Nicola McDonagh :

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                                                                                 Chapter 1

                                                                          We Are Not Alone

 

 

Darkness pushed against Cleo Dalby’s arms and legs as she struggled to make her way through the narrow chamber. Hands outstretched before her, she slid her feet forward, straining to hear something, anything. But every sound, even the skid-slap of her sandals on the stone floor, became lost in the gloom. On Cleo walked slow and tentative, deeper into the world of corpses.

 

A sigh, long and weary-filled drifted towards her. It seemed to gather friends as it neared, and soon the sad laments of dozens of disembodied voices surrounded her. The moans continued, drifting in and out of her ears like tired moths trapped inside a lampshade. She tried to struggle on, but the wails tugged at her ankles, forcing her to stop and listen to the muffled chatter that swirled and scuttled inside her head.

 

“We, the dead, abide here. Quietly resting, hands on chest, faces tilted up to catch a ray of sunlight.”

 

“A futile gesture. For this far below the ground, there is only blackness and the weight of stone.”

 

“We, the dead, lie still, poised in readiness for our resurrection.”

 

“What a wait we’ve had. So many years spent lying in a state of half-remembered promises and expectations, grown dull with the passing of each century.”

 

“We, the dead, no longer know who we are. Memories fade and melt into our hollow skulls.”

 

“We, the dead, sometimes whisper to each other.”

 

“Husks of words from dried up lips that stick to the cold walls, waiting for the living to listen.”

 

Cleo touched the limestone with her fingertips and thought she heard a murmuring of souls.

 

“We, the dead, can feel a presence.”

 

A breath of ancient brushed past her cheek. She shivered and rubbed her naked arms. The chill slapped onto her legs and spread upwards leaving pimples of stiff-haired unease on her sunburnt flesh. She gulped and said into the blackness, “Hello? Is anyone there? My name is Cleo.”

 

“Found out!”

 

“Not Yet.”

 

“No.”

 

The voices ceased.

She called again, but no answer came. There was a smell of rot so strong that Cleo nearly vomited. It disappeared and she felt as if a heavy weight had been lifted from her shoulders. She stood tall, shrugged, and said, “The dark is just an absence of light,” then shook the torch that was gripped in her hand. “Stupid, froggin’ thing. Work.” She patted it against her palm. “Work.” Something touched her shoulder and Cleo jumped.

 

“I thought I’d lost you.”

 

“Mum, don’t creep up on me like that.”

 

“I can’t very well do anything else, can I? It’s darker than a black hole in here.”

 

“I know. I can’t see a froggin’ thing.”

 

“What do you expect? We are half way down a pyramid. And don’t say ‘froggin’ I know what it means.”

 

Cleo mouthed the word again, and then once more, just because she could. A sound like the noise from a beehive buzzed inside her head. She put her fingers into her ears and wiggled them until the humming din ceased. “Are you sure we are the only ones in here?”

 

“Apart from the mummies? Yes. Why do you ask?”

 

“Oh, nothing, I thought that.”

 

“What?”

 

“You didn’t just walk past me and say something, did you?”

 

“No, I crept up behind you, remember?”

 

“Weird. I thought I heard someone say something.”

 

There was a long pause. Cleo reached behind her and grabbed her mother’s hand. Her palms were sweaty and hot. She felt a tightening in her chest. A gasp, not from her own throat, swept across her face and she squeezed her mother’s fingers. “What was that?”

 

“I don’t know, but it wasn’t a breeze from a window. Okay, we need light and quick.”

 

“Sorry.”

 

“Now is not the time.”

 

“But it’s my fault the torch won’t work. I didn’t change the batteries, sorry.”

 

“What’s done is done. You can learn from your mistakes. Right?”

 

“My ‘mistakes’? Actually, if you’d brought wind-up torches we wouldn’t be in this mess.

Would we, Mum?”

 

“Oh, so now it’s my fault?”

 

A throaty groan billowed past their open mouths.

 

“Ah! That horrible sound again.” Cleo swivelled round, buried her head into her mother’s chest and waited for the hideous moaning to go away. It did not. The gurgling, growling continued despite the comforting warmth from her mother’s body.

 

“Why won’t it stop?”

 

“It has.”

 

“No, it hasn’t. Can’t you hear it?”

 

“That’s my stomach.”

