The Tomb of Doom
By Gareth P. Jones
Macmillan Copyright © 2012 Gareth P. Jones
All rights reserved.
A LOB DISTANCE CALL
It had been almost a month since the Clan of the Scorpion last encountered their deadly enemy the Ringmaster and his circus goons. They were enjoying a welcome break from saving the world back at their secret underground base in the Red Desert.
Or, at least, three of them were enjoying the break.
"I'm bored," moaned Jet, as he entered the main chamber of their burrow, trailing his nunchucks behind him.
"You could give me a hand with this," said Donnie, who was struggling with something flat, rectangular, and twice his size.
Bruce looked up from his bag of dry-roasted crickets. "What is that?" he asked.
"It's our new TV," said Donnie proudly, placing it on a table by the wall. "It's got a high-definition plasma screen and surround-sound speakers. Welcome to the future, my friends."
Chuck, who had been meditating silently in the corner, opened one eye. "Why do we need such a thing?" he asked. "We would only use it for keeping up with what is happening in the outside world, and we can already do that through the Internet."
"Ah, but it also has a webcam," said Donnie. "That means that once I've hooked it up, we'll be able to receive video calls on the big screen instead of on my smartphone!" He pulled a remote control and some cables from his pocket, and connected the TV up to the power and the router.
"Hey, we could watch action films on it too!" Bruce pointed out. "Vin Pain has got a new movie out — it's called Lethal Biscuit Two: Redunked."
"Films are no substitute for the real thing," said Jet, spinning around and whacking a punchbag. "I'm so bored."
"You should be using this time for quiet meditation and practicing the art of kung fu, Jet," said Chuck. "Haven't you a new technique to work on?"
"Well, I was trying to learn one called the Squeeze of Rigidity," said Jet.
"That sounds cool," said Bruce. "What is it?"
"It's a move that causes your opponent's muscles to freeze, putting them out of action temporarily," Jet replied. "But my kung-fu manual went missing."
"You can borrow this one," said an elderly voice. "It is most entertaining."
Grandmaster One-Eye entered the chamber, clutching a book.
"Hey," exclaimed Jet. "That is my book!"
"Oh, is it?" asked the ancient meerkat. "Well, it's reminded me about some of the moves I used to do. When you get to my age, the jogging of one's memory is just about the only kind of jogging you can manage." He smiled and handed it to Jet.
"Did you ever perform the Squeeze of Rigidity, Grandmaster?" Jet asked.
"Oh yes, I was something of an expert at that one in my day."
"Would you demonstrate it for me?" asked Jet excitedly. "I've been practicing, but I can't work out how hard you need to —"
Grandmaster One-Eye reached out his paw and gently squeezed Jet's arm, cutting him short. Jet fell backward, his body completely rigid. Bruce jumped up and caught him just before he crashed to the floor.
"'ot 'id you 'o 'hat 'or?" mumbled Jet.
"Well, you did ask him to demonstrate the move," said Chuck with a wry smile. "And at least you're not bored anymore."
"No," Donnie laughed. "Now he's as stiff as a board."
"How long will he be like this for?" asked Bruce, laying him gently on the ground.
"Feeling will return to his body gradually over the next few hours," said One-Eye, looking quite pleased with himself.
"A 'ew 'ours?" Jet exclaimed.
"I believe the toes regain feeling first. He'll be as right as rain soon enough," the Grandmaster assured them. "The Squeeze of Rigidity, eh? Who would have thought I still had the knack!"
A ringing sound suddenly echoed around the burrow.
"What's that?" asked Bruce.
"An incoming call," said Donnie. "We can try out the new webcam!"
Donnie clicked the remote control and a single eye appeared on the enormous TV. The owner of the eye moved back to reveal a meerkat bearing a striking resemblance to Chuck, standing in a tunnel and wearing a sand-colored robe.
"It's my brother, Lob," said Chuck. "Lob, it has been too long! How is Cairo?"
"Greetings to you, Chuck," said Lob hurriedly. "I am afraid this is not a social call. I need your help."
"Grillian'!" said Jet.
"What did he say?" asked Lob.
"Don't ask," said Chuck. "What do you need help with?"
Lob checked over his shoulder, then whispered, "It is not safe for me to explain over a video call. Please come to Cairo and I will tell you everything."
"We will catch the next flight out," promised Chuck. "How will we find you when we get there?"
"Just tell me when you are due to arrive and I'll find you," said Lob. "Please hurry."
The screen went blank and Chuck turned to the others. "We have a mission."
"So, you're off to Egypt, eh? I once fought the Crazy Camels of Cairo there," said Grandmaster One-Eye with a wistful smile.
"Really? How did you defeat them?" asked Chuck.
"Oh, they were no match for my moves." One-Eye demonstrated with a karate chop that accidentally knocked over a row of fighting staffs. "Eventually they got the hump and ran off."
Donnie sniggered, but Chuck bowed respectfully. "You are indeed a worthy adversary, Grandmaster. But if you will excuse us, we must be on our way. Bruce, bring Jet. To the Meer-kart!"
