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A Stranger in the Dark
Thunder boomed outside twelve-year-old Alex O'Connell's home, waking him from his sleep. As it faded in the distance, he heard a steady thumping from downstairs.
Someone was pounding on the front door.
For half a moment he waited for his parents to answer, then remembered that they were gone for the evening and wouldn't be back until late.
He ran to the window and looked down. On the cobblestone lane in front of the house was a horse-drawn hearse. Two brawny men were trying to wrestle a casket out of the back.
"What the devil?" Alex mouthed. Was this some kind of joke? It was Allhallows Eve, after all, and it seemed like just the kind of prank some of his mum's students at Bembridge might pull. She had recently accepted a post at the college teaching Egyptology and had moved the family back to London, much to Alex's disappointment. He missed the warmth of Egypt, a place where the skies were more likely to drench you in warm sunlight than cold showers.
From the front door, the pounding came more fiercely. A deep-voiced man shouted, "Halloo. Anyone there? I must speak with Mr. and Mrs. O'Connell. It's the utmost emergency!"
Alex flipped a light switch but found that the power was out. He threw a bathrobe over his pajamas, rushed downstairs, and flung open the door.
A heavyset man was about to bat the door again with his mahogany walking stick. Alex cringed as it stopped inches from his face.
"So sorry, young fellow," the man said. He wore gold-rimmed spectacles that were fogged and wet, along with a gray bowler hat and cloak. "Are your parentshome?"
"No," Alex said. "They went to see a play downtown."
"Oh, bother," the man sighed. "I need to get an urgent message to them."
"I can give it to them," Alex offered.
"No, no, no," the man muttered. "This is a matter of great importance . . . to all of England, I daresay. I shan't entrust it to some woolly-headed boy. Such matters are far beyond the understanding of mere children."
Alex glowered. "Some children understand things better than most adults."
"Hah, well said!" the man replied. "Well said indeed. With retorts like that, you could go into politics." He glanced back at the hearse. The pallbearers had just pulled the casket out and were now trying to lower it to the ground. In the sitting room, the grandfather clock began to chime.
Lightning blasted a tree on the hill, and for a moment the man's face was limned in light. Alex recognized it immediately.
"Winston Churchill, from Parliament?" Alex blurted out in surprise. "Please come in. My parents would have my head if they knew I kept you waiting outside. I don't think they'll be much longer."
Churchill looked up at the pouring rain, "I don't mind if I do." He shouted to the pallbearers, "Careful with that casket."
The pallbearers grunted and panted.
Alex led Churchill to the sitting room. "I'm sorry about the lights," Alex said. "The power must be out." The house was three hundred years old, and there were oil lamps in brackets attached to the wall. The lamps served mostly as ornaments, but now Alex took one down to light it and stared at Churchill in awe.
"I recognized your face from the Sunday News," Alex told him. "I listen to your speeches on the radio all the time."
"How nice," Churchill said, arching his brow as if in disbelief. "Although some don't call them speeches so much as tirades."
"Oh, but I agree entirely with your views," Alex said. "My parents and I talk about them all the time. We've been especially troubled by Hitler's recent treaty with Mussolini, where they divided the world into 'spheres of influence.' It's pretty cheeky of the Germans and Italians to split up the world before they've even conquered it, don't you think?"
Churchill laughed. "Now there's a bright lad! Perhaps I can trust you to deliver a message. But if I do, you must promise to give it to your parents as soon as they come home. You can't fall asleep."
"Yes, sir, Mr. Churchill."
"I've heard about your parents' exploits in Egypt," Churchill said. "All that business about fighting mummies. Your mum is a daring Egyptologist, and your father is quite an adventurer. They're just the kind of people I need."
Alex smiled with pride. Four years ago, his parents had saved him—and the world—from two cursed creatures, Imhotep and the Scorpion King. It had been his parents' second encounter with Imhotep, and they'd barely made it home alive.
"What's happened now?" Alex asked.
"Early this morning we got word from the government of Egypt," Churchill replied. "It seems that Mussolini has sent an expedition to search for tombs in ancient Egypt. Ever since King Tutankhamen's tomb was discovered, Mussolini's been convinced that the ancient pharaohs had a nearly inexhaustible supply of gold—gold that he could use to buy tanks."
