Land of the Dead

Excerpt from The Year of the Scarab Trilogy Part 3: Land of the Dead [©2001 White Wolf Publishing]

Nicholas stopped near a squat, whitewashed tomb and scanned the crowd for minions of Apophis. The undead infested Cairo like rats in a landfill. Worse, the creatures had any number of mortals in their employ, watching for Nicholas and others of his kind. Despite the precautions he and Ibrahim had taken even before leaving Chicago, it was possible they were already on his trail. The followers of Apophis were sneaky and tenacious. They could infiltrate the most secure places, and once they had a scent, the only way to lose them was to kill them.

That didn't bother Nicholas—it was why he'd been reborn as one of the Amenti: a mummy. Even so, he preferred to do it on his terms. The enemy had an annoying tendency to pop up when he was in the middle of something else, and Nicholas was not a fan of complications.

Though he couldn't see anyone, something felt out of place. It was one of the many benefits of being immortal: he could sometimes sense strong emotions and powerful life forces. He couldn’t locate the cause of his unease, though. Then he spotted the qahwa—what the locals called a coffeehouse. It was a no frills, mud brick structure. One wall was nothing more than a pair of large wooden doors, these currently folded back to reveal a serving counter. A trio of wobbly tables stood in a ragged line next to it, with two men playing backgammon at the one on the end. Nicholas figured that the one facing him was the shop's owner and operator. Typical to relax in a game with a customer during a slow spell—which, for many of these hole-in-the-wall concerns, was their normal pace of business. But the old guy he played sat just so, allowing him to keep an eye on the Amenti safe house. Clever old fart, looking like your average Cairene, with no place he needed to be and all the time in the world to get there.

Ibrahim shot Nicholas an inquiring glance.

Playing the role of the confused tourist, Nicholas murmured, “We’re being watched. I want to make sure we draw his attention, so act furtive.”

"Furtive?" Ibrahim spoke excellent English, but his knowledge of the language was not encyclopedic.

"Uh… suspicious. Don't overdo it, though."

Ibrahim gave a sharp nod, then led the way to the safe house—or, more correctly, the blind that disguised the entrance to the safe house. It was completely unremarkable, two small rooms split by a thin plaster wall and a woven hanging. A passage hidden beneath a trap door under the toilet would take them to the actual safe house.

The curtain parted in response to the noise of their entry, revealing sharp black eyes in a dark, lined face. A wide grin bloomed on the old woman's face and her eyes lit with delight.

"Amenti Nicholas! Ibrahim! I did not expect you so soon!" The Eset-a elder spoke in English out of deference to Ibrahim. Asim was equally conversant in ancient Egyptian, her native Arabic, and English. Although Egyptian was as vivid in Nicholas' mind as English, he had only a passing familiarity with Arabic—enough to pick it out of a lineup, say, but he was lost in extended conversation. In turn, Ibrahim knew only scattered phrases in the tongue of the Amenti. Conversations among mummies and their followers were often a patchwork of languages.

Asim tried to give a hug and help with the bags at the same time. Nicholas waited with a bemused smile until the two Egyptians sorted themselves out, then laughed as the old woman began genuflecting while tugging at one of the duffel bag's handles.

"Hello, Asim," he said, chuckling at her antics. Asim had the utmost respect for him, Nicholas knew, but she was a born ham. Nicholas would have played along, but he had to take care of their tail first. "I'm sorry to be an ungracious guest, but we have some business to attend to."

"I am your servant, Amenti." Asim's smile remained, but her eyes snapped to Nicholas' own with the intensity of a hunting hawk. "Tell me what you need, and I will supply it."

“Just something to blend in.”

Asim darted behind the curtain, returning a moment later with a light robe and cloth skullcap, what locals called a djellaba and tarboosh. "These should be adequate."

“Perfect; thanks.”

"Do you need assistance, Amenti?" Ibrahim asked, zeal burning in his eyes.

"Sorry, Ibrahim,” Nicholas said. “Nothing that requires you to take up arms just yet. I’m just going to trail the spy, find out who he reports to."

"Indihar and Lu Wen will arrive soon," Asim observed. "What should I tell them if you have not yet returned?"

