The janitor was far from surprised to see light streaming from beneath the door bearing the placard Cameron Baxter, Curator Antiquities, despite the late hour. With a smile and a shake of his head, he continued down the hall, planning to return at the end of his shift — as usual.
Inside, Cameron tucked an errant lock of curly, walnut brown hair back behind her ear and sighed. Though she'd expected the result, the email confirming her suspicions about the small collection of late period Egyptian artifacts donated to the museum was still depressing. Every piece was in exquisite condition, and a perfect complement to the pieces already on display.
Unfortunately, every single item traced back to a known black market dealer.
The paperwork would arrive tomorrow, or the next day, which would force the director to acknowledge the necessity of repatriation. Cameron sent a note of thanks to her great uncle for the information, and for the condolences the email expressed with the bad news. She then emailed her contact in the Egyptian Council of Antiquities, knowing that he would receive her news with far more enthusiasm than she felt at the moment.
Not for the first time, she questioned her decision to give up field work for the stability of her position.
A childhood immersed in the past and her drive to learn had earned her the much coveted position at only thirty years old. Raised in a family of archaeologists, curators, and researchers, people often remarked that she knew more about life thousands of years ago than she did about what occurred just outside her door. Most of the time, that suited Cameron just fine.
The phone rang, and Cameron answered it without surprise, despite the late hour. Almost immediately, her eyes narrowed as she recognized the voice on the other end — a sharp reminder of her disconnect with the here and now.
"Don't hang up."
"Give me one good reason not to, Trent," Cameron replied. She clenched her teeth and tried not to remember the disastrous two year relationship with her former fiancé, one which had soured her on ever pursuing another.
"Check your email."
Cameron let out an exasperated sigh and grabbed her mouse. "If whatever you're sending isn't in my inbox already, then this conversation is over."
"It's there," Trent answered, wisely saying nothing more.
Cameron clicked through to the email, titled just look. She opened it with a thousand possibilities floating through her head — most of them bad.
She was wholly unprepared for the picture inside.
"Resealed in antiquity?" Cameron asked, staring at what could be nothing except a tomb door with the seal of the Necropolis priests intact.
Cameron sat back, her eyes still locked on the image. "Okay, you have my attention."
"We had a team excavating a workman's village in the Valley of the Queens, and one of our diggers stumbled across the first step by accident. As soon as the watchdog from Antiquities saw the seal, he brought in armed guards and replaced all our diggers with hand-picked ones."
Cameron knew that he had paused to let the weight of that statement settle on her shoulders. For the Council to react so quickly and decisively, the local expert had reason to believe that the tomb was both intact, and possibly filled with riches.
"Have you opened it?" Cameron asked.
Another email appeared in her inbox before she even finished speaking, titled wonderful things.
Cameron couldn't suppress her gasp upon opening the email and seeing the pictures inside. The tomb had some of the finest, most intact painting she'd ever seen. Hieroglyphs, likely a treasure trove of knowledge simply awaiting translation, lined the walls. Everywhere, the glint of gold and jewels.
"I suppose you called to gloat," Cameron absently murmured as she squinted at the image, attempting to read the script she could see in the images.
"No, I'm calling to beg for help."
That took Cameron aback — but also made her angry. "If you think I'm going to..."
"Cameron, I'm in trouble here. I'm coming to you, because you're the only one I can come to. Antiquities shot down every suggestion I made until I said your name in desperation."
Cameron rolled her eyes. "Thanks so much for that."
"Every senior member of the team has come down sick or injured. I need someone here — and fast — with gravitas. Antiquities is going to take over the whole site, otherwise."
Trent sighed and continued, "Brass tacks. Exclusive foreign display privileges of the find for both museums. This is the find of the century, and only two places in the world outside Cairo will have access to anything more than pictures. There's more, but Antiquities won't let me tell even you about it unless you agree to take control of the site."
"I'm not going to be your figurehead, Trent."
"You'll be in charge. Antiquities isn't going to accept anything less."
