Egypt, 1942 AD
The limestone door ground over the gravelly earth as the diggers pushed it open. The grating noise would not have been the most pleasant for most men to hear, but for Friedrich von Essen, it was music to his ears. After untold weeks of watching these chattering Arabs gouge a pit out of the desert beneath the roasting sun, he had found it at last.
The thought of presenting this discovery to those fools back in Berlin made him smirk with glee. Even the Führer himself, eager as he was for any leverage in the war, had shown a bit of hesitance before sponsoring the expedition. Even if Friedrich ended up finding nothing inside this tomb, he had at least confirmed its very existence.
A faint yet acrid smell flowed out from the black depths beyond the doorway. The Arab diggers jumped back with startled shouts and whimpered among themselves, their normally bronze faces slightly blanched.
Underneath the howl of the wind, Friedrich thought he had heard a soft whisper. It must have been one of the dozens of men behind him, but it did make the back of his neck prickle.
“What do those inscriptions say, Professor von Essen?” Colonel Hermann Schmidt pointed to the string of hieroglyphs chiseled into the entrance’s lintel.
“Oh, those simply identify the tomb as belonging to Nefrusheri,” Friedrich said. “Why?”
The colonel’s tanned face had turned a shade paler as well. “I only wanted to make sure it wasn’t something like a curse.”
“Oh, don’t believe such sensationalist rubbish. Curses aren’t as common on Egyptian tombs as you think. You might find a few in tombs from the Old Kingdom, but that’s about it.”
“Fair enough, Professor. I would’ve expected a fearsome sorceress like your Nefrusheri would have something protecting her resting place.”
Friedrich glanced back at the darkness within the tomb. If the departed sorceress truly possessed the sort of power he sought, it would seem strange if she had not taken measures to defend it somehow. What those would be, he could not even guess.
On the other hand, he could not let fear and paranoia keep anyone away. Not when there was a war to win and a world to conquer.
“In case she does, bring your men over here,” Friedrich said. “We’ll go in together.”
After strutting up the ramp out of the excavated pit and barking his orders, Col. Schmidt returned with a double-file line of Waffen-SS riflemen behind him. By the time they had arrived, all the Arabs had already scurried away from the scene.
“Good thing we didn’t count on the natives to join us,” Schmidt said. “Those Arabs are even lowlier cowards than the Jews.”
Friedrich chuckled. “Once we’re done here, it won’t be long before we take care of them too.”
They marched into the blackness with only Friedrich and Schmidt’s dim flashlights to guide them ahead. The same odor that had wafted out of the tomb earlier floated within its interior, as did a stuffy warmth that almost surpassed the blazing heat outside. The echo of their boots clipping on the stone floor was the only sound interrupting the silence.
In most respects, the hallway they descended into differed little from other Egyptian tombs. Painted reliefs on the walls portrayed scenes from daily life as it would have been four millennia ago, including rural chores in the fields and pastures, feasts and banquets with dancers and musicians, and noblemen and women hunting in the marshes beside the Nile. It was the sort of blissful mundanity the ancient Egyptian people would have anticipated in their afterlife.
“At least the subject matter of the art isn’t so creepy,” Schmidt muttered.
“Then you haven’t seen this one yet,” Friedrich said.
He aimed his flashlight at a relief showing Egyptian soldiers trampling, spearing, and butchering a mass of other men beneath them. The victims’ bearded faces, extravagantly colored robes, and tan skin stood out in sharp contrast with the darker brown Egyptians in their white loincloths. To the left of the scene was a larger image of a woman with a gold vulture headdress over her tightly braided hair, who held in one hand a staff with a circle of bright red on its headpiece. Inside this disc was a tiny likeness of the falcon-headed god Ra on his solar barge.
“This portrays Nefrusheri herself with the Staff of the Red Sun,” Friedrich said. He ran his finger over the hieroglyphs surrounding the scene. “Here, she’s leading the army of Egypt against Near Eastern enemies.”
He noticed zig-zagging red lines pointing away from the staff’s headpiece towards the battle. Each of the lines ended with the black silhouette of a Near Easterner surrounded by flame.
