The Black Pharaoh, Chapter Two

The Nugghratti Desert was a far-flung outpost of a vast waste that was made before mankind pulled his knuckles off the ground. Very little life had bothered to try and take hold there, and what plant life there was displayed either stunted growth or wind-beaten twisted visage. Animal life of any kind remained hidden during the day in underground retreats, coming out only at night to forage, and waiting until morning in hopes of collecting the condensed dew that passed for water. It never rained here- or more correctly, it never rained any measurable amount. It had been decades since a rainfall had lasted more than twenty minutes.

If any bedouins ever traveled through this region, they would undoubtedly tell tales and legends of the last great rainfall of the Nugghratti, and sung their songs of how the land was cursed to a weary existence of baking heat and near sterility. But even with their rich tradition of stories passed down in oral form from one generation to the next over hundreds of years, the bedouins could not tell you why it was so, for their ancestors forbade themselves to sing or even to speak of certain things, like divine curses. To speak of a curse was to invite it unto yourself. So they did not tell any stories about the ancient times, when the desert still held a little greenery and rainfall was not the stuff of legend but merely an infrequent occurrence. But of the legend of the Black Pharaoh, the ancestors of the bedouins knew but little, and their modern-day descendants knew even less. Now it was just a name for a mysterious bogey-man that left a dark unpleasant feeling in the air when uttered, as if by some dormant instinct anyone within hearing could imagine something even darker lurking behind the name itself if they tried.

There were no signs of intelligent life here by any means. No signs of heroes and kings fighting over this land to stake their claim, no monuments to mark anyone's achievements, no mausoleums to honor their death. Even if anyone had ever been interested in calling this place a kingdom, it was an empty boast because the only kingdoms in history that are worth remembering are the ones that were worth conquering. One does not conquer the Nugghratti by taking up arms and occupying it- you conquer it by surviving a journey through it.

Alteng was conquering the Nugghratti, though the battle was hard and he would eventually lose if he didn't find his goal. There was even supposed to be water at the Shrine of the Black Pharaoh. Right now, Alteng would prize the water over a vault stuffed with gold. He was walking again in the early evening after resting for six hours during the heat of the day, but as he walked on he began to notice that he had stopped sweating, and that was a bad sign. He had tried to be as frugal with the water as he dared, and it had extended his hope to complete his journey, but it did not guarantee it. Alteng had less than a quarter of his waterskin left, a few mouthfuls at best. He had allowed himself to rest after midnight while he was here, and spread out his cape on the ground to collect dew by morning, at which time he would work to add it to his supply (though it wasn't much). He even laid out a spare rag, and he chewed on it every morning to get the moisture into his mouth. Alteng was confident he could survive like this for a while, but not indefinitely.

There had been no need to draw his sword since he came into the desert- he had met no travelers, and there was no big game for hunting. He had to content himself with eating two snakes and a few insects (beetles and scorpions), which also provided a little water by virtue of their juicy bodies. He really did miss a large meal though, and if he made it back to Khamet he promised himself to eat the first stray dog he found. He knew Deutsch would complain though, because it was not a purebred. Narrinda wouldn't say anything because she didn't eat anymore.

Night descended once again, and the air perceptively cooled soon after the sun set. Alteng had gotten used to dealing with the extreme temperature ranges of the past few days of desert travel. It got cold enough at night for him to see his breath. Though the walk would have been much more pleasant if he had suffered from no lack of good food and drink, he was nevertheless thankful for the cool night air. He didn't bother to waste time hunting for food, he just grabbed whatever living creeping thing happened to cross his path as he walked and ate it on the go. At this point, a good sized lizard was a feast.

The stars came out once again, and by the sign of Polaris he continued to navigate westward. When the stars had wheeled about a quarter of the way across the sky, he knew it was a little after midnight and it was time to rest for the night. Since there were no prominent features to make for, Alteng just stopped where he was and spread out his cloak on the sand. He then scooped out a small hole by hand, and placed his wide-brimmed hat upside down inside it. This acted as both a dew collector, and as an insect trap. Now the only thing to do was to relax and let nature do its work. Alteng pulled out a piece of paper from his clothing, and laying it out unfolded on the ground he began to study. The waning moon would not rise for several hours yet, but since he had excellent night vision and needed no light other than what the night sky provided, he had little difficulty in his task.

The paper was a map, and he had painstakingly copied it himself over a week's time from the original that remained at the museum in Khamet. The hardest thing about copying was all the vague inscriptions which littered the map in different places, and in different languages. There were the Egyptian hieroglyphics which seemed to convey directions and a little lore regarding the shrine, but there was also another form of writing which was even more enigmatic. It was on the back of the map, and it was set in no language that either Alteng or any of the museum staff had ever seen, so it was assumed to be a cryptogram. It was a script consisting of a seemingly random series of dots and rays set in various directions. If it was a code, no one had yet cracked it, but Alteng boasted that he would be the first to discover its meaning. He had noted to Narrinda and Deutsch on the curious fact that this strange writing was visible only on the backside of the paper, and was nowhere to be found on the map's face.

