The colossal obelisks and pillars behind him cast tall moonlit shadows reaching beyond the vast premises. Shuffling through the shimmering, silver expanse of the desert, a musty odor of resin followed him before it faded away completely.
The Nile rippled ahead. Shivering under a chilly breeze, he quickened his pace, looking behind him warily ever so often. Clutching his satchel protectively, he heaved a sigh of relief as he reached the fringes of the road which led to the settlement, glad to leave behind the monumental sphinxes and statues of the formidable pharaohs. The scroll which was crammed in the depths of his satchel held secrets which were beyond wonderment.
And the unassuming wooden box with intricate carvings? If sources were to be believed, decrepit though it may seem on the outside, it would fetch him a fortune beyond measure from those who knew its true worth!
Lost in thoughts, he failed to notice the hooded, dark cloaked figures creeping out from behind a mud wall. A single, sharp bludgeon on his head caught him completely unawares. The satchel was roughly snatched. The scroll was unceremoniously torn to shreds and strewn in the flowing waters of the Nile. Bloodied and mangled, he was abandoned for the desert sands and silt to claim. Those who defiled the tombs of the pharaohs deserved a fate as terrible as this.
The sacred codes were not for the world to know.
As for the confounded box, they wondered what to do with it. The very thought of replacing it, entering the catacombs, filled them with dread, one which would invite the wrath of the gods and the curse of the pharaohs.
Keeping it was an insurmountable risk too. They didn’t dare open it, for the contents could spell doom for everyone. The box was then inconspicuously left on a shelf of a thrift shop after stealthily breaking into it. The owner was blameless of this sacrilege and he wouldn’t incur a curse upon himself. The box too would be safe and lost in this disorganised mess. No one would ever want this rickety artifact even if they set their eyes on it.
They disappeared into the night like they never existed…
And time went by without the curator noticing anything suspicious in his cluttered shop filled with a mélange of knick knacks and a potpourri of relics.
Coppery heat burned across the sands and the blazing sun cast angular shadows from the buildings of the streets of Khibarra. Rugs and carpets brightened the ochre coloured walls against which they were displayed.
In the afternoon sun, Reine moved through the bazaar. Inhaling deeply, she regretted instantly as the pungent scent of fresh spices assailed her senses. Passing by the food stalls, the aroma of roast meat kebabs and puffs of sugary smoke wafting from the fresh baklava and pastries compounded her appetite, a stark reminder that she hadn’t had a morsel to eat since morning.
A medley of people thronged the marketplace. The swell of loud cries of hawkers selling their wares rattled her already frayed nerves. Reine adjusted her sunhat and her linen scarf and jostled through to escape the smothering, dusty heat, not to mention the overpowering odors of men and animals alike. A layer of sweat covered her face that made her hair stick to her forehead. The deafening clamour of a thriving tourist market made her dash inside a store which sold antiques and souvenirs.
This was it! Finally!
Saad’s Souvenir Store!
Saad was well in his early thirties, a well-rounded man who seemed to be a connoisseur of cuisines as much as the trade he was in. With a cheerful tone, he rushed to greet Reine and usher her in.
“Welcome, Madame! How may I help you? Saad’s souvenirs are one of a kind!”
“Saad, that’s what they all say, don’t they?”
“Madame, this business has been flourishing in the family since my grandfather’s youthful days, God bless his soul. I am carrying on a legacy. Hassan Saad at your service, Madame.”
Reine took lazy strides and gave a disinterested glance around the shop. “What in the world is that, Saad?”
Saad was immediately on his guard and took on a defensive stance. “Madame! I’ll have you know that it’s not up for sale. When we renovated this shop and organized all these curios and artifacts, this box was ‘found’ and we have no idea what it is or what awful contents are locked up inside. It’s advisable to stay away from tomfoolery with certain objects. Choose anything else. Look at this array of charms and trinkets. How about dragonfly pins and scarab brooches? Don’t any of these hold your interest?”
“That’s a hideous looking box, Saad. You don’t say. Everything has a price. Can I offer you one, one you can’t say no to?”
Saad clearly looked offended. “I beg your pardon?! Madame, that’s highly insolent of you to assume that everything is up for sale”, he stated in a stern tone.
As Reine cocked an eyebrow at him, he sputtered and in a trice realized that he was dealing with a customer from across the continent. His demeanor softened.
“It’s an objet d’art for display. And anyway, it’s missing its key. You can’t possibly prise it open to know the contents. Maybe some secrets are better left alone. This is Egypt. You wouldn’t want to rouse a sleeping god or pharaoh.” He let out a raucous guffaw and Reine stared at him, stone faced.
Taken aback at her stoic nature, Saad let the humour die. “That’s the look of an authentic buyer. A hundred blue diamonds for this wooden box if you want it so desperately.”