“And this shows the Staff’s fiery power,” Friedrich continued.
Schmidt grinned. “Imagine if the Wehrmacht had that in its arsenal.”
“Well, that’s why we’re here, isn’t it?”
Although all the soldiers had stopped to examine the reliefs, the silence within the tomb gave way to a pounding beat. With every rhythm, the thumping grew louder as its tempo sped up. Sweat cold as winter trickled down Friedrich’s brow.
“It must be my heart,” he said.
“You hear it too?” Schmidt had his hand over his pistol in its holster.
The beating continued to rise. Its timbre was too hard for a pulsing human heartbeat, and the rhythm too frantic. Interspersed within this swelling rumble were coarse hoots and chants.
“It sounds like drums,” Schmidt murmured. “And voices.”
“The Arabs must be having some sort of celebration above us,” Friedrich replied.
Not that he believed it. If that was drumming, it sounded less like Arab doumbeks than the tribal drums that rumbled further south in darkest Africa. Even the chanting vocals, if those were indeed vocals at all, evoked some sort of pagan ritual more than anything Islamic.
But what could African heathens be doing this far north into the Sahara?
“We should press on,” Friedrich said. “Maybe that will leave the sound behind us.”
They hurried down the corridor until it opened into a broader chamber, with about ten niches receding into its left and right walls together. Friedrich noticed the gleaming of gold within each of these alcoves. Not even the drumming or chanting, which had not died down in the least, could keep him from drifting towards the promise of treasure.
It was a gilded coffin which stood upright within each of these niches. This was not an arrangement Friedrich had known from other Egyptian tombs. The earliest Egyptian kings did have retinues of servants and slaves put to death to accompany them in the afterlife, but most of their descendants had abandoned that practice in favor of miniature figurines known as ushabtis. And these artifacts were way too big to be ushabtis.
“Whom would these gentlemen be?” Schmidt asked from behind. “And which one is our sorceress?”
Friedrich approached one of the coffins, noting the rounded and feminine features of its unblinking brown face. He ran his eyes over the columns of hieroglyphs written down its body.
“None of them are men,” he said. “I think they’re supposed to be the ‘Ten Sisters of Nefrusheri’. The text on this one claims they’re here to guard her.”
“Then they’re not doing a good job by just standing there.” Schmidt scanned the chamber with his flashlight. “I don’t see anything else in here. But what’s that over there, Professor?”
Friedrich turned to spot more gold glimmering within another doorway on the chamber’s opposite wall. Within it, he also spotted a flash of bright red. Now the pulse of his heart drowned out even the ghostly drums.
He darted into the next room to find himself surrounded by dazzling heaps of gold. Howard Carter himself could not have found more riches within the tomb of Tutankhamun two decades before. Everything the Egyptians believed would be needed in the afterlife, from furniture and pottery to hunting weapons and articles of clothing, filled up space in this final chamber, all chased with gold and inlaid with precious stones. A single piece of this exotic treasure would allow Friedrich to retire for the second half of his life.
At the far end of the room stood the coffin of the sorceress Nefrusheri herself, made of solid gold and almost thick as thick from front to back as the ones that housed her sisters in the previous chamber. It would probably take the entirety of the force Schmidt had brought down here to haul this coffin out, never mind the rest of the treasure. Yet it was not even this which caught Friedrich’s eye above everything else around him.
One of the coffin’s two hands clutched a gold staff as tall as a man. On its top, a red disc glowed with a brilliance far superior to Friedrich’s flashlight. To even gaze into it petrified him where he stood.
The legends were true. Not only had Nefrusheri once existed, but so did the Staff of the Red Sun and its sorcerous power. Even if they could not bring anything else from the tomb back home, they had to return with this. Only with this could they win the war, and the whole world with it. Not only that, but the Führer himself would be so elated as to grant Friedrich von Essen anything his heart desired.
Maybe Friedrich could even be appointed as the next Führer himself.
His arms trembled as he wrapped his hands around the Staff of the Red Sun and began to pull it up. He did not even mind how it scaled his fingers to the touch. Grunting as his arm muscles strained under its weight, Friedrich heaved the Staff out of the coffin’s hold into his own.
