeol glanced over at them briefly before turning his attention back to his work. “You see, Officer Do,” he said as he gingerly lifted another section of bandage, “I got into the field of archaeology, and Egyptology in particular, because I am fascinated by the ancient world, the ancient cultures. So long ago, so very different from how we live today, and yet, a man is always still a man. We are more similar to this prince than you think.” He flashed a grin. “Kris, on the other hand, ended up in this field entirely by accident, and stays mostly for the treasure and the drama.”
Even Kris couldn’t help but laugh at that, and as Kyungsoo started curiously asking Kris how, exactly, he had gotten into Egyptology, Chanyeol focused his full attention on Prince Jongdae’s mummy. With the outermost layer of bandages unwrapped, he could more clearly see the shape of the body underneath. Even accounting for the shrinkage that would have come from the mummification process, Jongdae, like most ancient Egyptians, had been very small by the average standards of 1927. Thinking back over the few intact male mummies that had been found, Chanyeol internally conjectured that Jongdae may have even been small for his own time; though the fact that he had died at nineteen and had never finished growing probably had something to do with that.
He should probably finish unwrapping the body, first, since there were likely to be more tokens and artifacts wrapped in between the layers of bandages, but he was too impatient. Instead, he started unwrapping the face.
These bandages, with the extra layer of protection from the burial mask, were in slightly better condition, and could be unwrapped without breaking as easily. Layers and layers came undone, and Chanyeol carefully pulled back the tar-cast mask that had protected the facial features, and the darkened, preserved flesh underneath was revealed.
“There you are,” he murmured. “Hi, Beautiful.” Pretending he didn’t hear Kris making rude gagging noises behind him, Chanyeol let the last of the bandages fall into the dish and examined the mummified head. High, strong cheekbones and a sharp jawline were all he could really still see amongst the sunken flesh; oddly, there was a little bit of dark hair left on the boy’s head. Very unusual - most upper-class Egyptians had shaved their heads bare under their wigs.
Glancing between the stylized, idealized image on the burial mask and the bone structure of the actual remains, Chanyeol tried to imagine what Jongdae would have looked like in life. The mouth opening seemed rather wide, considering his narrow face, but there was no real way to discern the shape of his cheeks, his lips.
Thinking that he should check the teeth, Chanyeol very, very carefully cupped the mummy’s dessicated jaw and gently pried his mouth open. On first glance, his teeth looked fine, mostly all in the right places and surprisingly straight for someone born before toothbrushes. One glance, however, was all Chanyeol got, because his attention was immediately captured by something shiny.
“What in God’s name…?” He reached into the mummy’s mouth and pulled out a small, bright blue stone tablet bound in and inlaid with what looked like pale gold. “Kris. Kris! Hey! Pipe down!” Kris stopped mid-sentence, blinking at Chanyeol. Chanyeol was often loud, but he rarely used a stern tone like that. “Look at this.”
He handed the stone to Kris, who was generally better at rocks than he was. Valuable rocks, especially.
“Lapis lazuli,” Kris said immediately. “It had to have been imported.” He dug his thumbnail into the pale gold-colored metal binding around the edge. “And this is electrum, that’s unusual. Where was this?”
“In his mouth,” Chanyeol said. Kris gave the tablet a skeptical look, and Kyungsoo recoiled, making a disgusted face. “We know their funerary rites included a ritual ‘opening of the mouth’, but have you ever heard of a mummy being buried with something actually in his mouth?”
Kris shook his head. “No, never. The only thing they ever put inside a body was spices, to preserve it. On a body, or with a body, sure. Not inside. That’s odd.” He turned the tablet over in his hands. “There’s writing on both sides. What does it say?”
He handed it back, and Chanyeol took it. “I’m not sure. I’ve never seen some of these determinatives before.” He gestured at the bookshelf. “Hand me the Budge.”
“The what?” Kyungsoo asked.
As Kris leaned back in his chair and stretched out a long arm to pluck the book from the shelf, Chanyeol explained. “Easy Lessons in Egyptian Hieroglyphics, by E. A. Wallis Budge.” He flipped the book open to the symbol list in the back and started looking for the determinatives.