As Reine dropped a velvet pouch on the counter, it landed with multiple jangles. “I thought so too. Here you go, Saad. There’re two hundred in there. More than you bargained for!”
Saad’s face clouded over as he gingerly opened the drawstring and peered inside cautiously. “My word! Are you serious? How did you…? W… Where did you…?”
“That’s none of your concern, Saad. I get paid to unearth secrets… or to bury them forever. This is your price for the box. Everything sells for the right price, and I was right.” She smirked victoriously.
Saad, for all his genial nature, went pale. “Madame, you knew what you wanted, and the price I would ask even before you entered my shop, didn’t you? I don’t like the way things are unfolding. What are you going to do with this box? I must caution you never to open it. Promise m… me…”
“I will promise you no such thing, Mister. After today, we’re strangers. Don’t breathe a word about the sale of the box or how you came into the possession of these… ahemm…” Clearing her throat, she left her sentence unfinished.
Saad cautiously unlocked the shatter proof glass cabinet which held the wooden box and handed it to her. Reine’s eyes gleamed as the centuries old box was finally out in the open. She ran her fingers on the dainty carvings as she walked away. With her minimal expertise, yet in all excitement, she absent-mindedly whispered the hieroglyphic text on the lid without reading the warning first, not realizing that she’d spoken an incantation. A forbidden spell which summoned the vilest and most dreaded of them all.
A strong gust of wind whipped up a momentary dust storm and the people were taken by surprise. The wind settled down as quickly as it rose and shortly after, nobody gave it a second thought.
Reine had no time to lose. As she rushed out, she collided into a lean built athletic figure cloaked in colourful garments with strands of glimmering stones dangling from around his neck. He towered over her by a good couple of inches. His face revealed rugged olive skin and deep set eyes of radiant onyx which bored into hers. Quite nonchalant at this sudden collision, he raised his thick, arched eyebrows at her and steadied her as she struggled to regain her foothold.
“In a hurry? You should watch where you’re going, Miss.” His baritone voice and piercing gaze held her in a trance. She could only gawk at him as he gripped both her arms. She muttered incoherently as black spots started blurring her vision. Crumbling to her knees, Reine swooned and fell limply into the arms of the stranger without whom she would have crashed her head on the sharp edges of the pottery, hookahs and amphoras lining the sidewalk.
She groaned in a delirium as she felt sprinkles of cool droplets of water on her flushed skin. She wanted to slip back into oblivion but she was revived with a repeated patting on her face. The exhaustion from traipsing about in the high noon sun had taken its toll.
When she came to, Reine found herself in an ample sized back room of Saad’s Store. Saad and the stranger who had carried her inside, peered at her curiously. Startled, Reine sat up hurriedly and was about to get on her feet when she plopped down again, holding her head in her hands. The dizzy spell seemed to linger.
“How long has it been since you last ate, Miss?” That baritone again! Feeling light-headed like never before, she took sips of the sweet-sour pomegranate juice which he held out to her. A tray of fragrant pilaf, spiced roast meat and juicy slices of oranges were brought to her which she gobbled up ravenously.
“You really shouldn’t be out in the desert sun if you’re not accustomed to it.” Saad looked at her with concern. “I really hope it’s not the box causing this trouble.”
“Don’t be silly, Saad. Surely you don’t believe in old wives’ tales and all this hogwash about curses? It’s just a weather-beaten relic!”
Having eaten her fill and feeling steady enough, she thanked Saad profusely for his hospitality. The tall, dark stranger held out his hand as she rose. “Seth. I’m a tour guide. And you are?”
“Reine — queen, in French,” she chuckled.
Seth offered to take her sightseeing the next day and Reine wholeheartedly accepted.
And then, the strangest thing happened as she stepped out. There was absolutely no sound in the bustling market square! She turned a slow circle, gaping at the scenario unfolding in front of her eyes. People went about their business mouthing words and calling out, but all she heard was a low hum in her ears. She clamped her ears as the buzzing grew in intensity, threatening to shatter her eardrums. Reine wanted to get out of there into the comfort of her motel room. Stumbling over herself, her feet gained speed through the dust and crowd.
Seth’s piercing eyes watched her, fixated on her even as she mingled in a sea of people.
The sun was dipping in the horizon and the desert shone like polished bronze. Reine staggered into the cool confines of her room and crashed on the bed. Her backpack with the artifact lay neglected on the floor where she had dumped it in her stupor.
She slept fitfully, tossing and turning. Nightmares invaded her sleep in which she was running for dear life in a desert stretching endlessly for miles around her. Dust storms rose, tearing her skin and ripping her cheekbones.