A smile broke out on Cameron's face, brought on by the resignation in his voice. "I'll need to talk to the director."
"So you'll come?" He asked with guarded hope.
"I'll be on a plane by tomorrow evening."
"Keep me up to date so I can have someone meet you at the airport."
Cameron imagined that she would spend most of the flight in exhausted sleep, because she doubted that her excitement would let her rest for a moment before the plane took off.
The hot, dry air invigorated Cameron as she followed the member of the team that Trent had sent to meet her at the airport. She thought that he looked barely old enough to have graduated college, and if he represented what was left of the team, it was no wonder that Antiquities was threatening to take over the site.
He also had a habit of staring at her breasts and legs, which made Cameron think that Trent had probably hand-picked the team.
With the sun sinking toward the horizon, Cameron knew that the temperature would drop dramatically — and soon. Though still technically part of the Egyptian summer, October marked the transition to what passed for winter in the arid land of history, and only a few days remained in the month.
Cameron's excitement increased as she approached the camp. She could see the diggers moving about, clearing away debris from the workman's village excavation that had led to the discovery of the tomb. Beyond a pair of tents, she could see the steps leading down into the earth, blocked by a stout, metal gate.
Even the sight of Trent walking out to wave, a local at his side, couldn't dull the euphoria she felt.
"Welcome to the Valley of the Queens, Cameron. Your reputation precedes you," the local said as she approached. "I am Abasi Hawass of the Supreme Council of Antiquities." After a quick bow of his head, he added, "No relation," indicating that he shared only a surname with the Secretary General of the Council.
Cameron bowed her head and responded, "I'm pleased to be here, and honored that the Council would consider me to lead such an important excavation."
"Your staunch support of repatriation, knowledge, and discretion has not gone unnoticed. Please come, and I will brief you."
Cameron nodded and followed Abasi, keenly aware of the numerous heavily armed guards everywhere within eyesight.
Ecstatic that every artifact removed from the tomb was still on site, stored in a plain tomb nearby with a fully functional lab, Cameron followed Abasi to the tomb itself. One of the guards unlocked the gate, and two of them immediately took up positions on either side, looking fully prepared to shoot anyone else who approached.
Beyond the gate awaited a second door, this one designed to keep out the elements as much as possible. Once through that portal, Cameron immediately saw the necessity of secrecy and security that Abasi had warned her about.
As the pictures from Trent had illustrated, the painting was immaculate, often accentuated by reliefs adding detail to the images. Most of the tombs in the Valley of the Queens were virtually undecorated, and this alone marked this tomb as remarkable.
What made the tomb unique was the unashamed theme of lesbianism in the paintings, and the intimate details of the women involved.
"I should imagine that you can see why there is great interest in keeping news of this discovery from leaking to the press, even beyond the monetary," Abasi said as he admired the paintings with Cameron.
"Certainly. The historical significance of these paintings is tremendous. Has anyone translated the script?"
"We have concentrated most of the work on removing the artifacts, in deference to the possibility of looting. We know that this tomb belongs to Emuishere, a servant and concubine to a powerful priestess of Bastet, Djeserit."
Cameron felt her cheeks warm when she realized that in examining a series of hieroglyphs as Abasi spoke, she appeared to be staring at the quite detailed painting of Emuishere's sex next to the script.
"We have, however, extensive photographic documentation of everything."
Cameron nodded in approval. "Good, that way I can work on the translations elsewhere until conservators can protect the paintings."
"That very work will begin tomorrow. Come, there are many more wonders to see."
Cameron followed Abasi down the long passageway, also remarkable in the valley, where most tombs were shallow, unlike those in the more famous Valley of the Kings. Even in the dim light, the colors of the paintings stood out vividly all the way.
Upon entering the first chamber, already emptied of artifacts, Cameron's eyes left the walls. One thing remained within the chamber, in the center of the room — a curious altar carved from the rock of the tomb.
"As with so much of this tomb, this altar is unique in the experience of the Council," Abasi remarked.