It became apparent pretty quickly what the issue was. “Oh. It’s not that these are unfamiliar determinatives, it’s that they aren’t determinatives.” He frowned. “There are no determinatives.”
“Once more, for the non-scholar in the room,” Kyungsoo grumbled.
“Written Egyptian included an extra symbol after nearly every word that gave a clue as to what that word referred,” Kris explained, as Chanyeol grabbed a notebook and started writing out a phonetic transliteration of the carvings. Maybe he could figure out what the carvings meant if he could see the sounds in English letters. “Their language had a lot of homonyms and words that sounded extremely similar, so the determinative helped get the meaning across. Very helpful.”
“Aheh ait tier unpa setemet er anxuik,” Chanyeol read aloud. Not a single one of these words was familiar. “Men abek en utu tak maatu tuak.” He kept going, reading the sounds out loud, hoping that even one word would twinge his memory.
None did. But as the last word fell from Chanyeol’s lips, a sudden crash made all three of them jump. Kyungsoo was on his feet instantly, gun out in his hand; Chanyeol reached for his own but of course he didn’t carry it inside the museum.
“What was that?” Kris asked softly. Kyungsoo was already moving, picking his way gracefully around the stacks of artifacts and pointing his gun at their back storage room.
He stopped moving, his eyes widening to an almost comical degree. “What the - ”
Chanyeol started forward, but he’d only made it two steps before Kyungsoo yelled and hit the floor with an alacrity only a trained officer would have. Something dark and cloudy, too granular to be smoke, floated through the door over Kyungsoo’s head.
“Did you just release a plague?!” Kris hissed. “Are we cursed?!”
“There’s no such thing as a mummy’s curse,” Chanyeol snapped, taking a few steps back as the cloud came closer. It was headed for the mummy. Of course it was. Chanyeol resisted the urge to throw himself over the body protectively. “Howard Carter is alive and well and living in London. If the man who opened King Tut’s tomb wasn’t struck down, neither will we.”
“Tell that to the cloud of death!”
Said cloud hovered over the mummified body for a moment, then trickled down, tails of granular smoke flowing into its opened mouth. The mouth Chanyeol had pried open, to get at the tablet.
Maybe Kris was onto something after all.
The last of the cloud disappeared, and there was silence. They waited, but nothing more happened.
Kyungsoo had moved into the doorway, dividing his attention between the two rooms, his shoulders still tight and his gun still out. “You fellas better come look at this.”
Exchanging glances, Kris and Chanyeol crossed the room and looked. One of the crates had toppled off the shelves and broken open, the artifacts inside smashed to pieces. It took Chanyeol a moment to realize what they’d lost.
“No,” he breathed. “No, no, not the jars, Christ, no.”
Kris’s eyes went wide. “The canopic jars? Aw, hell.”
“They’re important, then?” Kyungsoo asked, his gaze still flickering between the rooms.
Chanyeol wanted to cry. “A perfect, complete set of sealed canopic jars, containing the four major organs of our prince in there, perfectly preserved? Yes. Yes, they’re important.”
Kyungsoo grunted. “If they contained that thing’s organs, then why am I only seeing pottery on the floor?” His eyes flicked back, meeting Chanyeol’s. “Where are the organs?”
His mind connected the dots, but the constellation created made no sense. “You don’t think that…”
“Look, I’m not the expert here, you are. You tell me!”
Chanyeol blinked, turned, and strode back to the mummy, with Kris and Kyungsoo hot on his heels. The mummy looked exactly the same as it had a few minutes earlier. Still wrapped. Still petrified. Still dead.
Chanyeol sat down.
“Kyungsoo,” he said quietly, “can you make sure there’s no one else in the workshop?”
“Yeol, there ain’t nowhere to hide. The only doorway in or out is the one I was leaning on.”
And the storage room was too narrow for anyone to hide in; it was little more than an oversized closet. “So it’s just been us in here, right?”
“Chanyeol,” Kris said warningly. “What does that face mean? I don’t like that face.”