The drums came back with a cracking boom like thunder. The voices that joined them chanted, whooped, and roared in a warlike frenzy. The light of the Staff’s headpiece burned brighter than the sun itself, forcing Friedrich to avert his eyes as he dropped it.
Above the furious music spoke a woman’s voice with a thick African accent. “A great evil has trespassed to steal from my people. Repent and retreat, or face the wrath of my sisters and I!”
Friedrich burst out from the burial chamber until he collided into Schmidt, knocking both men to the floor. He was still scrambling to get back on his feet when he heard things banging against wood.
All around them, the coffins of the ten sisters popped open, flooding the hall with the stink of death and musty linen.
They shambled out on their bandaged gaunt legs while shrieking shriller than banshees. In their eye sockets blazed red embers, the light of which glinted on the bronze axes, spears, and sickle-like swords they brandished. Once out of their coffins, they closed in on the Germans with a charging speed that seemed impossible for such desiccated frames.
Rifles and pistols banged away, but the corpses neither halted nor fled from the reports. Friedrich saw Schmidt puncture one mummy’s cheekbone with his gun, but her only response was a scream more enraged than frightened. Afterward came the sweep of her ax through the air and the wet crack of the colonel’s skull.
Snatching the pistol from the slain Schmidt’s hand, Friedrich fired into the undead warrior’s breast. Still she did not recoil. After ducking her next attack, he tried shooting the brow of her skull. Her jawbones clacked with mocking laughter.
Whatever kept these mummies animated, it could not be organs of flesh and blood. Those would have been removed during the mummification process. What a fool Friedrich had been to forget that!
Not even the staccato of gunfire could be heard over the hacking of flesh, the splinter of bone, and the death cries of men. As Friedrich kept shooting away at the mummy that had slain Schmidt, his boot slipped on the blood which had slicked the whole floor. He landed on his back with a hard splash that almost broke his spine.
The clangor of the battle ended with silence. Not even the rumble of the drums or the disembodied chanting continued. If Friedrich could hear anything other than his own panting as he struggled to get up, it was the clicking of the mummies’ bones as they gathered to encircle him. All his compatriots had fallen into pieces soaked with crimson fluid.
Only he remained, trapped by a ring of corpses glaring down at him with their eyes of red flame. Paralyzed by terror, he could only whimper a prayer that the undead would end his life with quick mercy.
They did not. Instead, they lowered their weapons and stepped away from Friedrich, parting their ranks into two.
“You wish my sisters could cut you apart like the rest.” It was the female voice he had heard earlier in the sorceress’s burial chamber. “No, you deserve something more special.”
Friedrich got up to see another figure saunter towards him from the burial chamber. This was no mummy in bandages that approached him, but rather a supple young woman dressed in radiant white linen and jewelry of gold and precious stones, with a gold vulture headdress sitting atop her braided black hair. Her full lips curved into a sneer on her dark mahogany-brown face as she regarded him with dark, kohl-lined eyes.
In her slender hand, she held the Staff of the Red Sun.
Friedrich fell to his knees and wrung his hands. “O Nefrusheri, please have mercy on me. Let me return to my people unharmed, and I shall never disturb the sanctity of your tomb again.”
“If only your sole crime was trespassing here, Friedrich von Essen.” Nefrusheri tapped his red swastika armband with the butt of her Staff. “Now that I have you in my clutches, I cannot allow evil such as yours to escape. Instead, you shall suffer a fate almost as terrible as that you desire for others.”
The sorceress clenched the Staff with both hands and murmured an incantation in the ancient Egyptian language. From the disc of its headpiece beamed red light that hit Friedrich on his armband, burning into the flesh underneath and spreading throughout his entire body until it blossomed into flame. Everything around him turned scarlet as the fire devoured his every tissue with hot, unrelenting pain.
“You damned Neger!” he yelled. “May your whole damned race rot in hell!”
The last thing Friedrich von Essen ever heard was Nefrusheri’s contemptuous laughter beneath the crackling of the fire.