Cameron walked up to the altar to examine it. The painted stone stood just tall enough that she could have rested her palms on it. She traced the air above channels cut into the altar and speculated, "It appears to be for libations. These channels and the vessel at the bottom don't leave many other possibilities."
What appeared to be handles protruded from the pedestal of the altar, attracting Cameron's curiosity. As the altar was part of the tomb, it was certainly not meant to be moved. She made a mental note to research the possible purpose before continuing her examination. She then pointed to a scarab shaped depression in the stone with a deeper hole at its center. "Did you remove something from here?"
"No," Abasi answered. "It appears that perhaps the thieves of antiquity were not entirely unsuccessful. You will see in the photographs that much of the funerary equipment in this chamber was hastily returned to its place."
"Is intact," Abasi finished, "And just as fascinating as the rest of the tomb." He waved for her to follow, and exited through a doorway in the far right corner of the room.
"How many chambers?" Cameron asked.
"Three in this tomb," he answered.
Cameron raised her eyebrows at the odd emphasis on the word this. "The size and splendor of this tomb is unheard of. I wouldn't expect the priestess to have received such a lavish, almost royal burial, let alone her servant."
"Yes, we may write an entirely new chapter in Egyptian history with the discovery of this tomb," Abasi agreed.
The next room was the one that Trent had sent her a picture of to entice her. Though the treasures were now removed, the paintings marked the room as the same from the photo. A tender scene of two women touching affectionately, one offering the other a flower, took on new significance in light of the revelations from the other paintings in the tomb.
"Even without opening any of the many sealed boxes found herein, we have determined that the simple monetary value of the treasures found in this tomb rivals that of Tutankhamen."
A pair of Ka statues flanked the entrance to the burial chamber, depicting a woman with ample curves, and remarkable beauty. Cats nuzzled up against the woman's legs as if in affection, the gaze of the animals' eyes full of warning.
Abasi smiled, seeing Cameron's eyes drawn to the portal. "Come, let us meet Emuishere."
The lid, carved to resemble its occupant, rested upon metal scaffolding on one side of the stone sarcophagus. On the opposite side, the mummiform lid of the coffin inside sat upon similar supports. Cameron could see a glass covering over the sarcophagus, which she assumed was sealed, in order to protect the mummy.
Cameron crossed the chamber, pausing to examine the coffin lid for a moment. As with everything else in the tomb, it deviated from the norm by depicting Emuishere's full breasts in the carved image of her. A quick glance revealed the same on the stone lid of the sarcophagus.
Abasi leaned over the sarcophagus, gazing upon the mummy within. Cameron joined him, and let out a gasp.
A golden mask adorned the mummy, showing the same serene, beautiful face depicted throughout the tomb. The care shown in the wrapping of the mummy was easily equal to that of any Pharaoh's, the linen in near perfect condition. As with her coffins, the priests had placed something beneath the wrappings to represent Emuishere's breasts, even in her mummy.
"Amazing. Beautiful," Cameron murmured.
"Indeed," Abasi agreed. "The museum is eager to examine her, but the Secretary has deemed it necessary to document and remove the other artifacts before examination of the mummies may begin."
"But all the artifacts are already..." Cameron trailed off, only now noticing two things, a relief carving on the wall directly behind the sarcophagus, and another doorway in the right side of the chamber. "Did you say, mummies?"
Abasi offered a smile, his brilliant white teeth a sharp contrast against his dusky skin. "You see how the relief depicts Emuishere in mourning, facing as though into the wall."
"Djeserit's tomb is on the other side," Cameron conjectured.
"And only accessible through this chamber, behind a well hidden door. Even in death, Emuishere protected and adored her mistress." He gestured toward the portal. "Shall we proceed?"
The wonders continued, beginning with a smaller burial chamber just off the corridor connecting the two tombs, which held six more mummies — all female. Though not buried with the wealth of Emuishere, the paintings on the wall were equally wonderful, and Abasi explained that each had her own funerary goods that were placed in nearby niches of the chamber walls. Each shared the theme common to the tomb of depicting the woman's breasts in her mummy and coffins. Niches honeycombed the back wall of the chamber, each housing a cat mummy, a symbol of the goddess Bastet.