 

“Really?”

 

“Yes. You slept in, again, and we missed breakfast.”

 

“Oh, right, sorry,” Cleo said and felt her eyes begin to sting.

 

“Don’t sniffle. Come on, we can’t let some stale air that we’ve disturbed frighten us away. That’s what they want.”

 

“That’s what who want?” Cleo said and pulled away from her mother’s tight grip.

 

“The architects who built the pyramids were clever. They used all sorts of booby traps to scare looters away. All this noise and freezing wind is a just a ploy to put us off the scent. Come on, let’s carry on.” Mrs Dalby tugged at Cleo’s sleeve.

 

“Okay, but can you light a match at least? I really can’t see where I’m going.”

 

“There aren’t many left. In the rush to get here I didn’t pack all the necessities. Besides, this was supposed to be a proper holiday, wasn’t it?”

 

“I suppose. At least, that’s what you said.”

 

“What is that supposed to mean?”

 

Cleo paused. She brushed her thick brown hair behind her ears and sighed. “It’s not really a proper holiday ‘cause you were already here as a specialist advisor on that American dig thing that found those new pharaohs?”

 

“You mean the unearthing of King Senebkay in the ancient city of Abydos. Well, yes, but I was one of many archaeologists. They understood that you were here and one of them was glad to take over so that we could spend time together. Anyway, we are, you know, spending time together.”

 

“Like a proper family?”

 

“Yes. Except…”

 

“Dad’s not here.”

 

“No, he isn’t.” There was a wobble in Mrs Dalby’s voice and Cleo quickly changed the subject.

 

“Good job Curator Blench gave you that tip off about this pyramid.”

 

“Even better when Hemp said that the British Museum would fund me.”

 

“So, it was fate really. Don’t suppose you could have done anything else.”

 

“Well, you know me, I can’t turn a job down.”

 

There was a long pause.

 

“Right then, shall we carry on?”

 

“’Suppose so. Mum, you know what this is? This is our first expedition together.”

 

“Yes, it is. Are you okay with that?”

 

“Yeah. I think it’s awesome.”

 

“Good. Anyway, we should save the candles since we don’t have many. We’re going to need all the light we can when we find the hidden chamber and get inside the room. So, for now, you’ll just have to put your hands against the sides and feel your way like me.”

 

Cleo ran her fingers over the wall and felt the uneven stone. It was dry and cool and smooth to the touch. Almost like skin. “Do you think anyone else knows about this hidden corridor?”

 

“I hope not. It took Curator Blench almost a year to discover it existed.”

 

“So, there’s no one going to miss us and send out a search party if we…”

 

“Don’t worry, I didn’t tell anyone we were coming here. This is one of the lesser-known pyramids. It doesn’t attract very many tourists. The place is practically deserted.”

 

“Oh. And that’s a good thing?”

 

“Yes, it is. Less chatter my girl and more moving. I don’t know about you, but I think  this pyramid is a bit scary.”

 

“I’m pretty creeped out.”

 

“Do you want to go? You can if you want to? I can call Blench and put him off.”

 

“No. I’m no quitter.”

 

“Well said.”

 

“Come on, Mum, let’s go.” Cleo skimmed her feet along the rubble-strewn floor and continued to make her way forward. A wriggly thing landed on her bare forearm. She yelped and stumbled over something large and hard. “Ouch!”

 

“What’s the matter? Are you okay?  Answer me!”

 

“I’ve bashed my froggin’ foot on something.  It really hurts.” Cleo bent down and rubbed her big toe.

 

“You scared me when you called out. I thought…”

 

“What? That something dead had come to get me? A zombie mummy angry because we dared to enter its domain,” Cleo said in a boomy voice, and then even louder,  “Moo ha ha!” She expected a response, but when none came she coughed. “Stupid froggin’ pyramid. Should have some kind of lighting. They always do in the films.”

 

“This isn’t a film. You should be more careful where you walk. I told you that there would be all sorts of things lying on the floor. I also told you to wear a long-sleeved sweater, jeans and walking boots. Not a floral blouse, knee-length shorts and those flimsy pink sandals. And stop saying ‘froggin’.”

 

“So-o-o-r-y,” Cleo said screwing up her eyes and sucking air between her teeth. Her big toe throbbed and she struggled to keep back tears. But the pain was nothing compared to the agony of admitting that her mother was right.

