The desert heat is invasive and inescapable. It pervades the air, drying a man out with his every breath as if to sap out his very soul. The sun sends its scorching rays across the sands, blinding and burning any already weary traveler who has the misfortune of treading across the dunes. The wildlife that choose the desert as their home are very resilient and well-adapted to such a hostile landscape. Many seek shelter under the sands themselves, burrowing and hiding until the evening. Their bodies preserve what precious drops of water they will intake whenever the rains happen to grace the lands.
This is not an environment favorable to humans.
And yet, civilizations have thrived in the desert, despite its challenges and hardships. Prosperous, wealthy nations have existed among the sands. Many people were born into the desert, spent their lives in the desert, and returned to the sand upon their deaths. The richest of men would take their treasures with them even unto the grave. Great pharaohs and kings were buried beneath the dunes amid myriad relics and trinkets…and gold. Even more men, of lesser social stature, ventured into the desert themselves seeking these treasures, their desperation and lust for wealth foregoing the warnings and dangers of such pursuits.
Some of them were successful; others met their demise. Without proper planning and preparation, one could easily find themselves perishing of dehydration or heat stroke, falling prey to a deadly desert serpent, or even freezing in the night when the heat of the day would rapidly dissipate. If one made it to their destination and were actually able to discover the tomb of a long dead ruler, they would face the dangers of the tomb itself. Many resting places prepared themselves against potential looters, defending their treasures with booby traps and pits and hidden blades. The occasional few have braved even these and persisted, finding themselves face to face with the dead, their treasures ready to be plundered. In these cases, though, one final risk: the curse.
It is said that many of the pharaohs had their court magicians conjure very old and very secretive magic to guard their tombs and inflict horrible blights upon the unfortunate thieves. Words of warning were etched throughout the tomb, informing the trespassers of the consequences of disturbing the rest of the pharaohs. Unheeding these words, some men have emerged from the tombs as very wealthy men, only to be found dead of seemingly accidental afflictions. The superstitious point the blame at the curse. Even the skeptical find it difficult explaining away the deaths to random fate.
Despite all of this, some persist in the pursuit of plunder to this day. Some are not much different than the grave robbers of old, seeking personal gain and riches. Others seek that which they believe to be nobler purposes: of furthering archaeology, history and other areas of academia (though even these can be fueled by egos seeking fame and reputation.)
Then there are individuals seeking both. Dirk Harrison was one of them.
A plume of dust rose through the air as the musty book slammed shut. The young woman hastily gathered all of her notes, which were spread across the table upon dozens of pieces of paper, and shoved them all into her leather satchel. She took one last bite out of a half-eaten apple and disposed of it in the trash receptacle. Lastly, before taking off out the door, she reached for her eyeglasses that were sitting by the reading lamp.
“Can’t forget those again!” she muttered under her breath.
Hours in the university’s library had appeared fruitless at first, but soon she discovered what her employer had sent her to find. He said it was of the utmost priority and that he was counting on her to see this task through. He was a good man of many qualities, but patience was not one of them. He did not do well poring over dusty old books himself, nor would he tolerate her doing so for an extended period of time.
Finally, her mission was complete. In the storage room in the corner of a dimly lit basement, she had found the book that contained the information she was seeking. And she only had to translate it between two ancient languages! A walk in the park, by her standards. At least it was in a language vaguely familiar to modern scholarship. It was a collection of anecdotes from a time long since past. Very few people would ever intentionally open the book and most who did would find it profoundly boring and uninteresting.
However, on the two hundred and thirty-eighth page, this studious researcher caught a passing reference to a very interesting location. A silk merchant from a couple of millennia ago had made mention to an innkeeper that he had sought shelter from a sandstorm by hiding in a cave. While there, he discovered the corpse of a man, his skin dried out by the desert air. Nearby lay an ornate golden ring. The merchant reached down to examine it, but immediately a deep fear overtook him. The corpse turned out to be alive! With his last breath, he shrieked a bone chilling cry, warning the merchant to leave the ring alone. The merchant ran screaming out of the cave, directly into the raging sandstorm, barely surviving when he came upon the inn. He gave the general location to the innkeeper, who for whatever reason, wrote the location down in his journal.
A copy of that journal had been sitting in the library for over a century before the young woman had discovered it.