The painted reliefs within the first chamber of Djeserit's tomb incorporated precious metals and semi-precious stones. Even with the artifacts that had once rested there already removed, the room still glittered with the evidence of incredible wealth. Abasi explained that the jars found there were well sealed, and might reveal a wealth of knowledge about the diet of the highborn when examined — even unto the spices used in cooking.
The next chamber took Cameron's breath away.
Everywhere, the glitter of gold and gems adorned the bed frames, tables, sedan chairs, gaming boards, elaborate storage boxes, and other objects in the chamber. Small placards numbered each item. At the back of the room, Ka statues of Djeserit, even more beautiful than those of Emuishere, guarded the entrance to the burial chamber of the priestess.
"You will have the privilege of opening the chamber," Abasi revealed.
Overwhelmed, Cameron couldn't respond. She stood in the greatest find since Tutankhamen, and it was now her responsibility. She would be the first to gaze upon the final resting place of a powerful priestess — the first to enter the chamber in thousands of years.
"We must return. The Secretary has ordered that none will enter or remain in the tomb after nightfall, for added security."
Cameron sighed, wanting nothing more than to remain inside until exhaustion claimed her.
"Such is not true of the tomb where we have stored the artifacts for initial examination, however," Abasi hinted with a wink.
The promise of that succeeded in drawing Cameron back to the surface.
"You should really introduce yourself to the team, you know?" Trent said from the doorway of the storage tomb, where Cameron sat behind a desk reviewing the notes of the others who had come before her.
Cameron looked up, rubbed her eyes, and then stretched. She snapped her arms back to her side with a scowl when she saw Trent admiring the pose.
He cleared his throat and said, "Sorry. You're just as beautiful as ever, and..."
"Don't start," Cameron snapped, and stood up. She gestured to the notes on the desk and asked, "What exactly happened to Gerald and Wendal?"
"Gerald came down with appendicitis the day after we opened the first burial chamber. There were complications with the surgery, and he opted to return to the States for treatment. A week later, Wendal started hallucinating the day after we opened the hidden door connecting the tombs. The doctors said he was extremely dehydrated, and that his kidneys were on the verge of failure when he arrived at the hospital. He went back home as soon as he was stabilized, too."
"What does that leave me?"
"Fresh graduates, mostly. A couple have as much as five years of field experience, but they're all young. We weren't expecting anything like this, you know? Mind you, they're all good people, far better than their lack of experience might suggest." He paused and shrugged, offering a smile. "And me."
"Regardless of what I may think of you personally, you're a good archaeologist, Trent. I'm going to need your help in coordinating things. I'm willing to let the past be the past, but there's nothing of the past in the future — if you know what I mean?"
"Yeah," he answered, sounding a little disappointed. "And I need your help in calming things down. Everyone is nervous, whispering about curses. It started with the locals, but it's infected the team as well. They're blowing the coincidence of Wendal and Gerald falling ill when they did completely out of proportion."
Cameron shook her head and sighed, smoothing back her curly hair at the same time. "They're part of the find of the century, and they're distracted enough to buy into Hollywood fantasies?"
Trent threw up his hands and said, "It hasn't helped that we've had a constant string of other minor calamities as well. Scorpions, broken legs..."
"Bury them in details," Cameron suggested. "There's more than enough to keep them too busy to look over their shoulder for Boris Karloff shuffling up behind them and moaning."
Cameron picked up her keys from the desk, unable to suppress the smile that spread across her face. To have the Council trust her with the site so fully made her feel wonderful. Immediately after introducing her to the artifacts, Abasi had left to return to Cairo with reports, and to prepare for the eventual shipment of the treasures. "Go get the team together while I lock up here."
"Will do." He turned, but paused and looked over his shoulder before ascending back into the cool Egyptian night. "Thanks for saving my ass, after all that went on between us."