 

“I think it might be broken.”

 

“Can you move it?”

 

Cleo clenched her toes. “Ow! Yes, I can move it, but it hurts.”

 

“Well, it’s not broken. If you are too injured to go on, you’ll have to stay here or go back up until I find the hidden chamber, all by myself. So, getting all the credit, and ruining our first expedition together.”

 

Cleo shook her head. Then, realising that such a gesture in pitch darkness would be a waste of time, replied in haste, “No, I can walk.”

 

“Are you sure? I don’t want you lagging behind and getting lost.”

 

“I won’t.”

 

“I should have left you at at the hotel.”

 

“You said we were a team. You know, like you and Dad used to be.”

 

The silence covered her like a blanket. But it was not warm and did not soothe the ache that spread around her stomach. Thoughts of her father filled her mind. The time he carried her on his shoulder so she could reach the ripest plums on Grandma’s tree. The time he dressed up as Father Christmas, but forgot to wear the beard, and then…the touch of her mother’s hand on her arm brought her back to reality.

 

“We are a team. If you can walk, let’s carry on.”

 

“I think I need a plaster.”

 

“Okay, I’ll strike a match.” Mrs Dalby did and in the tiny glow, the burning stick of wood made, Cleo saw the look of concern on her mother's face. She gulped as her eyes reddened. “You’re not crying are you?”

 

Cleo looked down. “No, I’m just sniffing. Sorry.”

 

“For what?”

 

“For mentioning Dad.”

 

“Don’t be. He may be missing, presumed dead, but he isn’t really gone. When we think about him, it’s as if he’s still here. Enough sad thoughts, we need more light.”

 

The smell of sulphur tickled her nose and in the flickering light, she saw her mother crouch on the floor, rummage around in the rucksack and pull out a candle. She lit it and smiled.  

 

“I’m sorry. I get carried away when I’m on an expedition. I’m not used to having a child...I mean, I’m used to being with your father. I really did want this to be a proper holiday, but after the phone call and Blench’s tip off about The Red Pyramid here at Dashur, well, it felt like old times and you said that I should get back on the saddle.”

 

“I didn’t. I said that you should find the missing mummies because Dad would have wanted you to. And, well, I really wanted to come. Besides, you and Dad said that you’d take me on the next dig. I’ve been looking forward to this for ages.”

 

“You are your father’s daughter all right. Want a flapjack?”

 

“Erm, how long have they been in your bag?”

 

“Oh, about a month or so. Don’t wrinkle your nose, they aren’t out of date, just a bit squashed.” She handed her daughter a flattened bar. “Come here, let me have a look at that toe of yours.”

 

Cleo stuck her foot out and Mrs Dalby held the candle close to it, whilst she unwrapped the flapjack and chewed on the sweet, crumbly mix of oats and honey. As her mother probed her flesh for signs of bruising or cuts, she tried to see what it was that had tripped her in the gloom.

 

“There is a cut under your toenail, so you’d best have a plaster to avoid infection. Who knows what kind of bacteria lurks amongst this ancient dust and sand. Keep still while I put one on. Cleo, I said keep still. Stop wriggling.”

“There it is!”

 

“What?”

 

“The thing I tripped on.” Cleo pulled her foot away, slapped the half eaten flapjack into her mother’s hand and crouched down. She picked up a large chunk of painted stone and wiped off the spots of blood that stuck to it.

 

“Let me have a look,” Mrs Dalby said and wolfed down the remaining bits of oats. Cleo gave her the piece of rock. Her mother passed the candle over the fragment and bent close to the pictures and symbols etched on top.

 

“They’re hieroglyphs aren’t they Mum?”

 

“They are indeed. Let’s take a look at the wall where this piece fell from.” Mrs Dalby stood up and held the candle to the drawings. As she moved the light over the colourful artwork, more symbols appeared. “Mmmm.” Mrs Dalby shook her head. “This is very unusual.  Normally the walls in corridors such as these are bare. I need to take a closer look.” She held the candle nearer and peered at the pictures. Cleo did too and after several minutes, they turned to each other and grinned.

 

“You can read some of the hieroglyphs can’t you?”

 

Cleo nodded. “A bit. Enough to know that they mention the secret chamber.”