On her way out the door, she excitedly called up her employed with the news: “Mr. Harrison…I’ve found him!”
After a long trek in the desert, the caravan of camels, guides, and mercenaries stood before a rocky ridge jutting out of the desert sands like a monolith. The cliff was dotted with caves and eroded depressions, giving it the appearance of a porous sponge. Only a few would be accessible to them. Only one held the treasure that they sought.
“Where to now?” a few of the guides argued in their native tongue. They made the decision to set up camp, as the night would be upon them soon. Their camels needed the rest, as did the men. The sun had been especially brutal that day and any continued stress could be fatal. After dinner, most of the crew cavorted and cajoled over the traditional combination of alcohol and playing cards. Several hours later, the carousing had turned into commiseration and disgruntlement as one man remained victorious, sweeping up all of the caravan’s poker chips.
“I don’t believe in luck, gentlemen,” the grinning man said to them, collecting his winnings. “I only believe in me.”
A few choice words were said to him in a tongue that was best that he did not understand. Sometimes, though, words transcend language. He knew exactly what they were saying.
“Come now! Don’t be spoiled sports! Work hard tomorrow and you’ll have enough money to gamble off your mother’s vacation home.”
Dirk was hoping this, at least. After two years of searching and spending thousands of dollars of raised funds, he was depending on finding success the next day. He trusted his assistant, though. Moira was smart and resourceful, well worth the meager salary he was paying her. After only six months on the team, she was the reason they were standing where they were now.
The man walked into the mess tent and grabbed a canteen of water. It was a necessity, but also a pleasure to hydrate. The cool water sent a wave of relief through one’s body as it replenished itself. After a couple of swigs, he set the canteen back down and stood at rest, looking around the tent. Sitting at a table, surrounded by books, sat his assistant.
“Yes, Mr. Harrison?” she said, a little startled as she had been too engrossed in her research to notice him come in.
“Why don’t you give it a rest for the day? Grab a beer! Crack some jokes with the men! I’m sure you’ve got some great humorous anecdotes or something to share from all that reading, right?”
“Um, I’d rather not, sir. I…would prefer my privacy.” The men of the caravan were not exactly the sort of people with whom Moira enjoyed surrounding herself.
“Fair enough,” he said. “But lighten up! Either the ring is here and next month you’ll be a featured speaker at all the top-notch lectureships; or it’s not and we go home empty-handed embarrassments again and start over.”
“Right…” She went back to furiously reading and scribbling.
“It was a joke. I have confidence in you. But also, I wouldn’t have taken us here if I didn’t agree with your findings. The ring is here–I’m sure of that. And before you go worrying about repeats: none of us could have predicted what happened at Lykopolis. That wasn’t your fault and it doesn’t matter anyway. Look where we are! We’ve rebounded!”
The memory was still fresh: excitement, mystery, then disappointment. They had found the pharaoh just as they had anticipated…but the tomb was completely cleared out, having been looted some time in the last few centuries. The mummy was found lonely and deprived, his ring taken right off his finger.
“I would have stopped there and given up. ‘The whole thing’s off!’ I would have said. But you had the idea of chasing down the grave robber! It would have been hard enough tracing down that son-of-a-bitch if he lived in the 21st century. You found him after he had a 2000 year head start.”
“2100 year head start,” she corrected.
“Right. But what’s another 100 years? It doesn’t matter. You found him for us. And I’m sure the ring will be there with him,” he assured.
“Thank you, Mr. Harrison,” she responded with a light smile of appreciation.
“No problem,” he said with a smile. “And Moira?”
“I already told you. Mr. Harrison is my father. Call me Dirk.”
Dirk Harrison was a rising name in the archaeology fields. He had a penchant for finding the unfindable. Part of the reason for this success was that he was willing to do that which others in his field would not do–whatever that meant. He was known for taking risks and rushing headfirst into situations. When he got into trouble, he would rely either on his agility or his charm, depending on what the situation called for. Many a story was told of Dirk narrowly escaping a caving in mine in Peru, or of how he talked his way out of being blamed by the authorities for causing the explosion leading to said cave-in. (Dirk was still ambiguous when asked if the blame was justified.) He even convinced the mayor to let him keep the ancestral gem that he had discovered there, calling him a hero to the Peruvian people.