"My mum says Tutankhamen's tomb was one of the greatest discoveries in archaeological history," Alex replied, "but the tombs have more than just gold in them. They are guarded by powerful spells."
Thunder shook the house, rattling the windows and lamps. Churchill clutched his hat tightly as Alex continued.
"When we lived in Egypt, I was training to be a Medjai, like my friend Ardeth Bay. He's their leader. The Medjai protect the tombs from foolish intruders and try to keep ancient forces locked inside where they belong." Alex paused and stepped closer to Churchill. "But some creatures are too powerful to control. Before I left Egypt, the Scorpion King rose from the dead again. If it wasn't for the Medjai, the Scorpion King and his warriors would have killed my friend and me!"
"Wow," Churchill said with a shudder. "Until a few hours ago, I'd always believed that all this talk about Egyptian curses was a bunch of nonsensical hocus-pocus. Now an object has come into my possession . . ." He nodded toward the door just as the pallbearers wrestled the wet coffin inside.
One of the men slipped, and the casket spilled open. A gruesome mummy rolled onto the floor!
The Mummy's Heart
Blimey," one pallbearer said as he stared at the mummy in its gray bandages. Half of its face had rotted away. "I wouldn't kiss that thing on a dare."
The roots of the mummy's yellow teeth were exposed where the lips and cheek had decayed. Alex glanced at it and shrugged. He had seen worse.
"This mummy was intercepted at the docks in Cairo," Churchill said. "It was headed for Italy. It appears that a team of treasure hunters has made a find, possibly a very valuable one. I was hoping that your mother might be able to identify the location of the site from the casket."
"Mind if I take a look?" Alex asked. "My mum's been teaching me about mummies since before I could read." He carried the oil lamp to the coffin. It was covered with soot and dust. "This has been in a fire," he told them. Gently he began to brush off the soot. He could see some faded paint beneath it.
"There's a picture on here," Alex said. "Rich Greeks and Romans always had their portraits painted on their caskets. That means this is a recent burial as far as mummies go, probably some time after the Romans took over Egypt."
He rubbed away the dust to reveal the face of a young servant girl, perhaps fourteen—only two years older than Alex. She had dark, flowing hair and a small, sad smile. Her eyes were large and haunting, as if she were waiting for something that would never come.
"She died so young," Alex said. A wave of pity swept through him. The girl had probably let herself be sacrificed when her pharaoh died, so that she could escort her lord to heaven.
The pallbearer took off his hat and wiped sweat from his brow. "She was a real looker once—but she's seen better days."
Alex turned his attention to the mummy on the floor. "My mum told me it used to take up to three months for the priests of Anubis to mummify people in their temple. Hundreds of dead people were often stored in there at once. The priests kept each person tagged so there were no mix-ups."
Alex felt around the bandages at the mummy's throat. "Her tag must be in here somewhere."
"Unless she's someone you've heard of before, what help will her name give us?" Churchill asked.
"The name tag will probably tell us her occupation, the year of her death, and the name of the pharaoh she served."
He felt under the bandages by the girl's throat and pulled out her rotted tag. The faded brown letters were Coptic characters, a shorthand version of Egyptian hieroglyphics. Alex wasn't very good at reading Coptic. His mouth went dry with anticipation. Outside, thunder roared in the distance.
"Her name was Irani," Alex said slowly as he translated the characters into sounds. "She was a court magician—in the palace of Queen Cleopatra!"
"Cleopatra, now that's a familiar name," Churchill said. "As I recall, she was one of the wealthiest queens of Egypt, wasn't she?"
Alex's heart was hammering. "Not one of," he said. "Of all the pharaohs, she was the richest!"
"How rich?" Churchill asked tensely.
"Compared to her, King Tut was a pauper," Alex replied. "She had the largest fleet in the world and armies to match. For years people have been scouring Egypt, looking for signs of her. This will be the find of the century!"
"Well," one of the pallbearers said, "I'll be!"