As he sat in the dark, in the middle of another strange land that was just another segment in the long line of strange lands he had already seen in his lifetime, he pondered the riddle of the map until his head began to droop and he felt the need for a couple hours' rest. But as luck would have it, he didn't get it. In spite of his weariness from the previous day's march, he became rigid and upright, springing to his feet in alert attention. He was sure that he was being watched. The feeling had been growing on him since before midnight, but he tried to ignore it and chalk it up to being out in the open with no cover from spying eyes. Besides, it was so barren and flat here that if anyone could see him, he could also see them. But now he didn't ignore his feelings, and his sword found its way into his hand quick as thought. He turned completely around with a startled jump, ready to fight for his life. An intruder was in his midst, and he cursed himself for being so slow and mentally lazy.

A cloaked and turbaned figure in white, bearing a long straight wooden staff without gold or adornment, loomed before him in the dark. The staff could be an effective weapon, it was at least twice the height of the stranger. Alteng was at the ready, sword glittering in the starlight, in anticipation of a fight unwitnessed by the world. How had this person been able to creep up on Alteng so silently without him hearing or smelling anything out of the ordinary? However it happened, there was no backing down now. The figure in white slowly stepped forward. Alteng advanced to meet the menace, sword point zeroed in on the invader's chest.

Suddenly the white-robed stranger laughed. It was like a slap in the face to Alteng- not of rage or embarrassment, but more like when someone is suddenly wakened into consciousness after unexpectedly falling asleep. A musical, light hearted laugh it was, and definitely female. Alteng couldn't believe what he was hearing. With the air of unmistakable recognition, he nearly slammed his sword back into its sheath in frustration. There would be no fighting tonight.

"Woman, I thought I told you to remain in Khamet. What are you doing out here in this dangerous place?" he asked of the figure.

The female in white giggled again, and as she moved forward her form seemed to shrink, until to an outsider who might possibly have witnessed the scene the figure revealed herself to be even smaller than Alteng. The staff remained a long and imposing weapon in her tiny hands, however. Lightly she sat down near Alteng's feet, planted her staff upright in the sand, and laid herself back onto the ground to look up at the stars.

"I had to find you, Teng-teng. You left something important behind when you left." she replied.

"Oh, him." Alteng said out of the corner of his mouth. "Well Narrinda, Deutsch seemed quite content making a bore of himself without my help, so I left him with you to ruin my good name without me having to endure it."

"Not your brother. You left this...", and with that Narrinda pulled out from her overly voluminous robes a beaten orb of some strange silver metal on a chain, which she casually tossed in Alteng's direction.

Alteng caught it in surprise, then looked at it for a minute. Rather plain and lacking in detail it was, except for two square-cut jewels of different colors placed off center on its face. "Pretty it is, but odd" he remarked. "Where did you find this?"

"The museum" Narrinda answered. "Old Habib the caretaker gave it to me, seemed to think it had some relevance to the map and the treasure you seek. If you look on the back, you'll see the same kind of strange writing that's on the back of the map. I've also tried to decipher it, but so far its meaning has escaped me, and Deutsch merely dismissed it as some meaningless scribble."

Alteng turned it over and observed the pattern of lines and dots. "No, this time I think mister know-it-all is wrong. I might have eventually agreed with him if it were only on the map, but who would take the time to engrave random writing on an expensive piece of jewelry like this?"

Narrinda nodded. "I agree completely. If it is all part of a grand prank, somebody made the ruse elaborate enough. Deutsch did make a copy of the writing anyway, and told me that he'd be looking at it tonight after he got back from the Thirsty Camel."

Alteng snorted. "Thirsty Camel! Really, for all his talk of being the epitome of what a Cuxhaven ought to be, he's not so high and mighty when he's in the taverns with the commoners."

"I think you need to get some rest" Narrinda said. "Daytime comes too soon out here."

"I guess you're right" agreed Alteng. He laid down next to Narrinda. When she wore robes and other puffy clothes, she made a decent pillow if he laid his head in her lap. He sometimes actually appreciated the fact that she cooled off to the surrounding air temperature much faster than a living person. "You know" he said to her as they gazed at the stars together, "It's good to have someone to talk to after so many days of wandering alone, but I still wish you had found a way to send this amulet or whatever it is to me without having to find me yourself. There's nothing out here but heat and misery and death."

"Well, there's heat for me anyway" she said somewhat wryly.

"You know what I mean" Alteng snapped. "Anyway, now that you're here I can tell you to what's left of your face that you could have been useful and brought me a cup of water."

"Done!" Narrinda chirped. "I brought a big skin with me, I thought you might need it. A big mouth has a big thirst, I always say." Out of her never-ending hidden regions within her robes she produced a waterskin made from sheep's stomach. There was better than a gallon of water within. Alteng couldn't help himself, and he grabbed at the skin and drank almost a full pint before he stopped.

"Sorry about that" he said apologetically. "I'd have offered you some first if you could use it."

"Don't worry about me, you know I don't need sleep or food or drink. But I wouldn't mind having my husband, here... and now!" Narrinda began to show Alteng just how never ending the hidden areas within her robes really were.

Mild panic set into Alteng. Quickly he rolled over onto his side. "But I'm so very tired Narrinda. Rest I need, I think. But, you know its not every wife that would brave a deadly desert to find her husband. You're not so bad of a wife after all."

Narrinda gave a light giggle. She would have blushed if she could.

But Alteng could not resist the last parting shot, since he didn't have Deutsch around to argue with. He cocked his head sidelong behind his shoulder and said "But don't dare tell anyone I said so", before sleep took him at last.