The sunlight shimmered off the sand like gold—and it was majestic, all of it, the desert and the crumbling monuments; all steeped with antiquity and a mysterious kind of magic. The only hint of modernity for miles was the dusty Jeep driving through the thin valley.
The door of the Jeep slammed shut and five American tourists filed out, along with their tour guide. Elizabeth Harrison shaded her eyes from the blinding desert sun, taking a sip from her canteen to stave off the unbearable heat, and hoisting her backpack higher up on her shoulder.
This was what she'd been waiting for her whole life, she thought. Butterflies flooded her throat, and her heart pounded painfully. Here was her dream, just yards away from her: the chance to explore the tomb of King Tutankhamen, the most iconic figure of Ancient Egypt, just before returning to college and studying archaeology academically.
Meanwhile, as she was reveling in her ecstatic glee, the tour guide was speaking in a heavy accent to the other tourists about the significance of Howard Carter's discovery of the tomb; how the Egyptians had switched from pyramids to hidden tombs in order to protect their kings from unscrupulous tomb raiders; and that the pharaohs were buried with their treasures because they believed they could take all the riches to the next life.
Mostly, the tourists just snapped pictures of the unremarkable entrance to the tomb, and took sips from their water bottles.
Come on, let's go, thought Elizabeth impatiently. Can't I just explore the tomb on my own, without a stupid tour group?
But the group entered the tunnel eventually. Stepping into the shadows was like immersing herself in cool water—it was at least ten degrees colder where the sunlight never touched. Down the set of expertly carved stone stairs, she felt like she was delving deeper and deeper into history, like every step brought her closer to Tutankhamen himself. The tour guide was chattering away, but Elizabeth didn't catch a word of it. She clicked on her flashlight to see. Though empty of treasures, the passage took her breath away.
Carvings—hieroglyphs, ancient resurrection spells, prayers to aid the journey to the afterlife, stories of King Tut's life told both in pictures and words—decorated every surface. Designs and depictions of gods filled all the spaces in between, their vibrant colors well-reserved.
Stepping inside, Elizabeth felt a hush—as if the gods were demanding quiet in such a sacred place—and the dust floating in the air made her neck prickle. This was a magic place, undoubtedly, she thought.
Even though the group had moved on to the antechamber, Elizabeth was still in the entrance passageway, studying the carving of Osiris.
"So you're interested in Egyptian gods?" asked a voice behind her.
She jumped a mile, but it was only the tour guide.
"Yes I am," she said, catching her breath, "I'm studying to be an Egyptologist at Oxford."
The tour guide smiled. "Are you? Then this is the place for you. I'm showing the others the antechamber now. Are you coming?"
"Just a second, I'll be right there. I'm trying to read some of this."
The tour guide raised his eyebrows, evidently impressed that she knew hieroglyphics, but left her to her slow-moving translation. She heard the sounds of the tour group ooh-ing and ah-ing over the magnificent antechamber, the voices growing fainter and fainter as they moved further away. She could no longer see the flashlights from the group, just her own light.
The message written under Osiris was difficult to translate—apparently the ancient Egyptians did not care for simplicity in terms of language. Something about the gods smiling—on the king, perhaps? And then something about the omniscience and omnipotence of the gods, she could make out that much.
One phrase stood out clearly: He will live forever.
"Well, you were right about that, Tut," she muttered. "You did live forever, just not the way you expected."
She was almost to the end of the first line when she realized how quiet it was.
"Uh, hello?" she called behind her. "Did you guys move on without me?"
She headed for the antechamber. As safe as she knew she was, the darkness and silence of the tomb was a little creepy, and the quicker she found the others, the better.
The wide room was empty.
Her heart climbed into her throat and her palms began to sweat. She sprinted to the next room, the only room where they could have gone.
It was empty.
"Guys? Where did everyone go?" she called. Her own words echoed off the stone walls, but she heard no sound from the other rooms. "This isn't funny…"
She ducked into the next room, looked around corners, in all the shadows, in all the hallways she could find—and it occurred to her that she had no idea where she was.
This room—it had to be the treasure room, didn't it? But it was too large…maybe it was the burial chamber. She checked the hallway—and it didn't even look familiar.
Now her breath was coming and going in gasps. This just didn't make any sense.
