The Empty Quarter
They stopped driving and made camp as the sun rose and the temperature soared. The desert was hard driving, according to the satnav they’d covered about 110km. 90km to go.
“Stretch out the tarps from the roof of the cars, it’s the only place we’ll get shade” Somerset ordered. “Put water under there with you and watch for scorpions and snakes. And eat something, you won’t feel like it, but you need it.”
“Should we take watches?” Patrick asked.
“No, I think we’re alright. We’re in the middle of nowhere, no-one will move in this if they’ve got any sense, and the heat haze will make spotting anything at a distance impossible.”
Somerset watched Rosario standing off, in the sun, away from the group. The ex-priest was talking to himself, or his God. Somerset crouched down next to Katya under the other tarpaulin.
“You and Rosario alright?” he asked her.
“Has he said something?”
“No, nothing. Just, we’re worried about you. He just wants to help.”
She said nothing, but lead down in the sleeping bag, and turned her back on him.
“Katya! We are in danger, they have found the Albedo!” Dorjiev’s rasp invaded her dreams.
She stirred in the sleeping bag, but did not wake.
“You were supposed to be getting it!” she thought.
“They have got it! Meet me in my homeland, in my old base. I will initiate you there into the secrets. But rush! Bring the Nigredo.”
“D, you khuilo!” she swore aloud, waking herself. The daylight was painfully bright and hot, and sand stuck to her sweaty skin.
Patrick looked over, yawning, one eye squinting against the light. “You OK?”
“Never trust anyone Patrick. No-fucking-one.”
They found the rocky outcrop that evening. The twilight was shading into night, but the sharp silhouettes of the rocks stood out in the 4×4’s headlights against the serpentine curves of the dunes.
They parked, and checked around the area. Rosario walked a circuit, and joined the others at a well they had found in the centre of the rocks.
“It’s the place for sure.” Patrick said to him “Look, weird writing all around the edge.”
“It’s Arabic, occult wording, I think” Katya said. In the torchlight, Rosario could see the Arabic letters engraved into the rock round the edge of the well. The well itself was dark and dry. The engraving was familiar.
“It’s a warding spell. Protects against evil and evildoers. This place is like a prison or an oubliette. I’ve seen similar incantations in the writings of-“
“Skulls!” Patrick said, shining his torch down the well hole.
Rosario leaned over, but the torchlight was too flickering and faint to be sure. He cracked a lightstick and dropped it down the hole. It fell for a second or so, then thumped into sand. 50’ down there was a cave floor. Many bleached white bones lay scattered, skulls, femurs and more. The skulls were mainly sheep and camels. But there was one, no two, three human ones.
“Nothing lives out here, so where did they come from?” said Somerset.
Katya looked around the starlit desert as if expecting to see the answer. “Maybe the same way we did.”
“You got to work at it to get a camel down there.” said Patrick.
“Let’s get the winches on the 4×4’s up here, then we can go down and see.” said Somerset.
Somerset, Rosario and Katya argued for a while about who should go down, and who should stay up top. Their discussion ended with the whine of Patrick’s quadcopter lifting off. He hovered it above the wellhead, and then it dropped quickly down the vertical shaft.
Patrick’s face was lit from the small screen showing the on-board camera, as he relayed what he was seeing in a stream of chatter. “There’s a cave … lots of bones. Two, no, three passages off. One behind that rock. Signal is iffy, too much interference. First tunnel is opening up, losing signal, just let me … okay, we’re back. Empty. Let’s try door number two … damn it, too far. Lost it." He looked up. "When you’re down there would you get my quadcopter back? Cheers.”
“Tacnet won’t work so well down there then, either” said Somerset, grimly.
Patrick smiled. “Ahead of you. It’ll be fine. I’ll drop a signal repeater down here and as long as you can get reflections off the rock, it should be fine down there.”
“Why didn’t you do that for the drone?” asked Rosario.
“There is a very good technical answer to that but you wouldn’t understand it.” Patrick winked and walked away.
Somerset changed into his full combat armour. It was heavy and awkward, but he didn’t want to be down there without it. For offence he packed his automatic, silver bullets full load, the silvered combat knife and his favoured Steyr Aug with a full mag of silver ammo. Bull-pup config would be easier in the confined passages down there and he wanted heavy ordinance.