THE ALLIANCE OF RIGHTEOUS RETURNERS
By the time the Clan reached the airport parking lot, Jet could wiggle his toes but he still had to be picked up and placed on a seat within Donnie's suitcase disguise.
"I've improved the design," Donnie explained. "Check it out."
Inside were four tiny bicycle seats, each with a set of pedals. Donnie sat at the front, behind the steering wheel. Chuck was behind him, followed by Bruce. Jet was at the back, and was just managing to cling on to the seat with his claws to keep upright.
"This is 'idiculous," he muttered.
"Right, let's get going," said Donnie. "Bruce, would you do the honors?"
Bruce pulled the suitcase closed, plunging them into darkness. "Hey, how are we supposed to know where we're going without eyeholes?" he asked.
"We don't need eyeholes," Donnie replied, pressing a button next to the steering wheel. A picture of the world outside appeared on a screen above it. "I've fixed a small camera on top of the suitcase, see?" He wiggled a joystick and the camera moved.
"Congratulations on yet another ingenious design, Donnie," said Chuck. "Let's head for Departures. We have a flight to catch."
* * *
By the time the plane touched down in Cairo, Jet had recovered full use of his limbs.
"Finally!" he said, bouncing up and down on his seat excitedly, as the suitcase moved around the luggage carousel.
"Keep still, Jet!" Donnie checked the screen. "OK, on the count of three, everyone lean to the right. One, two, three ..."
If any of the other passengers had been looking, they would have seen one bag fall off the carousel and make its way toward the exit, moving alongside a tourist's suitcase to give the impression that it was an item of his luggage.
"Do you have any idea what kind of trouble Lob might be in, Chuck?" asked Jet.
Chuck shook his head. "I suspect that it will have something to do with his job, although he has never revealed what that is ..."
The Clan passed through the Arrivals gate and out of the exit. The midday sun was high in the sky.
"Now, where is Lob?" asked Chuck.
"I am right here," said a voice.
Donnie twisted the camera around and saw a tatty brown suitcase in front of them.
"Follow me," said the suitcase.
The two bags made their way across the road and into some bushes, where Lob opened his case and climbed out. The Clan did the same.
"Nice disguise," said Donnie.
"It was designed by a rat named Rameses who, like you, Donnie, has a flair for invention," Lob said with a respectful bow.
"You know my name?"
"Your interest in gadgets suggests that you are the Clan's master inventor, Donnie Dragonjab," Lob replied. "Chuck speaks highly of you, as he does of all of the Clan."
"It is good to see you, Lob," Chuck said, bowing to his brother. "But what is wrong? Why have you summoned us?"
Lob looked around nervously. "Not here. I will tell you on the way into town."
"Which disguise do you want to use?" asked Donnie, delving into his rucksack. "I've got a sheep, a cow, a dog ..."
"We do not need disguises in this city," said Lob. He reached down and lifted a trapdoor that revealed the entrance to an underground tunnel. "We'll take the tunnels. They were also built by Rameses, you know."
The meerkats followed him through the trapdoor and along a series of underground passages, high enough for them to stand upright and wide enough to walk side by side. Along the way, they passed several rats, cats, and mice. Each one greeted Lob with a salute as they passed.
"You are well respected here," said Chuck. "You must hold a position of great power."
"You are correct, brother. Apologies for my secrecy, but it was essential that I kept what I do under wraps," replied Lob. "I am commander of the Alliance of Righteous Returners — you will see how we operate shortly. We have a daily battle with the Thieves of Cairo. For many years the Thieves have relieved the city's tourists of their wallets and plundered this country of its treasures. The pharaohs were often buried with precious items, many of which were steeped in mystery and magic. The most dangerous of these objects has never been found. Like a fox hunted by a hound, it is safest while hidden, and we must help to keep it so."
Donnie smirked. "You'd never guess he was related to Chuck, would you?"
"So how can we help?" asked Chuck.
"Nuff's Head," said Lob.
"Enough said about what?" asked Bruce.
"No, Nuff's Head is the mystical object we need your help to protect. It is a golden mask once owned by the legendary Pharaoh Nuff, and is said to give the wearer the ability to see into anyone's mind."
"The possessor of such an item would acquire great power," said Chuck. "I can think of at least one man who would be interested in that ... Where is the mask kept?"
"Within the Tomb of Doom," said Lob.
"Sounds lovely," Donnie replied.
"Once guarded by five magical Protectors, the entrance is located in the largest of the Queen's pyramids at Giza," Lob continued. "Legend tells of a door that only opens if a well-armed visitor touches the mummy's tummy ..."
"Sounds simple enough," said Jet.
"But that's not all," replied Lob. "Inside, one must face the Junction of the Protectors where, it is said, every set of footsteps leads to death. Finally, one must choose which of the Triangular Doors to take. Many have tried to break into the Tomb of Doom, but few have survived to speak of its puzzles — and none have succeeded in deciphering them."
"I'm not surprised," interjected Bruce. "I didn't understand half of that."