The Elliott Antiquities Museum had been very happy when that dazzling ruby arrived in the post. Dirk was appointed as their “Chief Acquirer of New Collections.” It was a mostly honorary title (and he had decided on the title himself.) He did not even have an office, as he never would have used it even if he did. He was an intelligent man, but he was not a scholar or a researcher. He left that to others – like Moira.
Dirk had accomplished much in his young life and possessed a great deal of ambition. Still, his thirty years of age were starting to show themselves. His body bores its scars from too many near misses. His rugged face was still handsome enough to woo the ladies, however, which was another of his pastimes that earned him a reputation spoken of in stories. Women desired him to be with him, and for good reason. It was said that when he emerged from the mine shaft, his sandy blonde hair was perfectly intact, coifed neatly to the side. His winning smile was alluring to all people, portraying a sense of confidence and charisma that was able to convince even the most reluctant.
Dirk was all of these things…and he knew it. Some accused Dirk Harrison of being an arrogant, self-centered man. He resented these accusations. He was determined and possessed skills and talents that were above those of the average man. He did not mean to flaunt his superiority, but if others were intimidated by him, he believe that they should not resort to insults and rumor-spreading.
“I don’t think I’m better than you. But even if I did, I would challenge you to prove me wrong,” he once said to a jealous colleague.
In truth, Dirk did not spend much time worry about what rivals thought of him. He had goals and ambitions, plans that would cause his career to rise like a skyrocket, enough to silence any of his critics. Right now, those plans had a physical embodiment: the ring of Khaba.
Khaba’s ring was as elusive as the great Khaba himself. The man reigned as pharaoh over ancient Egypt for only six years, sometime around 2600 BCE. That is, if Khaba was real. Some historians have cast doubt over his existence. Very little evidence of his life remains, all having been lost in the sands of time. Of course, this can be said of many of ancient lives. Nothing can be dated with certainty. However, if Khaba’s ring could be found, it would be considered invaluable.
Dirk Harrison was determined to be the man to find it. And if he played his cards right, it would be in his hands very soon…
When morning came, Dirk was already awake. He poured himself a breakfast of Kentucky whiskey, a friendly memento from home. It had been many years since he had returned to those rural hills and in some ways, he had tried to distance himself from that old life, but he still carried some reminders: the lilting drawl in his speech being one of them. It did not take but a few words out of his mouth for it to be known that he was an American.
It turned out that he was not the only early riser. Emerging from the furthermost tent, a little set apart from the rest of the caravan, Moira stretched in the sun. Dirk watched her in the distance as she stood with her hands on her hips, surveying the system of caves dotting the rocky terrain. This early in the morning and Dirk could tell that she was already worried. She probably hadn’t slept much that night.
“Ah, the desert flower blooms,” said a voice behind him.
“Huh? Oh. Good morning, Omar. Up early, I see.”
“Someone has to feed the camels,” the burly Egyptian man said. He looked over again at Moira. “She’s a pretty young thing, yes?”
“Who, Moira? Yeah, I guess so. She’s far from ugly, I’ll give her that.”
Dirk had never really thought of Moira was anything other than his assistant. The young, 20-something young woman was in possession of some attractive features. She had a slender frame with gentle curves. Her short, raven-black hair was cropped a few inches below her neck and had a healthy volume and shine to it; she normally wore it down with her bangs framing her face and accentuating her thin, semi-rimless eyeglasses. However, these features were somewhat obscured and masked by her shy demeanor and lack of confidence. Moira was always one to put value on her brains over her beauty. This is not to say that she didn’t make an attempt to keep up her appearance; it just wasn’t a priority for her. As a result, she was often overlooked for more “conventional” beauties.
“Look closer, effendi, and you may be surprised,” said Omar. “There are many more beautiful flowers in the world than the desert rose – but they will wilt and wither in the sun. Not so with the desert rose. It will bloom through many hard days.”
“Poetic words with some truth,” Dirk replied, “but…I won’t always be in the desert.”
Omar nodded. “Just words to consider, Mr. Harrison. I will say lastly that if I were thirty years younger…I would tap that.”
Dirk chuckled in response, shaking his head. “I’m sure you would, Omar. I’m sure you would.”
