|Echo Queen (Echo Trilogy, #2)|
The Sequel to Echo Prophecy
Did you miss the Prologue, Chapter 1, and Chapter 2? You can read them here:
Arrive & Depart
Fifteen minutes later, Dr. Isa pulled the car onto a dirt driveway that led to a small, walled-off complex on the western outskirts of Mit Rahinah, one of the modern Egyptian towns that lay within Memphis’s ancient borders. She stopped the car in front of an imposing iron gate and removed a sleek smartphone from a handbag stashed on the floorboard against her door, tapping the face before holding it up to her ear.
After a single ring, someone picked up. Thanks to my heightened Nejerette senses, I could hear the woman on the other end, not that it did me any good. From what I could discern, they were speaking in Middle Egyptian, the same dialect that had long been the accepted standard language among Nejeretkind.
In the two weeks that had passed since our explosive confrontation with Set at Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple, Marcus, Neffe, and Dominic had been doing what they could to help me learn to understand the spoken language rather than just the written version, but I’d yet to make much, if any, progress in learning to speak Middle Egyptian. It was too different from Nuin’s ancient language—like modern Italian compared to Latin—to make learning it much easier than if I hadn’t known Nuin’s language at all. I certainly hadn’t progressed enough to translate Dr. Isa’s rushed words.
When she ended the call, the gate started swinging outward. Dr. Isa eased the car into the compound and parked in front of a modern, boxy building. It was relatively small, tan, and appeared to have no windows and only one entrance or exit so far as I could tell—a heavy metal door with no handle, but with a keypad on the wall beside it, about halfway up. It seemed high-tech, high-security, and more than a little out of place.
“Where are we?” I asked.
The lone door opened, and a handsome, middle-aged woman stepped outside. She wore a simple, white linen shift, her only adornment the single strand of turquoise beads hanging around her neck. She looked like she would’ve fit in far better in the ancient world than in modern times. Keeping her eyes lowered and her head bowed, she held the door open.
Dr. Isa gave my forearm a gentle squeeze. “Come on, Lex. We don’t have a lot of time.”
I glanced down at her hand, zeroing in on the rather exceptional bracelet peeking out from the cuff of her delicate sleeve. I couldn’t see the whole thing, but I caught enough of a glimpse to tell that it was at least an inch wide, made of an opalescent quartz or some similar stone, and covered in engravings. It looked—no, felt—familiar. I had the insuppressible urge to reach out and touch it.
Which is exactly what I did. As the fingertips of my right hand made contact with the edge of the bracelet, a jolt of recognition flitted through my mind, and I suddenly understood the feeling of familiarity. It wasn’t made of quartz, but of the very fabric of the At, just like the chest from the hidden, underground temple “containing” the ankh-At—and the ankh-At itself.
I took a steadying deep breath and met Dr. Isa’s eyes. They were filled with a thousand mysteries. “Where did you get this?” I asked, fearful I already knew the answer.
She smiled a faint, secretive smile. “From you.”
A shiver crawled up my spine. “I was afraid you were going to say that.”
Pulling her hand back, she unbuckled her seatbelt, opened her door, grabbed her handbag, and started toward the woman standing in the open doorway.
I followed suit, stopping beside her at the building’s entrance.
“Greetings, Anai.” Dr. Isa reached out to tilt the other woman’s face upward. She was shorter than me by several inches, though still taller than Dr. Isa, and based on the fine lines marking her gracefully aged face, she was definitely human. “Much as I appreciate the courtesy, we really don’t have time for such formality. I trust you’ve instructed the others to remain silent while they prepare her?”
Anai nodded and turned away, motioning for us to follow her into the building. Once we did, the door shut behind us with a dull thud. Ahead stretched a long, well-lit hallway, wide enough for Dr. Isa and me to walk side by side as we trailed behind Anai toward another metal door.
I leaned in closer to Dr. Isa. “What’s going on? What is this place?”
“Anai and this ancient order of priestesses have been waiting for you for a very long time. They will make sure you’re properly attired, and then you will”—she raised her hand, wriggling her fingers to signify something flying away—“slip into the past.”
Waiting for me? I shook my head. “But I don’t know how,” I told Dr. Isa, panic resurfacing. What if I can’t do it? What if I’m stuck here and Apep finds me?
