The cobble street was difficult to pick out from the buildings that leant towards the road, drawn in by the occasional lamp post. The feeble gas flames flickering inside tried their best to warm the stone surfaces of their audience, but the dew was turning to frost. A delicate flake of snow slipped through the air, melting into a drop of water above the light. It hit a passerby who wiped the freezing liquid off her cheek, unimpressed by the weather.
Helen Magnus walked around the soft circles of light, preferring to hug the dark walls out of sight. Curious eyes watched from their bedrooms, safely tucked behind between the shadows.
Her sharp gaze scanned the abandoned street. The clawed feet of plump rats scurried away followed by the careful placement of a man’s footsteps.
Leather scuffed the pavement and her head snapped around, following the sound with her eyes.
“Why don’t you come out and get this over with,” she snarled, withdrawing a slither of metal from her waist band.
Almost seven feet of man reclined against a wall, John Druitt’s eyes peering up at the hollow ring of the new moon. “You can do better than that...” he spoke, not afraid of the night.
He was right, she could.
In a slick movement, her free hand slid into her belt and withdrew a pistol. Aiming it at the sound of his voice, she pulled the trigger, her eyes slamming shut with the noise.
“Are you certain you don’t need a doctor?” Will, cold washer in hand, felt her temperature once more. Helen’s cheeks were flushed and her dark hair matted with sweat. “Other than me, of course.”
She raised a hand and feebly pushed him off. “Immortal, remember?” she groaned, her headache worsening. “Where’s Ashley?”
Will placed his arm around her back, helping her sit on the edge of the four-posted bed. “You’re not going to like it,” he said. Will tried to wrap a blanket over her shoulders but she batted him away.
“It better not be Romania,” she muttered.
“Egypt, hunting the un-dead.”
“I don’t suppose she mentioned when she expected to be back?”
Will shook his head.
Not surprised, Helen exhaled with exhaustion. “No regard for anyone else’s plans. I brought her up better...”
There was a soft knock and the bedroom door creaked open. Bigfoot entered carrying a silver tray. The tea cups and saucers rattled against each other as he crossed the room, stepping carefully over the books littered around the floor.
“Mail as well,” he announced, after setting the tray down. He lifted up the serviettes and produced a worn envelope.
“It’s from Egypt,” said Will, astonished.
Helen frowned and opened it at once. “How long have I been out of it?” she asked, discarding the envelope which lacked a proper address.
“I was just getting to that. Eight weeks, give or take. We found you unconscious in a church graveyard.”
“Damn goblins again,” she muttered, sliding her finger nail through the top edge of the envelope. It slipped apart, revealing a soggy scrap of paper. Helen unfolded it carefully, laying it over her knees.
Will nudged in closer, tilting his head to the side to make out the paper. Lines darted everywhere in what appeared to be an erratic display. Trails of writing he couldn’t read were obscured by dribbles of whatever liquid the stains on the paper had been in another life.
“Pack your bags,” said Helen, taking a hurried sip of tea. “We’re going to Egypt.”
Will hunted out his glasses from the bed and replaced the on the bridge of his nose. “Never unpacked,” he grinned, helping Helen to her feet.
“There’s unsafe,” Will shifted on his arse so that the ceiling grazed his nose. The shaft or tunnel or whatever Helen said this was could barely fit their slender figures as they descended into the darkness. “Which I would define as unwise, possibly stupid behaviour resulting in injury,” he pointed to the weather-worn rope around their waists as the only thing keeping them aloft.
The crevice they were abseiling down wasn’t quite vertical but it was close enough to it that their feet failed to find footings.
Helen was in front, peering into the oncoming tunnel with a flashlight as best she could. “I can see where this is going...” she muttered.
Will twitched his head to the side. “Really?” he replied, wondering how she could see anything in that pitch.
She turned and pointed the light directly between his eyes. “I meant you train of logic.”
“Oh,” he blinked, temporarily blinded. “Well, after unwise we have ‘risky’ which I think we passed way back at those sinister doors at the opening of the tomb.” His feet slid on the polished surface. Egyptians really knew how to build their shit and worse, knew how to protect it.
“And what is this, then?” she asked, sneezing at a wafting of dust.
“Bad,” he sighed, shaking a sore hand. “Do we even know that this is the right tomb? It’s not like she’s sent us a GPS location.”
“She sent us plenty. Ashley’s down here all right, so is the thing she’s hunting which means we have to stay on our guard.”
“I’d feel much better if the big guy was here too.”
“He is here,” and with that she called out up the shaft. Bigfoot answered straight away, apparently they were almost out of rope.
“What do we do when this runs out?”
Something sinister crept over Helen’s eyes. Already at the end of her rope, she reached into a slip of leather on her calf and withdrew a blade. It caught a fragment of light as she held it to Will’s rope and sliced clean through it.