Reine woke up with a start and splashed cold water on her face. She had to get down to business right away and there wasn’t a second to lose! Finally, she’d found the object lost in history, in time. The key was missing, Saad had said but she knew better. You only had to know where to look. Sometimes it was right there, in plain sight.
She examined the wooden box with its filigreed carvings and etched figurines of animals, birds and flowers.
It had to be here somewhere. A code or a puzzle.
It took hours to figure out and she finally let out a whoop of delight when she found it! The stem of a water lily could be dismantled from underneath the petals and that…was the key to opening this mysterious box !
With a click, the lid snapped open as she inserted it into the keyhole. Bright sunlight bounced off the contents of the box. Reine was awestruck as she lifted another box, a jeweled replica from inside the wooden encasing. She peeped a soft whistle as she set the gem-crusted solid gold box on the table.
The figurines and filigrees on this one were embellished in ivory, blue enamel, silver and studded with precious stones. The water lily was made of lapis lazuli on this one!
Whatever you do, don’t open the box. It contains something you don’t want to know about. Saad’s persistent reminders had no logic after all. This was priceless!
After ordering a hearty meal, she dressed to go sightseeing for the rest of the evening as arranged by Seth before leaving Egypt the next day. A knock on her door announced his arrival. He flashed her a broad grin. “All set to go?”
As they drove along, Reine, soaring with excitement, burst out with, “You’ve no idea what I’ve got my hands on, Seth! You’ve got to see this!” Seth looked at her in annoyance as she fished out the golden box from her backpack. I opened the wooden box and found this inside it.”
“You never listen to any good advice, do you? Do you have any idea…”
“Calm down! All these are mere balderdash with not an ounce of truth in them. This box will fetch me billions. And I will hand over this worthless wood to my employer and tell him that that’s all there was to it. And he’ll be none the wiser.” Reine’s eyes shone greedily as Seth glowered at her in disbelief.
“Greed is not good, Reine. Tell me again, how did you open this?” And Reine showed him.
“Did it occur to you that the golden box might hold a key too? Did you try dismantling the stem of the lapis lazuli lily?”
“Ingenious! Seth! You are a man with exemplary genius! No I haven’t, but let’s try, shall we?” Seth was right. The lapis lazuli stem did come off smoothly. It certainly was a key too. “But a key to what? There is no keyhole on the golden box…”
“Keep it with you. You might find a use for it when you desperately need it.”
Reine exploded in a high pitched cackle. “Seth, please don’t talk like the rest of them who spout gibberish. I just credited you with a marked brilliance.” Seth shrugged and gave her a piercing look.
“So? Are we going to see the pyramids?”
“Somewhere better. Heard of the Ziggurat at Fadena?”
Reine nodded excitedly. “Isn’t that the long lost tomb? You mean it really exists?”
“You’ll see. But first, you must try this exotic fig smoothie. This will make your trip unforgettable.”
Parched, I trustingly drank the goblet of fig smoothie garnished with pistachios and dates without realising that the smoothie was spiked. Now I can’t move. I thought I was dreaming. But no, I’m entombed for real!
I came to understand a scary and terrifying truth. Seth… Seth… I had summoned that vile soul. Right from the time I got my hands on that box. That was the only explanation for the utterly bizarre events I found myself in the midst of these past two days.
Why is there a blue water lily on the lid of the coffin…? There’s a keyhole on it… the stem… the key is with Seth! He had pressed the lapis lazuli water lily stem into my palms in the car and I had slipped it back into his pocket.
Somebody? Anybody? Help! Help me!
This is not funny anymore! Seth! Seth…? Seth… Are you there?? Let me out… please… I promise I’ll never tamper with sacred relics again…
Despite the oven-like heat, her skin prickled with cold. Incensed with fear, any shred of reason dulled. Her eyes felt heavy, her body slumped and she felt herself drift off. It was so serene. So much so that she could sleep forever…
“Reine, you should have paid heed. Saad had cautioned you. I tried to help you too, but you were too greedy and arrogant. You left me with no choice. Never mind, it’s only a matter of a couple of days when I meet you in the afterlife and when I tell you that the lapis lazuli stem was the key to opening the sarcophagus from the inside! You should have kept it with you when I gave it to you.”
The agitated screaming and thudding was soon muffled as a violent sandstorm whipped out of nowhere. Layers of desert sand piled high and new sand dunes appeared. The Ziggurat at Fadena was buried underneath them and was once again lost in time.
Seth patted his pocket and dissolved into the last vestiges of the sandstorm. The skies cleared and little pinpricks of stars twinkled under a bright full moon.
Author’s Note: Seth was the god of chaos, violence, deserts, and storms. In one of the versions of the Osiris myth, he is the murderer of Osiris (in some versions of the myth, he tricks Osiris into laying down in a coffin and then seals it shut.)
Pic Courtesy: Pixabay