“Neither of you touched the mummy… right?”
Holstering his gun, Kyungsoo shuddered. “Not with a ten-foot pole.”
“No one’s touched it but you.”
Right. “So you’re telling me he closed his mouth by himself?”
“I’m sorry, he what?”
Chanyeol pointed. “Am I crazy? I’m crazy, right? His mouth was open, I opened it myself to get the tablet out. It was still open when that… whatever, happened.” His hand dropped. “Now it’s not. Not open.” Blinking up at Kris pathetically, he said, “I’ve finally snapped.”
“Get it together or I will slap you.”
Looking back at the mummy - yep, his mouth was very firmly shut - Chanyeol closed his eyes and made a despairing noise.
Kris slapped him right upside the head.
“Ow!” The mummy’s mouth was still closed. Shit. Okay, Park, quit whining and start working. “Thanks. Do we still have that stethoscope hanging around someplace?”
They did, actually, and as Chanyeol put it on and held the chest piece to the mummy. “If there’s a heartbeat,” Kyungsoo said, “I am on the next train to California, and hang the consequences.”
“Shut up so I can tell,” Chanyeol retorted. Kyungsoo shut up, and Chanyeol listened, his free hand tightening into a fist as his own heartbeat began to pound so loudly it nearly obscured his observations. “Alright, good news and bad news,” he said. “Good news is, no heartbeat. Bad news is… well. He’s sloshing.”
Kris stared. “Are you sloshed?”
“No. We established I’m not crazy, and I’m not drunk, either. Here, listen.” Keeping the chest piece pressed to the mummy’s wrapped torso, he yanked the earpieces out and handed them up to Kris, who leaned over him and put them in.
“You know,” he said, too calmly. “If it wasn’t completely impossible, I would say it sounds like his organs are re-forming.”
Chanyeol blew out a breath. “I didn’t want to be the one to say that out loud.”
“Glad to be of service.”
Kyungsoo was staring. “You’re both wacky.”
Kris gestured at the rubber in his ears. “You want to give us your expert opinion?”
“Christ, no.” But he took a step forward, his curiosity getting the better of him.
“Come on.” Pulling out the earpieces, Kris took the stethoscope’s chest piece from Chanyeol and gestured for him to move. Chanyeol stepped to the side, around the mummy’s head. As Kris coaxed Kyungsoo forward to listen, Chanyeol ran a gentle, gloved finger over the mummy’s mouth, then cupped the side of his face.
Dry, withered lips parted. That wasn’t - that wasn’t his imagination, was it? He hadn’t moved the jaw, only touched it.
“I thought you said there was no heartbeat,” Kyungsoo said.
Chanyeol met his eyes. “There wasn’t.”
“Well, there is now!”
Kris hurriedly took the stethoscope from Kyungsoo and listened. His expression said it all.
With a terrible, rattling gasp, the mummy drew in a deep breath.
“Shit!” All three of them stumbled back, practically tripping over each other. Kyungsoo’s gun was already out and raised, pointed at the mummy’s head, and for whatever reason that was far scarier than the dead man breathing. “Kyungsoo, no, please, put it down,” Chanyeol begged. Kris had his hand on Kyungsoo’s arm already, in perfect agreement with Chanyeol for once.
“I am not going to let some undead monster out onto the streets of New York,” Kyungsoo snarled.
“If he has a heartbeat, then he’s not undead,” Kris said, very reasonably in Chanyeol’s opinion. “He’s coming back to life.”
“That’s not making it better, Kris.”
Chanyeol and Kris exchanged a quick glance over Kyungsoo’s head. Kris nodded solemnly.
“Soo,” he said, his tone more gentle and more intimate than usual, “please let Chanyeol handle this. We don’t know what’s going on here. It might not be a threat.”
Dark eyes narrowed. “You two don’t watch nearly enough horror cinema,” Kyungsoo muttered, but he did lower his pistol, pointing it at the floor. “Kris, you stay back here with me. If I have to shoot around him, I’d rather not have to try and shoot around you too.”