Will’s arms flailed as he started to slide down the shaft. Dust and sand flew into the air, blanketing him in a dense cloud. Holding his breath he splayed his limbs out and searched frantically for a hand hold. It was all over very quickly. Will hit the ground with a distinct thud, landing next to his flashlight which rolled lazily away from him as if nothing had happened. Unlike him, the maglite was indestructible.
“Watch out!” he heard, before Helen landed on top of him, knocking him to the ground again with a fresh layer of sand.
“Urgh...” Will rolled out from underneath Helen, gasping. “Magnificent plan, truly brilliant – just one flaw –” he pointed to the black hole that they had fallen through. “How does one get back now that the rope’s cut?”
Helen, already on her knees, rolled his flashlight back to him. “Our man at the top is tying our two ropes together as we speak. The new rope should make it to the bottom no problem, besides, Ashley will have more when we meet up with her. Who knows, there might even be another way out of here.”
‘Out of here’ was an interesting way of putting it, thought Will as he skimmed his light over the room. It appeared that they had fallen into some kind of large, empty stone room.
Attired in a mixture of nylon and leather, Helen paced around the square enclosure, running her hands along the walls. The fact that they were currently trapped in a dead end did not seem to bother her as she knelt down in the far corner.
“There are no mummies in Egypt – right?” Will blurted out, continuously scanning the dark edges of the room. “No walking dead wrapped in bandages poised to bring about seven plagues or anything. I mean, we are dealing with human mutations after all, not the supernatural.”
She smiled. “You are quite right,” she replied, pressing down on a stone with a small inscription at its corner. “What I think we’ll find down here are the People of the Sand. No-one’s ever actually found one before so it’s quite exciting. It’s no wonder Ashley packed and left when she heard.”
“What makes you think that?”
“Sand...” she whispered. “Ashley put a fair amount in the envelope.”
The blocks beside her rubbed and ground against each other until one fell loose, crashing to the floor leaving a human sized hole through to the next chamber. Will examined the hole warily with a frown. He could not help but note the assortments of weaponry poorly concealed around her hips, chest, thighs and arms. The backpack in its own right carried more ammunition than food which helped to feed the worried thoughts in his mind.
Will glanced down at his meagre flashlight until he realised that he was being watched.
Helen pointed at his hands and asked, “Out of interest, what did you bring with you?”
He thought for a moment, before answering, “Batteries...” They were for the flashlight. His biggest fear had always been being left alone in the dark. Helen though, simply nodded with a concerned look.
Will decided to change the subject as they ducked and shimmied their way through the opening, brushing curtains of century old spider webs aside. Hollow exoskeletons crunched on the ground as they walked. “Are these ‘People of the Sand’ dangerous?”
Helen shrugged, “No one knows. I presume so, otherwise, why hasn’t anyone caught one?”
“I’ve never heard of them before.”
“There have always been stories, passed along from tomb robbers all the way through caravan travellers who speak of a desert creature that comes at night. Usually they’ll take a camel or horse. The most interesting stories though, come from within the tombs.”
“I don’t like where you’re heading with this explanation.”
“Your objection has been noted,” she continued.
The low passageway ended and suddenly they found that they could stand. Helen’s ear piece crackled and Bigfoot’s voice was just discernable from the static.
“He says that he’s fixed our escape,” she relayed to Will as she paced ahead of him into the darkness. Will wanted to mutter don’t go but resisted. “Right, okay,” she turned back to Will. “The rope’s tied off and he’s going to throw down a couple of bottles of water. I’m just going to go and get them. You stay here.”
She scurried off before he could protest, leaving him alone in the unexplored chamber.
“I hate this,” he muttered, kicking the shallow layer of sand covering the floor. Will took a few steps backwards until his back hit the cold wall. It made him feel better, knowing that nothing was going to pounce on him from behind. The other three points of approach still bothered him though. He skimmed his light over the ground. Helen’s footprints were clearly visible in their tight circle and eventual return to the passageway, his own ended at his feet. There were a few small trails belonging to some kind of tomb dwelling critter, but nothing bigger than beetle.
Will jumped forward in fright, throwing his flashlight at the sound in defence.
Helen caught it in one hand, a little offended. “These things can hurt,” she said, throwing it back at him just as hard.
“Ow...” he had missed. “I thought you were – something else.”
Helen bent over and plucked him off the floor by the scruff of his jacket. “You’re very skittish,” she commented. “Good thing I didn’t give you a gun or I’d be dead.”
“Tomb raiding is just not my thing,” Will dusted himself off.
“Well,” she smiled, pacing into the dark, “I hope you’re better at hunting because that’s what we’re really doing.”