“Alright, men,” Dirk barked to the expedition gathered before him, Omar translating into Arabic. “Somewhere in these caves is the object that we seek. You’re going to be looking for a skeleton or any signs that a human had been there. You may be the first person stepping foot in that cave for centuries. Be very careful! I don’t want you accidentally disturbing any potential remains. There are over a hundred caves here, so I want you to break off into groups of two to three. Be quick, but be thorough. As soon as you think you’ve found something, report back to me immediately. My radio will always be on. Any questions?”
The group was silent, nodding their heads in affirmation.
“Great,” he said. “Am I forgetting anything, Moira?”
“Okay. Let’s get to it!”
The camp broke and each team mounted their camels and started the exploration. The heat of the day was already upon them and the sun had only risen an hour earlier. Such was the nature of the desert. In truth, many of them men were glad that they were searching caves rather than digging in the desert. The caves would be much cooler and provide much wanted shade and protection from the sun.
“How have you adjusted to the heat, Moira?” Dirk said as he mounted his camel. “I bet it doesn’t get this hot in England.”
“Wales,” she corrected. “And no. I’ll confess, the heat here can be a little…oppressive. My white Welsh skin has not been faring well here.”
“Here,” he said after grabbing something from his satchel. He tossed Moira a bottle of sunscreen. “SPF 50. It’s better than whatever you’ve got, I’m sure.”
“Thanks so much!” Moira replied as she applied the oily lotion to the exposed sections of her skin. “That’s a very convenient bag you have there. Do you mind if I ask what else is in there?”
“Tools and trade secrets,” he said with a sly wink as he patted the aged, leather bag that was strapped around his shoulder at nearly all times.
Dirk replaced the bottle and continued. “You’ll get used to this heat. Personally, I’m glad my grandmother was Mexican,” nodding at his tanned skin. He paused. “Ah hell, who am I kidding? Hot is hot, and this desert is damn hot. But if we’re lucky, we’ll be out of this soon. With this crew, I bet we’ll find that ring by the afterno–”
Dirk’s radio crackled, interrupting him. It was Omar. “Mr. Harrison, the men have found a skeleton!”
“What?!” he responded into the walkie-talkie. “Already? Jesus, they’ve only been out for an hour!”
“What can I say, effendi? You are a lucky man!”
Omar returned to the base camp and led Dirk and Moira to a cave on the eastern side of the rock. The sun shone into it, illuminating the entire cave for them to see as they approached. In the very far back of the cave, a group of men huddled around their find.
“Step aside, folks,” Dirk said, motioning past them. “Omar, we can take it from here.”
The group departed the cave, but curiously remained just outside of it. The two of them entered and surveyed the find.
“Everything matches the description from the journal!” Moira said excitedly.
“That is what I like to hear,” he said, his eyes examining the skeleton. The dry air from the desert had preserved the bones well, though it looked like they would crumble upon touch. It was leaned up against the wall of the cave, probably in the same position he had died in two millennia earlier.
“My goodness, what’s wrong with his hands?” Moira gasped, her hand to her mouth. The skeleton’s hands were indeed very strange. They were much smaller than the rest of the skeleton’s bones, appearing to be the size of a child’s hands. They were clenched together and one appeared to be clutching something.
“That’s…unusual,” Dirk noted. “A grave robber with a birth defect? Or maybe the years have affected his bones…but only his hands? I’m not sure.”
“It’s hard to say,” she responded. “The hand bones don’t really look deformed…not shriveled, just shrunken.”
Dirk stared at the bones with a confused look until he noticed something within its grasp, glinting in the sun. Immediately, his eyes lit up and his heart raced. He stooped down and grabbed the skeleton’s hands, which instantly crumbled into dust.
Moira grimaced slightly. “Well, I guess we’ll never know now, will we?” So much for preserving a unique ancient human specimen, she thought.
Dirk wore a broad smile on his face, his eyebrows arched high and expressing a look of great satisfaction. “Moira…look,” he said as he slowly opened his hands.
The ancient dust of the skeletal remains blew away in the wind, revealing a ring. A pair of golden asps that wrapped around one’s finger until together their mouths latched onto an elaborately engraved amethyst. Amid its purple hue was the image of the face of a man wearing a royal headdress.
“Khaba!” Moira exclaimed breathlessly.