 

“They don’t just ‘mention’ it daughter dear.  They describe exactly where it is. This piece of stone is the key to finding the hidden burial chamber. It was lucky you fell over it. This wall has given us the exact whereabouts of Imhotep and Hor. Come on Cleo, let’s go and grab some priceless booty for the British Museum.” Mrs Dalby held up her hand.

 

“Mother, I am not going to high-five you.”

 

“Fine. Shall we just go then?”

 

Cleo nodded.

 

“Okay, stay close.”

 

Mrs Dalby lifted the candle. Ahead of them, a long sloping corridor came into view. Cleo turned her head to the right and caught sight of the beautifully painted wall. It was covered with red, blue and green images that shimmered in the low light. She squinted and thought she saw the hieroglyphs move. Then rubbed her eyes and followed her mother’s careful steps.

 

The tunnel narrowed the further down they traipsed. The air became heavy and a dry heat scratched at the back of Cleo’s throat. She coughed and spat out something hard.

 

“The key is within.”

 

“What?” she said and retched up another dark lump. “Mum!” Cleo opened her mouth as something wriggled on her tongue. She clawed at the moving thing, yanked it out and threw it onto the floor. “What is that?”

 

Her mother knelt down and hovered the light over a dark shape. A drop of wax fell from the candle she held. A large black, hairy spider came into view. Cleo yelped and Mrs Dalby jumped up as the arachnid clicked its mandibles and scrambled away into the dimness.

 

“It was in my mouth.”

 

“What? That spider?”

 

“Not just that one, two more.”

 

“Open up,” Mrs Dalby said and raised the candle above her daughter’s head. “Wider. Ah.”

 

“Wa?” Cleo said, trying not to close her mouth.

 

“You’ve got some kind of web stuff stuck to the back of your teeth. You must have accidentally swallowed some. Get your fingers in there and get rid of it.”

 

Cleo clawed out a glob of sticky web and bits of dismembered spider legs. She gagged a few times and Mrs Dalby slapped her on the back until she gasped, wiped her mouth and said, “What did you mean about the key?”

 

“What are you talking about?”

 

“You said ‘The key is within.’”

 

“When?”

 

“Just before I vomited out a load of creepy froggin’ crawlies.”

 

“Language. Anyway, I didn’t say anything.”

 

“Are you sure?”

 

“Yes. You must be hearing things.”

 

Cleo shivered and her mother touched her cheek. “Are you okay?”

 

“Yep. Just a bit spooked out by the spider thing.”

 

“Well, that was a little bit odd.”

 

“Can we just go? This place is like, too weird.”

 

Mrs Dalby looked at her through half-closed eyes and tutted. “Your use of the English language is becoming corrupted by all that American junk you watch.”

 

Cleo raised her eyes to the low ceiling and gestured towards a square opening at the end of the corridor. Her mother peered at it and said, “The chamber must be through there.”

 

“State the obvious much?” she muttered, pushed past her mother and walked towards the dark hole. She stopped at the entrance and felt her mother’s hand press onto the middle of her back before leaning forward and holding up the stub of the candle.

 

“Well, that is a long way down. Quite a slope in fact and awfully narrow.” The flame flickered as if from a draught.

 

“Got any more candles Mum?”

 

“Not sure. Here,” Mrs Dalby said and pulled the rucksack from her shoulder, “have a look in there.”

 

Cleo put the bag on the floor, probed about inside and took out a large yellow candle. “This one is nice and big. It should last for ages.”

 

“Hope so,” her mother said and took it from her. “I’m not sure how far down this thing goes, but I am sure that the secret burial chamber is at the end of it. Can’t wait to see what’s inside, can you?”

 

“Besides the mummies?”

 

“Yes, you know, ancient artefacts and…”

 

“Jewel encrusted chairs and big boxes of pharaoh’s gold?” Cleo imagined a room painted in blue, red and gold, strewn with mounds of diamonds, emeralds and rubies. “Wow, we could be rich with the things we find in that room. Millionaires or billionaires!”

 

“Not with these two. Imhotep and Hor weren’t pharaohs.”

 

“Hold on,” Cleo said and folded her arms, “I thought that only pharaohs could be buried in pyramids?”

 

“Well, yes, but king Snefru...”

 

“Snefru?” she snickered. “That’s a really stupid name.”