Cameron locked the two heavy gates within the tomb, turned storage and research center, and then exited as well. She nodded to the guards who took up positions at the gate on the tomb entrance, and the fence surrounding it, a little nervous around the silent men and their weapons.
Trent's introduction embarrassed her more than enough, but the reaction to her name made Cameron's cheeks positively burn. Each of the young archaeologists had heard of her and her rapid rise, throughout their education.
When the excitement calmed, Cameron recognized a few of the names as the team reciprocated the introduction. The name of the lone female of the team, Cynthia Hedinger, sparked Cameron's memory.
"You're Tina and James' daughter, aren't you?"
"Yes," the strawberry blonde replied with a smile.
"Did they rub off on you at all?"
"It's why I decided to go into field work. I would have been bored silly having someone try to teach me the basics of conservation that I'd already learned by osmosis."
"Perfect. The conservators will be busy with the paintings. I can use your expertise in going through the pieces in storage." Cameron then addressed everyone and said, "I want to know what you think your strengths are, and what you think everyone else's strengths are. Give it some thought, and then get some sleep. We're going to get down to some serious business starting tomorrow morning."
Trent walked into the tomb, wiping sweat from his forehead as he tried to ignore the hot, stagnant air. He found the chamber half empty after only two days. Cameron stood staring at the spot between the Ka statues, the entrance to the burial chamber that she could open soon.
"Having a Howard Carter moment?" He asked.
Cameron chuckled and shook her head. "This door has obviously been resealed in antiquity, so here I sit wondering if the burial is intact. This room's organization and my instincts tell me it is, though."
"It's certainly motivated you to clear this chamber out in a hurry. I didn't think we'd have everything moved out until November."
Cameron turned and examined a chest she hadn't been able to see well because the chair that had just ascended to the surface was in the way. "Sealed. As well preserved as everything is anyway, I can't imagine what wonders we're going to find inside these boxes and chests."
"You haven't opened any of them yet?"
"I've had the conservators and Cynthia setting up to preserve anything we might conceivably find inside. We're going to open the first one tonight after we lock down the tomb."
Trent tore his eyes away from the sight of Cameron's sweat-soaked top clinging to her breasts, the thin bra she wore beneath doing little to hide her nipples. His eyes immediately fell upon one of the Ka statues, even less covered than Cameron. He cleared his throat and pretended to examine a Senet board. "When do you think we'll be ready to open the burial chamber?"
"Another three days to put everything here in storage. We'll need the room, because we'll have the whole team plus several representatives of the Council." She walked up between the Ka statues and placed her palm against the wall.
A second later, she flinched away from the sound of beating wings and feathers brushing against her hair.
"Uh ... Cameron, are you okay?"
"Did..." Cameron trailed off and looked around the chamber, almost positive she would see a bird flittering around. "A fly must have buzzed my ear."
Trent shrugged, and then said, "We could be ready to open the burial chamber on Halloween, then. That would play well on the news — once Antiquities will let us tell anyone this is here, anyway."
Cameron scoffed and asked, "That's the first thing you think of?"
"I think we had this discussion the last time we spoke."
"I suppose we did," Cameron responded, shaking her head. The difference in priorities and the resulting conflict was exactly what had torn her relationship with Trent apart.
"Doesn't matter, really. You're in charge, so knowledge will have priority over publicity. I'm man enough to admit that it's probably a good thing, even if I don't like it. I'm going back topside. Let me know how it goes with opening the box tonight."
"I will," Cameron replied, watching his retreating back and wondering if perhaps an old dog can learn new tricks.
"Are we ready?" Cameron asked, squinting in the bright light.
Cynthia held up her camera and checked the nearby tables, all weighed down with various preservation fluids and airtight containers. "As ready as we can be."
"Here we go, then," Cameron said with a smile, and picked up her scalpel.
The hardened resin resisted the blade, but thankfully the thin layer didn't require force that would damage the fine wood of the box. The laborious process took long minutes, but finally, Cameron put down the scalpel.
"Moment of truth."
Cynthia checked the video camera recording the process to ensure it wouldn't miss the opening of the box, and then nodded her head, readying the digital camera she held as well.