Kris rolled his eyes but didn’t protest, hanging back by the doorway. Chanyeol hurriedly put the stethoscope on and listened. Sure enough, the sloshing noises had quieted, replaced with a slow but recognizable heartbeat and the quiet hiss of a long, slow exhale.
Yanking off his gloves, Chanyeol held his hand over the mummy’s mouth. There was definitely breath emitting from his lungs. Five minutes ago, he hadn’t even had lungs.
“I’m unwrapping him,” Chanyeol announced.
“You’re crazy! Keep him pinned down,” Kyungsoo ordered.
No. No. Chanyeol shook his head. “The embalming process causes flesh to shrink. If he’s coming back to life, the bindings will be too tight. It’ll injure him.”
“That’s not a bad thing,” Kyungsoo hissed, but Chanyeol was already beginning, pulling out a pair of small scissors and very, very carefully snipping through the ancient bandages. It was a slow process, but Chanyeol didn’t want to move too quickly, for fear of catching some bit of mummified flesh or an ancient trinket buried in the bindings.
He did, in fact, come across a few talismans, and each one he gently freed and set on the table beside him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Kris taking them and cataloguing them, making certain to stay out of Kyungsoo’s line of fire, but Chanyeol didn’t really care what happened to them. What was ancient gold when he had ancient flesh coming to life right before his eyes?
And it was coming to life. Already Chanyeol could see that the prince’s withered face was less withered, his blackened, dried-out skin lightening and coloring. It was slow, very slow, but it was real, it was happening. The man was reviving right under Chanyeol’s hands.
There were nearly five full minutes of tense near-silence between the mummy’s first breath and his second, just as loud but much less rattling. Chanyeol had freed him halfway down his ribs, and he could see the sunken, withered chest actually lift with the breath. The third breath was close on the heels of the second, and the prince’s head actually tilted back, his mouth falling open in the desperate, silent plea of a man who was drowning.
It hit Chanyeol like a freight train, how painful and terrifying this might be for the prince. Was he aware yet? Could he feel what was happening? “It’s okay,” Chanyeol murmured automatically, reaching up again to cup the side of the prince’s face. For the first time, the prince responded to his touch, his head turning in towards Chanyeol’s hand, and Chanyeol’s insides twisted into all sorts of knots. “Breathe. Come on. Just breathe.”
“His diaphragm is still wrapped up,” Kris pointed out in a low voice. “He’s practically in a corset.”
Shit. Without another word, Chanyeol went back to cutting the bandages open, trying to move faster, not even bothering to catch the ritual talismans as they slid free. Kris moved around him like a very large shadow, clearing away ancient, severed cloth and moving the artifacts to safety, letting Chanyeol concentrate on freeing the prince. As Kris had implied, the man’s breath came easier once Chanyeol had completely freed his ribs and stomach, and as Chanyeol had guessed, he was already bigger, his withered flesh filling out as his skin softened. His bony, skeletal fingers were twitching, now, veins like spiderwebs pushing up against the skin as they filled with blood.
“If this wasn’t so terrifyingly impossible,” Kris murmured, sounding numb, “it would be the most fascinating thing I have ever seen.”
Chanyeol nodded vigorously. “Mummification in reverse,” he said. Cutting a horizontal slit in the bandages across the prince’s narrow hips, he started to snip down the top of one thigh, carefully avoiding the groin area for the moment. There weren’t likely to be talismans wrapped with the legs, so Chanyeol moved more quickly. The prince’s thigh had already lightened to a deep brown, and the muscles were shaping themselves right before his eyes.
A sharp exhalation caught both their attention, and Kyungsoo’s as well. Kyungsoo’s gun arm lifted again, pure instinct, and Kris quickly moved away from the body and back to Kyungsoo’s side. Chanyeol, on the other hand, moved to the prince’s head, a hand on his newly-broadening shoulder.
Dry, cracked, but filled-out and pink-tinged lips were working, like he was trying to speak. A pale tongue flicked out, trying to wet his lips with moisture he didn’t have.