 

“Oh really? So, you think ancient Egyptian names are silly, do you?”

 

“Well, they are a bit. Come on, Snefru is a silly name and so is Ramases and Tut en ka thingy and Potolomy.”

 

“That’s Ptolemy, the ‘P’ is silent. What about Cleopatra?  Is that a stupid name as well?”

 

Cleo pouted. “Okay, not all Egyptian names are silly.”  

 

“Right then. You can carry the rucksack and I’ll go ahead with this nice new candle.”

 

Mrs Dalby touched the fresh wick with the tiny flame from the nearly melted candle that she held. As the light sputtered brighter, both she and Cleo peered down at the shadow-filled tunnel that looked more like a giant concrete slide than a corridor, and stepped into the gloomy space.

 

“Mum, this is pretty scary. I mean I’m almost sliding here.”

 

“Grab my shoulders to stabilise yourself. I’m wearing sensible shoes with a bit of grip on them, so we shouldn’t fall. I bet you wish you’d worn your walking boots.”

 

“Okay, okay, don’t rub it in. I’m stupid for wearing sandals, and not wearing thick denim trousers and jacket like you,” Cleo said and grabbed onto her mother’s muscular deltoids.

 

Each step they took was slithery. When the temperature dropped and the air became thin, the flame grew fainter. Cleo found it difficult to breathe and dug her fingers into her mother’s flesh.

 

“Ow.”

 

“Sorry,” she said and relaxed her grip. “There isn’t much oxygen in here.”

 

“To be expected, but not to worry, I’m sure there will be enough. Now, why don’t I tell you about why these two mummies are here?”

 

“Won’t that use up our air supply?”

 

“We’re not underwater or in space. We have a source of oxygen. Shall I?”

 

“Okay. I suppose it will take my mind off suffocating.”

 

“Right then. It’s partly to do with King Snefru, who was a pioneer in his day. It was thanks to him and the work of the great architect and master builder, Imhotep that he was able to perfect the shape and construction of the pyramids we see today. This is the first true pyramid ever built.”

 

“Get to the interesting bit, please,” Cleo said and whilst her mother carried on, she took to staring at the walls. Here and there she could just make out tiny hieroglyphs in black and red. She stretched her neck so as to get a closer look, and her eyes became as wide as an owl hunting for food.

 

“Snefru had this pyramid within a pyramid built so as to have a second, secret resting place. But, the mummies of Imhotep and Hor, were put there instead, because...”

 

“Because of the terrible curse, that was put on them!”

 

“Terrible curse?  I don’t think so. You’re letting your imagination run away with you.  No, they were put there many years later, when Imhotep was made into a god, and to honour the work of the great priest Hor. It was simply a tribute to their life's work.”

 

“No Mum, you’re wrong. Very wrong indeed.”

 

Her mother tensed and came to an abrupt halt. “Wrong?” she said and turned.  I am never wrong when it comes to ancient Egyptian mythology and monarchy.”

 

“This time, Mum, you are. You see, I was looking at the tiny hieroglyphs here,” she nervously pointed at some small images at the bottom of the wall, “and, I think they say something about the two mummies having a horrible curse put on them. Give me the candle.”

 

Taking it from her mother’s outstretched hand, she squatted down, brushed the flame across the wall, looked up and said, “I think it says something about a priest who was jealous of some other king, whose name I can’t quite make out.” She bent closer to see the small writing.

 

“Of course, you can’t make out the name, because, unlike myself, you are not an expert on Ancient Egypt. You are a twelve-year-old girl who happens to have a passing interest in mummified people and cats!”

 

“But, Mum! It’s all here written on the wall. If you don’t believe me, look for yourself.”

 

Mrs Dalby smoothed her black hair behind her ears, bent low, gazed at the writing and stood straight. “Cleo, there are no curses attached to mummies - end of story. You have simply misinterpreted the complex text. So, whilst we still have some light, and air, our time would be best used up finding the secret chamber and the totally not cursed mummies!”

 

“But Mum…”

 

“Have I made myself clear?” Cleo nodded. “Good. No more talk of curses. Right?”

 

“Right.”

 

“Okay, give me the candle, take hold of my shoulders and let’s get on.”

She did what she was told, and mother and daughter slithered down the dark passageway.

Extract from 

Cleo Dalby and the Curse of the Chaos Mummies

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