Cameron opened the box, lifting the lid with just enough pressure to overcome the resistance of friction. She sat the lid down, and marveled at what she saw inside.
Cynthia snapped a picture. "Is that silk?"
"It appears to be," Cameron said, and then picked up a pair of sterilized tweezers and gingerly lifted the silk.
Cynthia covered her mouth and laughed. Cameron laughed as well, no more able to contain her mirth than the younger woman.
Inside the box rested a very realistic ivory phallus.
"Take the picture," Cameron reminded Cynthia between bouts of laughter.
Cynthia managed to stop laughing long enough to snap pictures from several angles. After a few deep breaths, Cameron regained her composure as well.
"Look at how smooth this is," Cameron remarked as she gently lifted the dildo from its case. The carved handle, initially still hidden beneath the silk, left little doubt as to the function of the phallus. "There has to be a royal connection here. There's no way even a high-ranking priestess could possibly afford artisans of this caliber."
"So much for modern technology," Cynthia quipped as she snapped another picture. "I know mine isn't half as nice as that."
Cameron chuckled. "Mine either."
After a few minutes of taking notes and pictures, Cameron returned the ancient sex toy to its box and replaced the lid. She then deposited the entire box in a tub and sealed the lid to keep out moisture.
"Shall we do another?" Cameron asked.
"Absolutely," Cynthia agreed.
Cameron felt a flash of self-consciousness when her eyes fell on Cynthia's perky breasts, well outlined by the thin top she wore. As they worked alone, Cameron had thought she'd noticed the blonde looking at her as well.
Cameron hadn't even thought about the incident in years, but the paintings of the tomb and the close work with Cynthia served to consistently remind her of a short relationship she'd fallen into during college. Just before she met Trent, she and her roommate had progressed beyond friendship into something more. Though the relationship had gone no farther than kissing and touching, the feelings had disturbed her enough to cause her to turn sharply the other way.
Now, those feelings were once more emerging, and carried with them a far stronger sexual attraction than she'd previously experienced.
Cameron took a deep breath and hoped that Cynthia wouldn't notice the stiffness of her nipples as she returned with another of the sealed boxes — yet some part of her hoped Cynthia would notice, as well.
Acting on a suggestion from Abasi, Cameron stood in the small chamber between the tombs of Emuishere and Djeserit. She took notes as she translated the hieroglyphs lining the walls and decorating the coffins.
The work thankfully distracted her from her increasingly disturbing thoughts and dreams about Cynthia.
The script told an incredible story, giving great detail about a break-in to the tomb prior to the one after Emuishere's burial, confirming Cameron's suspicions. The thieves had entered while work continued on decorating Emuishere's tomb, bypassing the many treasures in the preceding chambers to seek out the burial chamber of the priestess.
The group had entered the tomb with profit as a secondary goal. The men believed that Djeserit represented a heresy, and meant to punish her by desecration. According to the text, the men had succeeded in reaching Djeserit's mummy, but had no opportunity to violate her corpse.
The six women entombed here, led by Emuishere, acted upon what the text described as a wail of despair from Djeserit's Ba and Ka, their blessed union as Akh destroyed by the penetration of the thieves. Two of the women died in the process of holding off the thieves until necropolis priests arrived to take the men into custody.
Misfortune visited the thieves and their families while the violators awaited judgement, described as the anger of the gods and Djeserit. Everything from boils to plagues of locusts afflicted those associated with the desecration of the tomb. The text almost blissfully described the horrific deaths of the thieves — their genitalia cut off and fed to the crocodiles of the Nile with great public ceremony. The men's names were erased from history and their bodies left to rot, forever denying them a place in the afterlife.
The story did not end there, however. Even restoring the burial to pristine condition did not allow Djeserit's Ba and Ka to achieve joining as Akh. Emuishere and the four remaining women launched into a campaign of prayer and offerings at the altar. Finally, Djeserit's Ba visited the women and communed with them, one and all, before rejoining with her Ka and returning to the afterlife.