He would kill me to steal my power; after our brief encounter in the bathroom earlier, I had no doubt of that. And then Marcus would die as well. And poor Set—he would be stuck as a prisoner trapped inside his own body for who knew how many more thousands of years. Possibly for all of eternity. And then there was the rest of the world . . . there was no telling what Apep would do with the power, once he had it, but I doubted he would turn into the next great humanitarian. No, domination and destruction were more his style. And according to the ancient papyrus note in my pocket, my future-past self agreed.
None of those were acceptable outcomes. Which meant I had to figure out how to travel back to Nuin’s time.
Anai pressed her palm against some sort of a scanner on the wall beside the door, and a few seconds later, there was an electronic beep followed by a mechanical click. With the sound of a seal being broken and air pressure equalizing, the door swung inward.
When I saw the ancient structure in the absolute center of the room, my breath hitched. “Wow . . .”
“It is quite remarkable, is it not?” Dr. Isa laughed softly. “It was not easy to preserve all these years, but the Order of Hat-hur managed.”
“What is it?” I asked, my voice barely audible.
“You’re looking at the inner sanctuary of the oldest remaining temple to Hat-hur, the goddess you know of as Hathor,” Dr. Isa said.
I didn’t question the validity of her claim; based on the decaying limestone columns and faded wall decorations carved into the small, square chamber, she was telling the truth. The time-worn structure looked odd and ancient and out of place surrounded by the barren, almost clinical white walls, floor tiles, and ceiling panels.
Anai turned to face us, meeting my eyes for the briefest moment and allowing a tentative smile before lowering her gaze to the floor. “Come,” she said in heavily accented English, taking my hand and leading me around the ancient chamber. “The others await you.”
I glanced back at Dr. Isa. She had her phone up to her ear again and was speaking even more rapidly in Middle Egyptian. She met my gaze momentarily and nodded before turning away.
Anai led me through a doorway in the far side of the room and into a smaller, softly lit space. There was a compact, minimalistic vanity set against the left wall, and an intricately beaded garment hanging from a polished silver hook embedded in the wall ahead. Several pieces of extravagant gold, quartz, and turquoise jewelry, fit for an Old Kingdom princess, were set out on a corner table that matched the vanity.
Through another doorway, I could see a spacious bathroom with a toilet, a pedestal sink, and a classic claw-foot bathtub filled with water so hot it was steaming. Everything was white, from the towels and towel racks to the tub, faucets, and ceramic tiles that covered the floor.
And there were women, three of them, each dressed like Anai, and each looking young enough to be her daughter. After a second, longer look at each of their faces, I thought they might actually be her daughters. They stood placidly in the center of the room, keeping their eyes downcast.
Anai clapped once, and the three young women jumped to life. They hustled me into the bathroom, stripped me of my borrowed trench coat, and coaxed me into the tub.
“Hey, hey . . . I can wash myself,” I told them, knocking away their hands as they started running washcloths steeped in faintly floral, soapy water over my shoulders, arms, and back.
They giggled, and one of them even met my eyes for a fraction of a second before blushing profusely, but they didn’t show any signs of giving up on their task.
“You must let them do their duty,” Anai said from the doorway. “Like me, and my mother before me, and her mother before her, for over a hundred generations, they have trained their whole lives for the honor of preparing you for your journey. You cannot imagine the joy they felt—we all felt—when we learned that we would be the ones to fulfill our Order’s purpose. Please do not take this from them.”
“I—you—” I closed my eyes and forced my muscles to relax, one by one. “But I’m just me,” I murmured.
Upon hearing Anai enter the bathroom, I opened my eyes, hoping that focusing on her would distract me from the three strange, if gentle, women washing my body.
“My mother told me, as her mother told her, that when you finally found your way back to us, you would be confused. You would not remember us until your journey was complete.” She smiled, but despite the joy brightening her expression, her eyes filled with tears. “You—this . . . you are our purpose for existing. I cannot explain to you what it is like to be in the presence of the one who—”
I glanced at the doorway, where Dr. Isa was standing, her arms crossed over her chest and her eyebrows raised. When my attention returned to Anai, I found that her eyes had once again drifted down to the floor. She wiped tears from her cheeks and took a deep breath. “I shall say no more.”
Dr. Isa exhaled heavily. “Wonderful.”
Minutes later, I was out of the tub, wrapped in a thick linen robe, and all but my hair was dry. The three young women situated me on a squat, padded stool in front of the vanity and immediately set to work cutting and drying my hair and applying makeup. By the time they were done, I had a very proper Old Kingdom hairstyle—dark, shoulder-length, and very straight—and my eyes were lined in kohl. The black galena liner only served to emphasize the reddish hue my eyes had gained when my Nejerette traits started manifesting.
