Jake Ransom and the Howling Sphinx

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No man could survive such a storm for long.

Clouds of red sand blasted out of the Sahara Desert and swept across Egypt. The storm darkened the sun and grew so vast that it could be seen from orbiting satellites. And it was no better on the ground. For those unlucky enough to be caught in the storm, the winds scoured any exposed skin like coarse sandpaper.

But the old man had been summoned and knew he had to obey.

Professor Nassor Khouri was a senior curator of the Cairo Museum and the leading expert on the Old Kingdom of Egypt. The curator hunched against the stinging sand. His sun-leathered face was covered by a scarf, his eyes hidden behind goggles.

As he hiked through the Valley of the Kings, he could barely see past his own nose, but he knew the way. Every Egyptian scholar did. Egyptian pharaohs had been buried in this maze of limestone hills and sandy gullies for millennia, including the famous boy-king, Tutankhamen.

But Nassor’s destination lay much farther out, beyond where most archaeologists searched. He fought the storm, moving deeper down the valley toward a new excavation. To anyone looking, it appeared to be nothing more than a well being dug, a project to help bring water to the parched land. Permits, uniforms, and equipment all bore a black griffin, the familiar logo of the company that funded this excavation.

Bledsworth Sundries and Industries, Inc.

The corporation financed many such charitable enterprises throughout the region. But Nassor knew the true goal of this particular project and had been paid well to keep it secret.

And now he had been summoned.

Had the corporation found what it sought?

Surely that was impossible.…

Despite the hot breath of the sandstorm, Nassor shivered as he reached the dig site. All the laborers had fled the storm, leaving the place dark and empty. Nassor crossed a maze of abandoned mining gear and piles of work gear to reach the hole in the hillside framed by timber and sealed with a steel door.

He punched a code into a security keypad, and the door swung open. He hesitated at the threshold. Even with the storm howling at his back, he balked at entering the tunnel. The passageway dove steeply downward, lit by flaming torches set into notches in the walls.

Swallowing back his fear, Nassor ducked inside. A gust of wind sucked the door closed behind him with a loud clang. Startled, he hurried forward.

The quicker I’m done here, the sooner I can get home.

As the way led deeper, the walls changed from raw limestone to stone blocks. Ancient steps appeared and led downward yet again. Deeper and deeper. Nassor kept to the torch-lit path as the walls squeezed tighter on either side, as if trying to push him back. But he had no choice. With sweat trickling down his back, he had to keep going.

At last, the tunnel emptied into a cavernous space. It was a vast domed chamber, the walls scribed with hieroglyphs. Other passageways led out from the room, but Nassor’s eyes were drawn to the black statues that lined the walls. They were perfect renditions of ancient Egyptian warriors, dating back to the Old Kingdom. Each man was unique in shape and size, but they all had one feature in common: their faces were masks of terror. Their horrified gazes all focused on the head of a stone serpent in the center of the room.

It stood as tall as Nassor. From the flare of the hood behind its head, it was plainly meant to be a cobra. But this cobra had three eyes: two carved out of limestone and a third that rested atop its skull. This last one reflected the firelight, glowing bloodred. It was a fist-sized gem cut into the shape of an oval orb.

Nassor approached in disbelief.

A harsh voice stopped him. It came from the tunnel on the far side of the cavern. The speaker remained hidden in the shadows. Only his words scratched out of the darkness.

“You know what it is …”

Nassor recognized that voice. It had summoned him to this secret meeting. The voice came from the man who had bought Nassor’s silence by paying for his dying wife’s medical treatment. The money had saved her life. Nassor had never regretted the pact he had made.

Not until this moment.

Since the beginning, Nassor had been certain that what the man had sought was pure myth, an object out of dark legend. What harm was there in letting the man dig in a place no one valued, to hunt for an artifact that few believed was real? He never thought the Bledsworth corporation would succeed in finding it.

“You recognize the eye …”

Nassor did. It matched the description in the ancient Book of Thoth. He named the gem. “The Eye of Ra.”

“Bring it to me …”

An arm extended out of the tunnel’s shadows. An iron gauntlet hid the hand. Fingers creaked open.

Unable to refuse, Nassor stumbled to the statue. He reached toward the bright eye. As his fingers hovered over the gem, the small hairs on his knuckles stood on end. He froze, sensing a strange power emanating from the stone. His heart thundered in his ears, but he still heard the order repeated.

“Bring it to me …”

With a great effort of will, Nassor closed his hands over the gem. A shock jolted up his arm, but he quickly dislodged the gem out of the eye socket. He stumbled back and stared down at what he held.

The gem was twice the size of his fist. The firelight flowed over its polished surface, bringing out a thousand shades. Nassor had studied enough geology to recognize a fiery ruby, a gem rare for this region and priceless at this size. It was perfect, except for a single blemish along one side. He ran his thumb over the elliptical vein of black obsidian that coursed over one surface of the stone.

It made the gem look like an eye.

Nassor glanced up at the statue.

A serpent’s eye.

Behind the ancient sculpture, the man who hired him flowed out of the tunnel. Shadows cloaked and swirled around his shape, hiding his features.

Shocked, Nassor took a step back. Despite his terror, one certainty crystallized in the curator’s mind. If even half the stories about the Eye of Ra were true, he could not let anyone possess the gem, especially this shadowy man.

A cold chuckle flowed from the figure, as if the man read Nassor’s thoughts. “There is nowhere to run …”

Nassor tried. He turned toward the tunnel that led to the surface. He had to get the Eye of Ra away from this monstrous man. If he could reach the surface, get it back to his museum …

He took a step—or at least tried to take a step. But his feet suddenly went dead cold and refused to obey. He stared down, then gasped in disbelief. His shoes had turned to stone and were melding to the limestone floor.

No, not just his shoes.

Coldness traveled up his body. He watched his legs turn to stone, then his waist. He fought to move, to twist away. Then the coldness swept over his belly and chest—and out along his arms.

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