The six women, low born and poor, earned a place in the tomb, and riches in the afterlife. The text on one of the coffins revealed that the last of the six committed suicide on the day Emuishere died, to ensure that she did not lose her place in the tomb.
The value of the account to history was incredible, and represented but a tiny measure of the knowledge encrypted in the tomb's texts and artifacts. Cameron stood before the last coffin, gazing down in awe at the mummy of a woman who had made the ultimate sacrifice to ensure her place in the afterlife.
"We're ready to move the final bedframe," Trent said from the entrance to the chamber.
"I'll be right there," Cameron responded with a smile, knowing that with the chamber before Djeserit's burial chamber empty, she would open that holy-of-holies on the morrow, likely tapping into another font of ancient knowledge beyond her wildest dreams.
Though people packed the chamber behind her, the focus of Cameron's world lay in the hammer and chisel in her hand, pressed against the sealed doorway to the burial chamber. She didn't notice the thickness of the air, heavy with the scent of sweat, or the almost unbearable heat, made worse by the crowd filling the chamber. Believing she'd given everyone enough time to prepare their cameras, she struck the chisel.
The ringing sound reverberated throughout the chamber, loud and offensive to Cameron's ears. She struck the chisel again, harder this time, and the tip penetrated the plaster. She could smell the stale air escaping from the chamber beyond, air that had last mingled with the atmosphere thousands of years ago. Her anticipation now swelling, she moved the chisel and hit it again. Four more blows opened a hole about the size of a fist. She lowered the hammer and chisel.
Trent approached and took the tools, replacing them with a flashlight. Cameron turned on the light and leaned in close, peering through one edge of the hole while she shone the light inside with the other.
"What do you see?" someone asked, apparently unable to contain his anxiety.
Cameron pulled back from the hole and wiped a tear from her eye. "At the risk of plagiarization — Wonderful things."
Applause rang out, and Cameron bowed her head to acknowledge it before continuing. "I can see a gilded shrine. The detail is incredible. It can't be more than two or three feet away from the doorway." She gestured to the diggers at the back of the room. "I think I'll let the experts handle this."
The diggers approached, and soon enough, fine powder made the air even more difficult to breathe. The men did their best to suppress the dust by catching the falling plaster in woven baskets, with questionable success.
None felt the urge to leave, however.
More of the gilded shrine within emerged into view with every strike of a chisel. People jostled each other, trying to see beyond the diggers, gasping and whispering in amazement. Finally, the diggers stepped aside.
The shrine depicted the gods and goddesses, as expected, but directly in front of the doorway, the wide eyes of the witnesses beheld something unique. Carved wooden figures of Djeserit and Emuishere — covered in gold and jewels — embraced, their lips pressed together in a kiss, with a two-ended phallus joining them, held in the center by Emuishere.
Cameron fought against the reddening of her cheeks. "Abasi, Trent, will you join me, please?"
"My thanks to you," Abasi said with uncharacteristic excitement in his voice as he approached.
"Thank you, Cameron," Trent agreed when he reached her side, his voice as full of genuine surprised gratitude as Abasi's was with excitement.
The three entered the burial chamber, and almost immediately froze in place. A quiet wail echoed throughout the tomb. Cameron could tell from the reactions of the two men at her side that she hadn't imagined it. A glance behind her showed most of those in the chamber beyond staring back into the tomb, confirming Cameron's estimation of the origin of the sound.
"Happy Halloween," Trent muttered under his breath, prompting an angry stare from Cameron.
Abasi laughed, breaking the tension. "So are the myths of the cinema born — upon the breath of the gods in the desert winds."
"Shall we proceed?" Cameron said with a smile, glad to see that Abasi's words had calmed the crowd.
The gilded shrine indeed filled the chamber, leaving only a narrow walkway to explore the room. The decorations of the shrine were dominated by the most overt depictions of female sexuality yet, with even the goddesses joining in the pleasure with the priestess and her servant. Cameron snapped pictures of the script running all along the shrine, rolling her eyes when she noticed Trent utilizing his own camera on the sexual reliefs.