"Tell them I'm delivering a case of whup-ass, C.O.D."

"Amenti?" Asim and Ibrahim gave him their best blank looks.

"Uh, tell them I'm off striking a blow for Ma'at."

Ma'at was justice personified, the embodiment of cosmic order. She cried out for cosmic balance to be restored, as the scales had tipped far to the side of darkness and corruption through the foul influence of Apophis. Mummies like Nicholas were the response to her cry. He was blessed with the gift of a second chance and a duty to restore balance to the world. He had been a failure in his previous lives. Now was his chance at redemption, to deliver justice to the eternal enemy.

•          •          •

Nicholas approached the qahwa from the south, having slipped down the secret tunnel and passed through the safe house from another exit. The old guy was nowhere to be found.

He hustled as much as he dared without drawing attention, and caught sight of the spy just before the old guy would have vanished through a sloppy intersection—the result of forming streets around haphazardly arranged mausoleums. The serpentine roads might provide local color, but they made navigating a bitch.

Nicholas was skilled at shadowing, having run a private security company in his second life. But the vibrant life force of the Undying resulted in a natural charisma that made it tough to stay inconspicuous. Normally not a big deal, but inconvenient when trying to fade into the background.

Cairenes saw stranger things than Nicholas, but even the slightest attention made shadowing someone that much more complicated. Plus, the old guy was skilled as well, the type who blended in with his surroundings and had a darting gaze that missed nothing.

At least Nicholas had magic on his side. One of the rings he wore heightened his perception. Gifted with the eyes of a hawk and ears of a fox, he could let his quarry range some distance ahead.

It would help if he had an idea where they were headed; he could fashion a rough plan of approach and be alert for ambush. This simply wasn't his city, though. All he knew was that they were moving north and slightly west: deeper into the city.

The safe move would be to head back and meet with his fellow mummies, Indihar and Lu Wen—already coming by to learn how his mission went in Chicago—and pass along a description of the old man. But Nicholas kept going. He had spent his entire second life playing it safe. He'd been defined by taking the path of least resistance, doing what was expected. He no longer suffered that weakness; his ancient self had replaced it with the strength of resolute action. He would prove that he was still worthy of the gift he was given.

The promise of vengeance in his eyes, Nicholas Sforza-Ankhotep headed deeper into Cairo.

•          •          •

Like most of the city, the neighborhoods of Darb al-Ahmar didn't conform to a rigid, easily recognizable grid. The quarter occupied the eastern portion of Cairo below the Muqattam hills, The Citadel a constant presence looming high above.

Pedestrians hustled along the cramped streets in the waning afternoon light, running errands before heading home. The spy now moved more slowly and checked his surroundings more often. After taking a winding street past a few more houses, the old guy turned into an alleyway slotted between a two-story mud-brick building and a sprawling wakalah, a kind of residential warehouse more recently converted to small shops and dwellings.

Nicholas eased back as the spy flashed a look around before entering. Shuffling along with the flow, Nicholas went past and rounded the next corner. A glance had shown him the alley ended at an archway into what appeared to be an interior courtyard.

He circled the block, which was comprised of the wakalah and three other buildings, all two-story mud brick residential structures. The three apartment buildings formed a U with the open end facing east. The wakalah closed up the top of the U, except for the alley entrance, to form a square. All well and good, but was the spy going to a particular apartment, or was the whole place under the enemy's influence? Best to assume the latter.

The rooftops would offer the best vantage point for a closer look. Remembering a one-story storage shed to one side of the wakalah, Nicholas slipped around and lounged in the angle where the two structures met. Foot traffic was thinning fast as the day waned, so Nicholas had to wait briefly for a few seconds' gap when no one was facing his way.

Drawing upon his bracelet of Selket, he leaped onto the shed's roof. Sure-footed as the scorpion that fell under the goddess's auspice, Nicholas leaped again to the top of the wakalah and made his way across its tiled roof. He moved deliberately over the ceramic tiles, careful not to dislodge any as he went. Though he was still lower than the apartment roofs, he could see they were flat, with clusters of television aerials on each—as well as two small satellite dishes poking from one corner.

