... Only the Beginning
The desert rose up and struck him like an anvil. Rick closed his eyes as his boots hit the sand; he tried to hold onto Evie, but the force of his landing jarred her from his arms, and he collapsed over her body. Molten fire surged through his limbs; not the mortal pain he'd half-expected, the crushing, tearing consequences of a human body attempting to defy gravity, but something altogether *else* that seared through him like the hot breath of Hell-- or the touch of a god's hand.
Just like the flash he'd felt when he'd killed Anubis' champion. Or, more accurately, he supposed: Anubis' *previous* champion.
"Evie," he whispered, as the swell of power began to ebb and he regained the ability to breathe. Had they travelled too far? Were the relics too deeply buried for their power to touch her here? Was the spell completely gone?
"Evie," he said again, struggling back up to his knees, staring down at the still face of his beloved. His princess. The one, above all others, he was supposed to protect-- at least, according to legend.
He wondered what legend they'd tell of *this* adventure in a few thousand years' time.
"Evie," he said a third and final time, reaching out to touch her face.
His fingertips brushed against her soft skin, and he almost despaired; but then it registered-- her skin was *warm*. Her skin was warm, and there was color in her lips again--
Her eyes flew open, and she sucked in a desperate breath, back arching against the sand. "Rick?" she cried, wildly.
"I'm right here," he said thickly, as he finally allowed the tears to come. "I'm right here, Evie."
Her eyes settled on his face, and she reached up to touch him, fingers shaking as badly as his had earlier. "You brought me back again," she said, in wondering tones. "But I thought the Book--"
"Look around you, babe," he chuckled, morbidly. "I threw us out of Izzy's airship. Looks like contact with Egyptian soil was enough to do it."
"But that might have killed you!" she objected, struggling upward. "How did you know it would work?"
She clasped one hand over her stomach as she sat up, then lifted it again and tugged torn fabric aside, staring at the still-torn skin beneath. It didn't bleed, nor did it seem to pain her; no wonder they hadn't noticed that the spell hadn't actually healed her amid all the chaos in the temple.
"I didn't. I just didn't know what else to do." He reached out to touch the edges of the wound, then cupped his hand over it and reached out, clumsily, to the power he could still feel licking at the edges of his mind. He wasn't sure it was a good idea-- he really, really didn't want to end up like the other guy, stuck in a temple in half-scorpion form while he waited for someone else to come and kill him, and he wasn't even sure it would work-- but he couldn't just sit by and do *nothing*.
Energy rushed up through him, accompanied by half-heard laughter; it poured up through his knees, his thighs, his chest, and down his arm, flooding him with heat and washing down into her wound.
Anubis was a god of the dead: of judgment, of embalming, the keeper of the gates. But he'd listened to Evie's lectures often enough over the years, and he remembered something else about him:
--Anubis' jackal head was black because of the association Egyptians had between the color black, and the ideas of regeneration, death, and the night--
Regeneration, he thought, focusing: and beneath his hand, the edges of the sai wound pulled together, sealing shut with only a thin scar to show that anything had happened. Then he let the power go, breathing deeply of the dry desert air.
*You learn quickly*, the laughing voice added, before Rick could push it out of his mind.
"What-- Rick, what did you do?" Evie asked, tangling her fingers with his.
He turned to her with a pained smile. "You remember how the guy who killed Anubis' champion was supposed to take his place at the head of his army?" he asked.
She stared back, eyes solemn. "What does this mean?"
He shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine," he told her. Probably better; she knew a lot more about Egyptian myth than he did. "It didn't even occur to me until we were flying away, and I realized what happened to you. You remember that American professor, back when I first took you to Hamunaptra?"
"Yes?" she said, hesitantly. "What does he have to do with this?"
"There was this saying he was fond of," Rick replied, reaching up with his other hand to stroke her lips, her eyebrows, her chin. That was twice in one day he'd lost her-- and he didn't fool himself that his little trick with the regeneration would have changed anything. She was still as dead as she'd been since the moment Anck-su-namun had stabbed her; the incantation only made her *seem* alive, and anchored her spirit to her reanimated body. In retrospect, it made perfect sense; Alex and Jonathan had used the Book of the Dead to do it, after all. They'd have to find some way of changing that, of truly bringing her back to life, if they were going to travel very far from this place.
So much for ever leaving Egypt again-- at least he'd got Alex out.
"On these hallowed grounds, that which was set forth in ancient times is as strong today as it was then," he said aloud, repeating the professor's words. "I thought, considering we were pretty much still *at* the oasis, even if it was buried under a ton of sand--"
"Oh, Rick." She smiled sadly, dark eyes swimming with tears. "What would I do without you."
"I hope you never have to find out," he replied. "When I lost you back there-- when I lost you just now--"
"Hey," she said, tremulously. "Don't think about that. I'm back, and I'm not leaving again."
Rick bent down and stopped her mouth with a kiss.
He wasn't sure how much time had passed when he became aware of the outside world again. A jingle of harness, a stamping hoof, a clearing throat: the sounds seemed to strike his ear all at once, and he pulled back, glancing up the nearest rise of sand.
The Medjai chieftain stared back at him, his eyes more troubled than welcoming. Rick wondered how much he'd seen. "Ardeth," he said, nodding a greeting.
"O'Connell," Ardeth replied, acknowledging him. Then his eyes settled on Evie. "Princess."
Most of it, then, to make him so formal. Rick winced, then got to his feet and tugged Evie up after him. "I think we have a lot to talk about," he said.
Days later, a party of men arrived at Ardeth's camp, messengers of Medjai descent whose families lived in Cairo. Neither Jonathan nor Alex was with them, though they carried a letter for the chieftain bearing the Carnahan seal; it looked like Evie's brother was taking Rick's parting command seriously.
"He wishes to know whether you are alive," Ardeth said after reading the letter. "Izzy would not return to verify your survival, but he saw my horse in the distance, and knew I would have found you."
There was a challenge in his dark eyes, one Rick knew to take seriously.
"Tell him I was seriously wounded, and that I'm healing slowly," he finally said, shrugging. "Don't say anything about Evie. They've probably told half the world by now that she died and I went crazy with grief; that's probably for the best."
"You would deprive the boy of his mother? A brother of his sister?" Ardeth asked, coolly.
"Jonathan can take care of himself," Rick replied, setting his jaw, "and he'll do right by Alex. By the time Alex finishes his schooling and comes back, we'll have a better handle on what's going on. We can't send that kind of news by letter; we can't afford to let it be intercepted. Besides, it's going to become pretty obvious in a few years that we've stopped aging. It'd be best if we let our trail end here."
He'd already talked it over with Evie. She hadn't taken it well; she didn't want to be separated from her family any more than he did. But it would be necessary.
The Medjai chieftain nodded. "That was my thought as well," he said, approvingly.
"Just-- put in a postscript, would you? Say 'Death is only the beginning'. " Rick added. With luck, Jonathan would guess what that meant.
Ardeth frowned, but did not object. "Very well. I know this is all very difficult for you, but the consequences of your recent actions will take years to fully understand, and there is no one who can better help you than my people. In time, we should be able to find some other arrangement; you will not be required to remain here for all eternity."
"I should hope not," Rick said, wryly. "From what I've seen, eternity's not all it's cracked up to be, anyway."
"You think like a Medjai already," Ardeth replied, in the same vein.
Rick stared past the half-open tent-flap, to where his wife practiced with her sais in the cool morning air. "Maybe so," he said. Whatever else had happened, whatever else might come-- they were still here, still together, and still fighting.