Tutankhamen's tomb was not like Khufu's pyramid—it was not built to confuse, no labyrinthine passageways and dead ends to trap tomb raiders. This tomb's layout was simple and to the point, relying on its secrecy of location to protect its treasures.
If there were only a few rooms in the whole tomb, how could she be lost?
Her flashlight began to flicker. Its batteries were going out.
"Hello?" she cried, panic cracking her voice. "Please, can anyone hear me?"
The dim light cast sharp shadows on all the carvings. On the wall opposite her, Anubis, the jackal-headed god of embalming, seemed to leer at her with beady eyes, the scales in his hands weighing judgment on a dead soul. She shivered.
She closed her eyes. Just think this out, she told herself, trying to breathe slowly. You're getting all worked up, but you can figure this out. Some Oxford student you are…
The group must have already left the tomb, she decided, feeling her heartbeat slow a little. She must have just missed them while she was running around in her panic. She almost smiled a little, feeling utterly foolish. She opened her eyes.
In front of her, the carving on the opposite wall had changed—now Anubis was looking straight at her, pointing with his left hand to the doorway. Her eyes were wide as coins and never left Anubis; she felt along the wall behind her and ducked out into the hall where he pointed: it was her only exit.
She clapped her hand to her mouth again. A picture of Isis pointed in the same direction down the hall as Anubis had. Next to her, her son Horus pointed urgently the same way.
She swallowed hard. Both ends of the hallway were just as dark and looked exactly the same—but something about Isis's benevolent command made her follow the goddess's directions.
She couldn't help but run. Though the tunnel was dark and her light was flickering on and off, she noticed more reliefs of gods and goddesses; all of them pointing down the hall…almost like they wanted her to go this way…but that was absurd.
Was that light coming from the end of the passage?
Thank the Egyptian gods, it was light! Elizabeth began to laugh with relief as she ran towards it. The tunnel got brighter and brighter, until she could actually see the entrance to the tomb, her exit, blissfully dazzling, and the air smelled fresh again. She climbed the stairs three at a time and burst out into the desert.
She cried out in frustration.
The Jeep was gone. There was no sign of the tourists or their guide. The desolate Valley of the Kings was dead silent.
Elizabeth groaned. How far was it to Luxor from here? Not too far, she knew, but she would have to cross the Nile to get there. She hardly had any water left in her canteen for a long trek across the desert, and she didn't even know the way.
But she had no choice. All she could do was point herself east and hope she would reach some sign of civilization before she died of thirst or sunstroke. She took a deep breath, hitched up her backpack, and started her trek across the desolate limestone valley.
It felt like hours, though it probably wasn't even close to that, that she climbed up powdery boulders, trying to find the quickest way to the top. The Jeep had come down the long way, but Elizabeth didn't want to waste time in this heat. The work was grueling: finding handholds and footholds that wouldn't crumble away, trying to find the least steep route, sweat pouring down her neck, a part of her mind berating herself for not putting on more sunscreen.
At last, she hoisted herself up and collapsed at the top, panting to catch her breath. She took a long gulp from her canteen and poured water over her head, sighing.
Damn tour group, she cursed under her breath. Why the hell couldn't they have waited for me?
It was baffling, though. Why hadn't they waited? Why had they driven off so quickly? She tried not to think of her strange experience in the tomb—it could only have been her imagination combined with her alarm.
When she had caught her breath, she forced herself to sit up. As she did so, she caught sight of the city across the Nile, and the lush oasis surrounding it.
She blinked. She rubbed her eyes to make sure there wasn't sand in them, making her see crazy things. And then blinked again.
It was there all right. She was seeing it, but she didn't believe it.
It was Luxor, alright; it had to be. From far away she recognized the temple from photographs. The one major difference: it wasn't crumbling. The stone temple to Amen-Re stood stately and magnificent as if time had never worn it away.
Was that a chariot being driven towards the city?
And the mighty indigo Nile that stretched out between Elizabeth and Luxor carried a ship in its currents: a ship rowed by many oars, a graceful but ancient-looking ship. The alabaster city of Luxor, even from this distance, looked to be a thriving metropolis.
She let out a shaky laugh. This couldn't be real.
"Oh my Lord", she breathed, "I'm in ancient Egypt."