Shit, of course! “Kris, he’s going to need water. A lot of water.” Chanyeol touched the prince’s cheek, trying not to get overwhelmed by how much softer and warmer it was than even a few minutes ago. “And that cream I use for my hands, that too!” The prince’s sunken eye sockets were lifting, and Chanyeol was really glad his eyes were closed, because he had a strong stomach as a rule but he wasn’t sure he wanted to see the man’s eyeballs re-forming. His eyelashes and eyebrows were growing back, too, right before Chanyeol’s eyes; his short-cropped black hair thickening to cover his scalp again. He saw the prince’s throat work as he swallowed, actually swallowed, his body reflexes coming back, and for some reason that made Chanyeol have to look away, his breath coming harshly as his mind scrambled to assimilate the reality of the situation.
He busied himself cutting the other leg free.
As Kris brought a glass of water and the jar of lotion, Chanyeol freed the prince from the last binding, around his feet. His legs still seemed too thin, but they were nearly a normal skin color, and the flesh was soft and malleable enough to get goosepimpled from the chill in the workshop.
“A blanket,” Chanyeol said numbly. “He needs a - he’s from the desert, he’s probably never felt cold like this in his life, we need to -”
Softness hit his hand, and Chanyeol took the blanket from Kris, meeting his eyes as Kris braced both his hands on Chanyeol’s shoulders. “Yeol,” Kris said. “Maybe you need to be told to breathe.”
Chanyeol laughed, a little hysterically. “Probably. Thanks for the advice.”
“Keep it together, Park,” Kyungsoo muttered. “At this rate, he’s gonna be awake and screaming any second here. You speak Ancient Egyptian, right?”
“Not enough to calm a frightened boy,” Chanyeol said, turning back to his charge. The prince was moving full-body now, weak twitches, his knee lifting and his fingers curling. The last of the bandages fell away as he shifted, and Chanyeol quickly covered him with the blanket, leaving his shoulders and face exposed. Without thinking, Chanyeol laid a hand on the prince’s forehead, feeling for his temperature. His skin was hot now, feverishly hot, and even starting to feel a little clammy, and he responded immediately to Chanyeol’s touch, his face twitching and his neck arching to push into Chanyeol’s touch like a cat. It made Chanyeol smile, his heart already filled with affection, inappropriately, dangerously strong affection.
“Hey,” he said. “You’re okay, you’re going to be okay. Don’t be afraid.”
Dark, heavy brows furrowed in response. He could hear! Encouraged, Chanyeol kept talking, murmuring nonsense in his most soothing voice.
“Chanyeol,” Kris said patiently. “English probably isn’t helping.”
Right. Of course. Chanyeol took a deep breath and started in on one of the only Ancient Egyptian texts he had memorized - the Inscription of Anebni, an inscription upon a well-known statue which was from the same period which this prince was from. “Arit em heset netert nefert nebt taui, Hatshepsut anxth, tetsh Ra ma fetta, hena senns nefer neb, ari xet, Thothmes, ta anx Ra ma fetta.” He kept going, reciting the inscription, which was once his first study in translating Ancient Egyptian. The words were a whole lot of flowery nothing, no more meaningful than the dedication on the cornerstone of a courthouse, but they were rhythmic and flowing and fell easily from his lips.
The prince’s mouth opened, worked a little. Was he trying to speak? There was no voice coming from his throat, but there was breath, like a whisper. Chanyeol stroked his forehead and kept speaking, admiring how the prince’s face was filling out, his skin slowly becoming smooth and taut again.
His face twisted, and the prince arched, as if wracked with a spasm of pain. A soft, grating whine emitted from his throat, wordless but there. Worried, Chanyeol broke his recitation, and instead put his hand on the prince’s chest and called, “Jongdae?”
Black, bottomless eyes opened, and focused on Chanyeol’s. Confusion registered first, then those eyes widened, flicking over Chanyeol’s face, taking it in.
“Prince Jongdae,” Chanyeol said, in Egyptian. “Welcome.”
Jongdae’s smile was as bright as the first, incredible sunrise Chanyeol had seen over the Pyramids, and just as precious.