On the opposite side of the chamber, Cameron saw the door. The seal was intact, the entrance protected by a host of carved goddesses — Bastet the most prominent — and Emuishere. Cameron gasped and said, "Look," pointing to the seal.
"Incredible," Abasi remarked, leaning in close.
Two perfect fingerprints decorated the clay seal. A pair of long, dark hairs likewise protruded from the clay. More hairs lay strewn upon the granite tiled floor.
"Emuishere no doubt mourned here. Few others would have found admittance to this holy-of-holies," Abasi speculated.
Cameron could almost see the bereaved woman kneeling before the shrine — her breasts bared, her hair and face streaked with ashes, wailing as she tore at her hair in mourning. Her voice thick with emotion, Cameron said, "We should preserve everything as quickly as possible before we open the shrine."
All three started as the earth rumbled, shaking the chamber. Cameron could hear gasps and cries of alarm from the adjoining chamber. "Perhaps we should see everyone to the surface," she suggested once the rumbling ceased.
Abasi nodded his head. "Agreed. I will have someone check the integrity of the tomb once everyone is safely above."
"Are you all right?" Someone called into the burial chamber.
"We're fine," Cameron answered. "The shrine and the seals are intact. Everyone head back up, we're coming."
Abasi gestured for Trent and Cameron to follow, the trio watching their step for anything that they might have missed after the discovery of the hairs. Cameron saw the last of the spectators leaving the chamber when she stepped through the doorway of the burial chamber. Another slight tremble from the earth prompted a worried glance from Trent and Abasi. The three fell in behind the now more quickly moving crowd fleeing the tomb.
Cameron could feel tension in the hot air as soon as she emerged into the Egyptian sun. She shielded her eyes, hearing a great deal of murmuring in Arabic, trying to find out what was going on. Her eyes eventually adjusted and she noticed that the local diggers and guards were all universally facing one spot, their faces showing touches of fear.
Cameron followed their gaze and her eyes widened when she beheld the hawk, perched atop the highest point of the nearest tent, staring down on the crowd. Suddenly, the raptor loosed a keen and swooped down into the crowd surrounding the tomb.
Everywhere, people ducked and dodged the hawk as it soared just overhead, screeching as if in accusation. One of the guards nearby Cameron raised his rifle, aiming it at the swooping bird.
Abasi snapped something in his own language, pushing the weapon. The shot rang out anyway, though Abasi had spoiled the soldier's aim.
Cameron scanned the sky, seeking the hawk, but saw no sign of it. With a general panic about to break out, she took charge. "Everyone calm down!"
Abasi repeated the plea in Arabic, and the crowd slowly ceased to shout and cry out at every kiss of the breeze or buzz of an insect.
"We have a lot of work to do, everyone. You know your assignments, so let's get to it. As soon as Abasi's people have declared the tomb safe, I want the photographers ready to begin documenting the shrine. We need conservators ready to preserve some delicate finds as well. We only have a few hours until nightfall, and I want every inch of the shrine and the chamber photographed before we lock up the tomb."
Cameron's calm, forceful directives snapped everyone completely out of their panic. Seemingly grateful for the distraction, everyone turned their attention to following her directions.
"Well done," Abasi remarked, and then gestured to one of the men he'd brought with him. "Ashraf will ensure that the tomb is safe."
"Thank you, Abasi." Cameron then looked around to ensure everyone was making the preparations she'd ordered. Some people still whispered, and a few still bore spooked expressions. "Trent, I think a little relaxation is in order. I know that I said that we have too much to do, but I think you should go ahead with the little Halloween party you suggested."
Trent chuckled nervously and shrugged. "I already have everything here. I've had people bringing things in for a couple of days."
Cameron narrowed her eyes, irritated that he'd decided to go ahead with his plan despite her lack of approval. She sighed and shook her head, deciding that it wasn't worth worrying over, because it had worked out for the best. "Keep the alcohol to a minimum. I don't want everyone so hungover in the morning that they can't work."