My new Supernatural Horror novella is out on 31 July. Here’s a sneak preview.
Egypt, the desert west of Luxor, March 1971
Herry Bannister groped his way along the cramped tunnel, guided only by his helmet beam in the pitch black. Being six foot two, he had to crouch. He blinked sweat from his eyes. Behind him, a second beam lit up Herry’s rucksack on his back. This belonged to Robbie Prendergast, Herry’s 40-year-old assistant, also sweating. Walls were rough, the floor an uneven mixture of compacted earth and rocks. This was no official corridor, but a secret decoy.
Herry paused. He wheezed through his mouth, but tried to control it. “Hold on a minute,” he said, peering through vertical metal bars that sealed off an opening. His headlight beam faded into space. There didn’t seem to be a floor. “Everything all right?” asked Robbie.
Herry turned and squinted into the light, his craggy face shiny and tense with exertion. “Of course, why not?” Robbie offered water. “Just checking.” He was right to ask. The two of them were twenty feet under The Mountain of Anubis searching for an ancient tomb. Forty degrees of desert heat and oppressive air made it like a sauna, and at fifty-eight, Herry was not as young as he used to be. They were searching for the burial chamber of Senuswret the Third, ancient-Egyptian god-king of the Twelfth Dynasty of the Middle Kingdom. He had died in 1839 BC, which meant his tomb, if they found it, was almost four thousand years old.
Herry shone his big flashlight into the void. Robbie screwed the top on his flask and stowed it in a pouch on his backpack. He gave Herry a barley sugar candy and ate one himself. The chamber floor was ten feet lower than the corridor. Pointing their lights down, the men saw skeletons, dozens of them, littering the floor and lying at crazy angles. These people had panicked, suffocated, tangled together. The sight shocked them into silence. After a while, Robbie asked, “What now?”
“We’ll see if it goes anywhere. If not, we’ll go back.” Herry wiggled the bars in turn. Two were loose, and they got them out. A few pebbles and a dribble of sand fell from the roof. They exchanged a glance and inspected it slowly and carefully in their beams, but it was hard to assess the crinkly dark rock. Herry said, “Nothing serious.” He took a rope coil hanging over his shoulder and tied it round the bars. They climbed down.
Robbie shuddered at the sea of distressed bones stretching beyond his beam. Herry set off without a second thought, but Robbie glanced behind him at the rope, their link to safety. They picked their way through the dead. Robbie crunched fingers underfoot, accidentally. “Sorry,” he whispered.
Herry reached the opposite wall and found a sealed opening. A ridge created a border where a door had been plastered into the wall. Robbie caught him up. “Get the hammers and chisels,” Herry said. An hour or so later, they prised the door away revealing a chamber beyond. Their lights reflected off gold and silver, pottery and metal, carved in delicate patterns and decorated in exquisite hieroglyphics. Herry turned and looked Robbie in the eye. “A burial chamber,” he said, his voice hushed with awe and excitement.
Inside, the room was orderly and undisturbed, and as fresh as it had been on the day of the king’s burial ceremony. A stone sarcophagus on their left dominated the space, laid north to south, Herry reasoned, since they knew they’d entered from a westerly corridor. Canopic jars containing the king’s preserved organs, linen chests, pots and pans, jewellry, combs and household items had been neatly arranged. Stacks of spears and arrows stood in corners; in short, everything the dead king would need on his journey to the Afterlife in the Field of Reeds in was present.
A white bird’s head flared in Herry’s beam, two feet above his eye line. It glared at them with a stony black eye, its ibis beak curved down in disapproval. He gasped, and Robbie cried out, but it was only a statue of Thoth, god of wisdom and scribe for the ceremony of The Weighing of the Heart. The papyrus and quill pen he had held at one time had long since perished and his raised hands were empty.
Beyond Thoth, stood floor weighing-scales in brass; one pan was tipped lower than the other but both were empty. Further in, Anubis, god of the dead, owned the space at the end of the sarcophagus. He had his back turned to them. His right hand carried a long-handled scythe but his left arm was bent across his torso and they couldn’t see it. Herry’s beam explored the room. “Imagine, we are the first to see it in four thousand years,” he whispered. The tomb had lain undisturbed by early tomb robbers or other explorers.
They studied Anubis more closely. Carved in black marble, he had a jackal head with long snout, a predator’s jaws and pricked ears. Being two feet taller than the mortals, his dark eyes stared over them. His bare torso showed a muscular warrior body, and a cloak with the tails of desert wolves hung down his back. He wore armbands and decorations of gold and his left fist held something precious, a jewel that glowed rich red. “What is it?” whispered Robbie. “The ruby heart,” Herry said. His eyes lit up. “We’ve found the tomb. I knew my hunch was right.”
“Do we take it to the authorities?” Robbie asked. “No, to steal it is to risk the wrath of the gods. The high priest would have placed it during the entombment ceremony.” Robbie flashed him a cynical look. “We’ll take photos,” said Herry, changing his flashlight for a Polaroid camera and handing it to Robbie, who held up the viewfinder, then lowered it. “It’s hard to see it behind the fingers.”
“I’ve got a better idea,” said Herry. Poking the ruby sideways through the god’s fist, he caught it carefully and held it up. “Light it,” he said. The jewel was heart-shaped, about two inches in diameter. Blood red, crimson and wine dark colours of the jewel flashed in Robbie’s beam. “Look at that,” said Herry. He placed it in the lower pan and Robbie looked through the viewfinder. Unsatisfied with the angle, Robbie put the ruby in the raised pan, but the balance bar didn’t move and the pan stayed higher. “Hard to believe it weighed lighter than the feather,” he said. Herry lifted it out, but the pans didn’t move. He tested the balance bar; it was fixed. He smirked. “There you go. They rigged the system, like all kings. He made sure he was going to heaven.” Putting the jewel back in the higher pan, Robbie took a couple of close-up shots. The camera flash showed the tomb’s treasures and gorgeous wall paintings. Thoth’s head blazed white, and the weighing scales shone brassy yellow.
“Keep them safe,” Herry instructed Robbie. He exited the chamber by an opening in the east wall, opposite the way they’d entered. Robbie waved the photos until dry and tucked them in his wallet, which he buttoned securely in his jacket breast pocket and went to explore the other side of the sarcophagus. The bright wall paintings on the north wall seemed to be as fresh as the day they were painted and he studied them in awe, but then sensed he was alone.
Not wanting to get left behind, Robbie turned about and followed Herry, banging his knees on something that blocked his path. He shone his light down and cried out. A hideous creature grinned at him with crocodile jaws. As tall as a wolfhound, it had a lion’s mane and hippo body. Robbie looked up and froze in horror. “No, no, please no,” he begged and backed up round the gods, making for the exit where Herry stood on the other side.
Herry was exploring a ten feet wide passage when he heard Robbie scream. He hurried back, reaching the burial chamber, and froze. He turned and fled blindly into pitch black with only his beams to guide him, until the lights vanished. Herry dropped to the floor. His scream echoed as he fell. A thud sounded. Then, silence.
Tell me what you think. Honestly, putting a book out there is like sitting an exam. It fills you with dread, but writers need to know what readers like. It helps us write stuff you will enjoy, and thanks for your time and effort.