Anai arranged an intricately worked band of turquoise and quartz beads affixed with gold thread around my head. When she was finished, she smiled at my reflection in the mirror, looking utterly pleased with herself. “It is time for you to dress.”
“Alright.” It wasn’t like I could refuse—not with my future-past self breathing down my neck and Dr. Isa tapping her foot in the doorway.
With the help of the young women, Anai dressed me first in a calf-length, white linen shift of a weave so fine it almost felt like silk. After walking around me with narrowed, scrutinizing eyes, she gave a single nod and guided her helpers through the delicate process of attiring me with the beaded faience dress that had been hanging on the wall. The turquoise-colored ceramic beads made a net pattern that covered the shift from my chest almost all the way down to my ankles. Additional beads of quartz, gold, silver, and actual turquoise dangled from the garment’s hem and adorned its empire waist and thin shoulder straps. It was an absolutely stunning piece of craftsmanship, far more intricate than any of the Old Kingdom beaded dresses I’d seen in museums, not that many had survived the passage of time.
Anai completed my look with a menat collar—a necklace often associated with Hathor and thought to be something of a good luck charm—composed of dozens of strands of tiny beads that matched my dress perfectly and finished with hammered gold fastenings and a flat, heavy gold counterweight that dangled down my back. She also slipped a two-inch-wide gold cuff bracelet onto my wrist, the face inlayed with a turquoise Eye of Horus.
Thinking of Marcus and how appropriate it was for me to be wearing his symbol, I squeezed my eyes shut. He must be freaking out.
But this is the only way to protect him . . . to protect everyone.
My heart started racing, and a lump swelled in my throat. Opening my eyes, I turned to face Dr. Isa and held out my hand, palm up. “I need your phone.”
It started buzzing in her handbag, and she pulled it out with a quick “Yes, yes, in a moment.” For the third time, she fell into a rapid conversation in Middle Egyptian, but this time her tone was more severe, her words sharper.
One of the young women slipped delicate sandals of leather worked with silver and gold onto my feet, then retreated to the room containing the ancient temple sanctuary with the other two young women.
“She is ready,” Anai said when Dr. Isa ended the call. The priestess offered a slight bow of her head to the doctor and a far more substantial one to me before joining the other women of her Order in the temple room.
“Your phone,” I repeated.
“I’m sorry, Lex, but there’s no time.” Dr. Isa took my elbow and guided me toward the last remnants of the oldest remaining Hathor temple in existence. “He’s on his way.”
“In Set’s body, yes.”
“I’ve had an exceptionally powerful Nejeret cloaking you since we left the palace, but it would seem Set has one just as strong.” Her eyes narrowed to slits. “Not that it should be possible . . .”
“He knows where you are, and as long as you’re here, in this time, he won’t stop until he tears this place apart”—her voice turned grim—“and then he’ll tear you apart. That cannot happen.”
Any response I may have been formulating died on my tongue. I nodded.
We passed between two crumbling columns and into the inner chamber, Anai and the three young women following behind us. The latter positioned themselves around the chamber, one at each unbroken wall, while Anai remained in the doorway, and Dr. Isa led me into the center of the chamber. It was cramped and dark enough that without my heightened Nejerette vision, I wouldn’t have been able to see a thing. I doubted whether any of the human women could.
“Will you tell Marcus what happened—where I’ve gone?” I asked Dr. Isa as she left my side to retrieve a small, cloth-wrapped bundle from a niche in the wall opposite the doorway. “Please?”
She unwrapped it carefully and handed the cloth to the young woman nearest her, then met my gaze. “Of course I will, Lex. I swear it on my life.”
As she returned to me, I recognized the object in her hand—a small statuette of the goddess Hathor. I recognized it because it was mine and was supposed to be in my apartment back in Seattle.
I shrieked as she smashed the priceless antique on the age-worn limestone floor. The alabaster cracked and fell away, leaving behind a smaller version of the statuette. But this version was fashioned from At.
And it was glowing.
Dr. Isa bent down and retrieved the statuette with the quick gracefulness afforded a Nejerette and thrust it at me before I could even think of evading it.
As soon as the statuette made contact with my palm, the world fell away.
Echo Queen is now available!