Although he didn’t see any lookouts on the adjoining roofs, he remained cautious. He moved fast, slipping lightly along the wakalah rooftop, and was soon at the edge peering into an empty central courtyard. The space was tiled, with small plots of earth in each corner in which were planted clusters of ferns. There was no doorway into the wakalah. A single door opened from each of the apartment buildings into the courtyard, and they also had wrought-iron balconies on the second floor.

It was impossible to tell which structure the spy had entered. Nicholas decided to give it a few minutes. See if the old man had merely dropped by to report. He hunkered down to one side where the wakalah roof met the right-hand apartment building.

Soon after, Nicholas heard the crunch of shoes—not from the courtyard, but from above. The measured pace of a bored guard. Nicholas pressed against the mud brick that rose eight feet to the apartment roof. He’d be safe from a casual glance, but he couldn't hide from anyone looking straight down. The footsteps grew quiet as the guard worked his way back around the roof.

Nicholas decided to head back, giving a final glance into the courtyard. Just then, he caught movement on the left side apartment roof. He jerked back out of sight reflexively, cursing himself even as he did so. Sudden movements were the best way to get spotted. Sure enough, he heard a yell from the left-side roof.

Still, at least it wasn’t an alarm, but an irritated command. His Arabic was good enough to understand that Lefty was yelling at the guard who'd just walked by above Nicholas.

Great, yeah, come see if there’s a cat on the roof. Nicholas scowled. If he ran now, they'd surely spot him. But what would they report? Somebody in a robe running across a rooftop.

Fuck it; he was sick of running.

A stocky Egyptian torso poked over the roof lip. Nicholas was ready. He straightened, one hand grabbing the guard by the front of his shirt and yanking down hard. The guard fell clumsily on his face near the roof's edge. Any doubt Nicholas had about the place was wiped away at the distinct snake tattoo that peeked out of the man's sleeve when he struggled to get up.

The tattoo identified the guard as retainer for a vampire of the clan known as the Followers of Set. Mortals like this often showed their loyalty with that serpent tattoo. Allegiance to one of the mummies' greatest foes left the man bereft of any mercy.

Nicholas moved with the speed of a striking scorpion and grabbed the front of the man's shirt again, yanking forward then driving back to strike him hard in the throat. Even as the first blow landed, Nicholas struck with the heel of his other hand against the man's temple.

The guard choked on whatever he was about to say, the blow to the head knocking him senseless an instant later. Nicholas kept hold of the cheap fabric and swung the twitching body over the roof's edge, then released. A cloud of dirt puffed around the guard as he hit the street.

Nicholas' sharp ears caught the other guard's scrambling as he tried to see what had happened to his partner. Grabbing the roof edge, Nicholas rolled up and over to lay flat behind the lip. An instant later he heard Lefty drop down to the warehouse roof and scramble over the tile, calling, "Malik? Malik?" Concern became panic when Lefty saw his buddy Malik sprawled in the street below.

Nicholas peered down into the courtyard as Lefty called out in alarm. Bingo. The spy and another fellow, younger, emerged into the thin strip of light from the setting sun that banded the west end. They shielded their eyes, staring up toward the guard.

"Malik has fallen!" Lefty called down in Arabic. "I think that someone—"

"Hey!" exclaimed the younger man below as he pointed at where Nicholas was moving, fully upright and in plain view, toward the trap door in the middle of the rooftop.

Nicholas could hear the clatter and scrape as Lefty tried to hoist himself onto the apartment roof. In the courtyard, the main apartment door squealed open and one set of feet headed fast up the stairs. Too fast to be the old guy, so where was he? Straining a bit, Nicholas heard the shuffling step he'd tracked before. Sounded like the spy was headed for the street to check on Malik. Good. So far, this was all going as he’d hoped.

It would be easy enough to pick off these guys, but Nicholas didn’t care about them. Based on the setup, this cluster of buildings was surely lair to the vampire—or ghul, as they were known to the Amenti. That was what Nicholas wanted. Still, he would have to move fast to deal with the creature before it could rise.