"There is only one surviving Protector who knows how to solve the Tomb of Doom's riddles — an old owl by the name of Hootenkamun, or Hoots for short," Lob said. "His identity has been kept secret — until now. My spies tell me that the Thieves of Cairo intend to kidnap him and force him to tell them the tomb's secrets. My most trusted Returners have been watching over Hoots, but we are not fighters. If we are to keep him safe, we need those accomplished in the art of combat. We need you."
"Of course we will help," said Chuck.
"Great," sighed Jet. "Sitting around protecting some old owl."
"Come on, it'll be a hoot," said Donnie.
"Tell me, Lob, why couldn't you say these things over the video call?" asked Chuck.
Lob lowered his voice again. "I believe there is a mole amongst the Returners."
"I haven't seen any moles," said Bruce. "I've seen cats, rats, mice ..."
"He means someone working for the Thieves: a double agent," Donnie explained.
Lob led them up a steep tunnel, and out through a grate into a busy marketplace. Everything from silks and spices to souvenir sphinxes was for sale here. The exotic-smelling foods made Bruce drool.
"All this hustle and bustle makes it the perfect place for the Thieves to operate," said Lob. "We will be able to recognize them by the hooded cloaks they wear."
"But if they are so easy to identify, why have the police not dealt with them?" asked Chuck.
"The Thieves have friends in high places," Lob explained. "Official investigations into their activities never last long, and never result in arrests; it is only the Returners who stand up to them. Look, there's one now," he said, pointing at a man who was walking through the marketplace. He was wearing a dark blue cloak, the hood pulled low over his face, and had a monkey crouched on his shoulder. The man said something to the monkey; it climbed down, scampered over to an unsuspecting tourist, and removed his wallet from his pocket.
"He just stole that man's wallet!" exclaimed Donnie.
"Wait one moment," said Lob, as the monkey delivered the prize to his master, "and you will see the Returners at work."
A black cat slipped out from behind a nearby stall, snuck up on the Thief, and, with a precisely timed jump and an outstretched paw, swiped the stolen wallet from his cloak pocket. The cat carried it back to the tourist and returned it to his pocket.
By the time the Thief realized the wallet had been taken, the cat had vanished.
"Wow, that's one fast kitty," said Jet.
"I'm the quickest and the slickest, you won't hear me coming at ya. I'm the Thieves' worst nightmare and they call me Cleo Catra," said a voice behind them.
The meerkats turned to see a pair of green eyes peering at them.
A DATE WITH DESTINY
"Clan of the Scorpion, meet Cleo Catra. She is the best Returner we have," said Lob, introducing the black cat as she slunk out of the shadows. "Although she is supposed to be watching over Hootenkamun, not here dealing with street pickpockets," he added pointedly.
"Rameses is perfectly capable of guarding Hoots on his own for a few minutes. Besides, I wanted to meet this bunch of merekats whose help you think we need," she sneered.
"Cleo, be nice," said Lob. "Please forgive her. We disagree about the best way to keep Cairo safe."
"My family has lived here for generations. We don't need help from outsiders, Commander Lob," Cleo continued. "You lot may be trained ninjas, but I learned my skills from the street, and you can't compete with my moves, so sweet."
"Oh yeah?" said Jet.
"Yeah," Cleo retorted.
"We don't have time for petty squabbling," said Lob. "Come on, we must get to Hoots."
Everyone followed him back down into the tunnel. After a few more twists and turns, the pathway led them inside a building. A few moments later, they paused in front of a grate, through which they could see a room full of ancient Egyptian artifacts, sarcophagi, and statues of strange creatures and past pharaohs.
"We are inside the walls of the Egyptian Museum," said Lob.
He led them up a miniature flight of stairs, at the top of which were some loose bricks in the wall. Lob removed them, and climbed through into a room full of dusty books, ancient-looking scrolls, crates, and boxes.
"The humans use this room for storage," explained Lob, weaving his way between piles of crates. "They rarely come up here, which is why I thought it would be a good place for Hoots to stay for a while."
The group rounded a corner and found themselves staring at a large stack of books. From the feathers scattered around, it was clear that this was Hoots's roost. But there was no owl to be seen.
"So where is he?" asked Donnie.
"Hootenkamun?" Cleo called, sounding slightly panicky. "Rameses?"
"Cleo?" replied a voice. "Is that you?" From behind a stack of boxes crawled a disheveled-looking rat. He scratched his head with his back foot, revealing a large pink bump.
"Rameses!" exclaimed Lob. "Are you all right?"
The rat nodded, looking sheepish. "I'm sorry — I didn't see a thing!" he said. "Someone knocked me out and took Hoots."
"It must have been the Thieves," said Chuck. "We'll go after them at once."
"A rescue mission," said Jet. "Now that's more like it!"
"Pah," said Cleo. "You can no more enter their headquarters without being noticed than a bear can sneak inside a beehive disguised in a yellow and black sweater."
"It's true," added Rameses. "It's impossible to infiltrate the Den of Thieves. We've tried."
"The Clan of the Scorpion doesn't believe in impossibilities," said Donnie.
"Very well," replied Lob. "But we must act quickly." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Ninja Meerkats by Gareth P. Jones. Copyright © 2012 Gareth P. Jones. Excerpted by permission of Macmillan.
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