"I read a story in one of my mum's books about how Cleopatra met Mark Anthony, the head general of the Roman legions," Alex continued. "He sent letters asking to meet her while he was visiting Egypt, but she refused. She didn't want him to think he could order her around. Instead, she waited until he was giving a speech in the town square, then floated down the Nile in a boat that was covered in gold leaf. The sails were spun from purple silk, and the oars were made of silver."
"Lovely," one pallbearer sighed, staring into space.
Alex grinned. "Even the oarsmen had been painted gold, and musicians played golden flutes, harps, and drums. That's how rich she was!" he proclaimed.
Churchill furrowed his brow and muttered, "Exactly what I was afraid of . . ."
"Mark Anthony fell in love with her instantly and never willingly left her side," Alex added.
"Wasn't there a bit of trouble before this fellow?" Churchill asked.
"Yes, she was also married to Julius Caesar, the leader of the Roman Senate. The book said Caesar left his first wife to live with Cleopatra in Egypt—and caused quite a scandal in Rome."
"Of course," Churchill replied. "You can't have the leader of the senate just running off for love! Nothing would ever get done."
Alex nodded. "The Romans believed that Cleopatra was a witch who had used black magic to steal Caesar's heart. When he returned to Rome several years later, his fellow senators stabbed him in the back."
"That's when Cleopatra returned to Egypt and met Mark Anthony," Churchill concluded, stroking his chin thoughtfully.
"Exactly," Alex said. "When Mark Anthony fell in love with her, too, rumors about Cleopatra's power grew in Rome again. Caesar's brother-in-law, General Octavio, was sent to Egypt to hunt her down."
"I remember this part," Churchill said. "When the Romans cornered her, Cleopatra decided to commit suicide."
"That's where most of the history books end," Alex said, "but Ardeth Bay told me more. He said Cleopatra built her tomb far out in Desh-Ret, the dead lands of the Sahara. The priests and sorcerers who served in her court bound the tomb with such powerful curses that no one could rob it—until at last the sands blew over the tomb and it was lost forever."
"Not forever, it seems," Churchill said. "Egypt has been plagued by fierce sandstorms for the past month. Last week, a caravan of traders took shelter in their tents behind an enormous hill of sand near an excavation site. In the morning when they woke, the hilltop was gone—revealing the jagged top of a temple. This mummy was recovered from the tomb—along with a small fortune in gold. If the reports are true, the tomb may hold more gold than all the treasuries of Europe."
Alex shook his head in disbelief as rain continued to patter on the roof.
Churchill sighed, then continued. "The Italians were the first to learn of the find. They've taken control of the tomb. In the spirit of their new alliance with Germany, Mussolini has hired a ruthless chap to lead their group, a German archaeologist named Zorin Ungricht."
Alex's blood went cold. "Ungricht tried to kill my friend and me at the Scorpion King's temple. He'll do anything for money!"
"I'll be honest," Churchill said. "If Mussolini gets his hands on that gold, he could start a real row. But I'm afraid there is a greater danger—from the mummies themselves. They are evil, unnatural creatures, aren't they?"
"Not all of them," Alex said. "Evil people make evil mummies, but good people make good mummies. It's like the Medjai taught me: Power is neither good nor evil, it's how we use it that matters."
"I agree," Churchill replied, "but there is something about this mummy in particular that makes me fear the worst. Look at this . . ."
Churchill knelt on the floor beside the mummy. "I'm not an expert like your mum, but I know that all internal organs were removed when a person was mummified."
Alex nodded. "All the organs were taken out but one—the heart. The Egyptians believed that the heart was weighed after death by the god Osiris to see if the good in the person's heart overbalanced the evil acts he committed."
"Indeed," Churchill said. "So the heart should be inside the mummy, right?"
"Yes," Alex answered.
"Would you take a look at it?"
Alex put his hand inside the mummy's chest and touched something hard and dry—the shrunken heart.
As he pulled it out, the two-thousand-year-old heart expanded rapidly, then contracted. The heart was still beating!
The pallbearers gasped.
Suddenly, the mummy reached up, grabbed Alex's wrist, and roared.