Ignoring the mortal attendants wasn’t a good idea, so Nicholas decided to leave them a surprise. He dug into his pocket and tossed a pair of dog carvings to the rooftop, then whispered a command in Egyptian. As he focused his will, the figurines swelled, taking the form of two huge black mastiffs—Sherlock and Watson. Ebon eyes looked at him with an unnatural intelligence, awaiting his commands.

Nicholas' specialty was amulets, not effigies. He knew enough to get by, but nothing near the level of talent required to make magnificent beasts such as these. They were a gift from Lu Wen Khutenptah. The magical dogs possessed wits and cunning far beyond that of a natural animal. And, since he had to infuse them with a portion of his own life force, Nicholas used them only sparingly.

Still speaking Egyptian, he sent Sherlock to deal with the guy coming up the stairs and Watson to handle Lefty. Mortals were fair game, but the mastiffs knew to retreat to Nicholas if they caught a whiff of the undead. Powerful though they were, there was little chance the mastiffs could destroy a vampire.

Orders given, Nicholas leaped from the rooftop, the tiles shattering beneath his feet as he landed. The sound echoed through the courtyard, triggering confused shouts from the rooftop. Then the shouts turned to screams, punctuated by low snarls. Nicholas smiled and dashed into the western apartment building.

The interior was part of a single large suite of rooms, rather than a series of separate apartments as he'd assumed. Stairs led up, and to his right the space opened on a sitting room containing a pair of low couches strewn with pillows and a series of small tables. An antique writing table sat in one corner. Carpets scattered the floor and hangings adorned the walls, everything a lush Arabic decor. All very nice, but Nicholas was more interested in finding the vampire's resting place. Seemed most likely it was downstairs—putting your coffin aboveground was asking for trouble.

His ears, sharp as a fox's, heard stone grating on stone on the other side of a beaded hanging strung across the doorway on the opposite wall. He plunged through, into another well-appointed chamber. One of the colorful rugs strewn across the stone floor had been flipped aside by the marble square just now pushed up from below.

He locked eyes with the ghul emerging from the hole. Its yellow reptilian gaze was cold fury, then the heavy stone slab was flying right at Nicholas.

The ancient portion of his soul, his ka, acted as a kind of guardian angel. There should have been no chance to avoid the hurtling stone, yet Nicholas somehow flung himself backward as the marble flashed less than an inch from his face. The slab shattered against the wall as Nicholas carried through into a backward roll. He came up in a crouch just as the vampire launched itself from its lair.

The Followers of Set were dangerous predators, strong and fast and possessed of tremendous powers given them by their connection to their undead lord. Nicholas had hoped to catch this one before it emerged from its slumber. Just his luck, it was an early riser.

The thing's skin became mottled and darkened to black scales, and it moved with hypnotic fluidity, one clawed hand flashing with deceptive speed. Nicholas flung himself back a second time, the dark fingernails barely missing his throat.

Not good, being on the defensive. Especially with his back to the door, where this thing's lackeys were bound to come rushing through at any second.

Nicholas spun away and grabbed one of the amulets around his neck. Trigger the scarab of Mentu, and the vampire would be a pile of ash within seconds. The Follower matched Nicholas' speed, knocking the amulet aside. The black scarab snapped its chain and bounced off a wall, and his hand was numbed momentarily from the force of the impact. Nicholas was too busy avoiding the ghul’s attempted killing blow to worry about losing the amulet.

It turned out to be a feint—the Follower's other hand darted out for his throat. But Nicholas' spirit was in tune to the flow of fate. An infinitesimal shift of his balance and the vampire grabbed a handful of djellaba instead. The creature pulled, its mouth opening impossibly wide and needle-thin fangs extending from its upper jaw.

Having his throat torn out by vampire teeth was no more appealing than being eviscerated by undead talons. Nicholas spun out of the robe, then continued the momentum to grab the far sleeve and fling the djellaba over the Follower's head.

The vampire snarled and tore at the cloth, but not fast enough to avoid the punishing blows Nicholas delivered with his curled fists. Got to love the avenging strength of righteousness that the amulet of Sekhmet bestowed. The creature's head snapped back, one side of its face a pulp of reptilian skin, startling white bone and dark red blood.

Then, just as Nicholas grabbed for the second scarab of Mentu, the vampire vanished. Shit. Invisible.

Nicholas triggered the amulet with a shouted command. Blinding light and scorching heat blasted from the flash scarab to incinerate one of the couches. Nicholas cursed; his second of hesitation was all that the ghul needed to duck out of the way. Even so, the fire must have panicked it—instead of feeling fangs at his throat, Nicholas heard a startled cry and saw the beaded curtain clatter aside as a large nothingness plowed through it.

Nicholas snatched his lost amulet from the floor, then took off after his foe. Yells of pain and surprise came from the next room. Nicholas emerged to see the old man groaning where he lay by the door. Yeah, well, tough, Nicholas thought. That's what you got for getting in the way of a panicky vampire.

A cacophony of yelling came from upstairs, along with barks loud as shotgun blasts. Sounded like Sherlock and Watson had found more guards. Nicholas dashed into the courtyard and almost plowed into a guard armed with a large curved dagger. Nicholas didn't have time for this distraction. He grabbed the guard's wrist and twisted, using his momentum to drive the dagger into the man's chest as he pushed past.

He ignored the guard's gurgling gasps and the barking and screams from inside as he cast about with heightened senses. The vampire couldn't have gotten beyond earshot so fast, not from Nicholas' hearing, anyway. So it was likely the thing was still—

The vampire’s rage was a palpable force, giving Nicholas barely enough warning to react. Pain flared along his shoulder, just missing his neck as he ducked. The wound went numb immediately, a strange lassitude threatening to overtake him. He drew upon the power of Sekhmet to leap across the courtyard, then turned to face the general area in which the Follower of Set was hiding. He fired off the flash scarab, the blast doing nothing more than scorch the wall. In the next second, he grabbed the final scarab of Mentu that hung at his neck, triggering it toward the opposite end of the arc from where he'd just fired.

That did the trick. The vampire's instinct to avoid the flame sent it away from the first blast and caught it in the second. The ghul flickered to visibility, its side aflame from catching the edge of the blast. Still, it had plenty of fight left. Even as it slapped at the flames, the vampire ran at Nicholas and flashed its tongue out in a deadly forked whip.

The poison from the first strike was making Nicholas sluggish, but he flung himself out of the way with an inspired twisting roll. The tongue darted again as he came up in a crouch. Although focused on avoiding the attack, Nicholas noticed the old man had stumbled into the courtyard, hefting a fire extinguisher to spray liberally at the flames eating into the vampire.

Anger gave Nicholas renewed energy. His hand darted out as the tongue struck, and grabbed it behind the fork. The ghul screamed in rage and pain as it tried to draw its tongue back, but Nicholas held fast. The vampire might match his speed, but Nicholas had the edge on strength.

Now would be the perfect time to fire off another scarab, but since he didn't have one, Nicholas improvised.

Taking advantage of the momentary stalemate, he wiped his free hand across his brow and inscribed a quick series of hieroglyphs in the air. The sweat on his fingers hung sizzling in the air as he sketched each symbol. The vampire tried to close the remaining distance between them, but it was too late. Nicholas inscribed the final symbol—the sign of the god Mentu, the personification of the sun's destructive heat—and the symbols erupted in a brilliant flash that engulfed the Follower's tongue in flame.

The fire surged up the tongue like it was primer cord. The vampire’s golden serpent eyes grew wide as the flames rushed to its face. Hissing and screeching, the creature flailed in confusion for a precious second, then bit down. Its burning tongue fell away, spewing a gout of blood. But the flames were too hungry to be denied. They surged across the gap to swallow the vampire's face.

A piercing shriek blasted Nicholas' eardrums as the Follower of Set flung itself around in an agonized frenzy. The spy tried to direct the fire extinguisher on his master. Then a dark shape sped from the apartment building and launched itself at the old man. There was a garbled cry and a wet snap, then the spy fell silent.

A moment later, the vampire’s head exploded in a hundred chunks of flaming gore. Its body staggered, fire coursing over its torso, then collapsed. A minute later all that remained of the Follower of Set were blackened chunks of flesh.