He clumped to the top of the well, attached the heavy winch clip to his harness and nodded to Patrick.
The winch whined and he walked, slipped and then was lowered down the hole, into the black. He reached up and flicked on the torch attached to his chest plate. The ancient bricks of the wall in front of him slid past. Then a different coloured mortar.
“There’s signs of repair," Somerset spoke over tacnet. "Recent, by the looks of it.”
Rosario looked around the outcrop and the black desert. Someone knew about this place. “I’m going move to higher ground, just to make sure we don’t get any unexpected visitors.” He slung his MP5 over his back and retied his keffiyeh before trotting out across the sand.
At the bottom of the well, Somerset’s combat boots scrunched into the sand. He scanned 360 degrees, assault rifle ready. Clear. He unhooked the winch.
“Katya, your turn.”
The cave was large, bones were scattered widely around it. The animals, and people, didn’t just fall and die. Or if they did something dragged them about. The torchlight lit the three tunnels Patrick had described. This was a killing ground and he didn’t like it.
He stepped forward. The sand was disturbed, but no pattern he could make sense of. Katya landed softly behind him, she was wearing just the desert armour and shemagh.
Somerset raised an eyebrow, then pointed two fingers towards the tunnel behind the rock. Katya nodded, hefted her Glock up, racked the slide and tilted her head, “You first.”
They moved up the passage in twos, covering each other, placing one of Patrick small radio relays before the signal swamped with static. The only sound was soft crunches as their feet found purchase on the uneven floor. The tunnel curved and twisted for a distance then ahead it split into two. Somerset stopped, crouched, scanning each entrance.
“Listen,” she whispered to him from behind.
He strained to hear, the helmet a hindrance. There. A sound. A voice.
It was a strange, grotesque parody of a human voice. It became clearer, closer. From the right-hand fork, chanting, singing, burbling.
“We need a goat.” Somerset said.
“What?” she frowned at him “There’s none near here.”
“No, we need something to lure it out, into a trap.”
“Oh,” she paused, “I’ll do it.”
“Really?” It was a dangerous role, possibly suicidal. “You sure?”
“I’ll be down there.” Somerset pointed at the left hand fork.
Somerset knelt down the left hand tunnel, far enough to be in darkness, his torch off. He could see Katya waiting back down at the junction. She was shifting weight, foot to foot, limbering up. Her mouth was set in grim determination, but her eyes were bright.
She stopped, focussing down the other tunnel, at something out of his field of view. He shifted the Steyr up into firing position. Safety off. He was aiming at the space in front of Katya.
He could hear the voice more clearly now, it had a whining, grating tone.
“Al-Murah, Al-Murah I’ve been waiting. I waited such a long time. Such pain. Is it you? Al-Murah? Kim ? Kim? Is it you?”
Through the sights, he saw Katya’s eyes widen, she took an involuntary step back. “You!” she said.
Staggering into the light Somerset saw the skeletal shape. Skin was stretched tight over bones, on its head were wisps of hair. Long fingernails spiked out from its claw-like hands, but somehow it was still recognisably St. John Philby.
He paused, could he shoot St. John Philby? Was it, he, hostile?
With a screech the revenant threw itself at Katya, legs and arms flashing preternaturally fast. She was ducking, flexing, blocking as fast as he’d ever seen her move. He tracked the blur of their fight, trying to get a clean shot. A claw caught her arm and her blood flicked across his field of view.
Frustrating, no clear shot. It gave her a sharp kick into her side and she was knocked back, clear.
His finger squeezed the trigger all the way. Full auto. The tunnels, the rooms and their ears filled with blistering sound. The stream of bullets chewed chunks of dried skin and flesh off it. Somerset held the bucking rifle squarely on the nightmare form Philby had become.
It disappeared onto the ground, dust and sand filling the air, blurring his vision. Somerset released the trigger, alert for movement.
He twitched the gun to a flicker, Katya. She was throwing herself to the ground, “Grenade!” her voice loud over tacnet.
He managed to shield his eyes as the explosion shook the rock ceiling and walls. Rock shrapnel showered him, even down the tunnel. All sounds went far away. Dust coated the inside of his mouth and throat, he spat it out.
There was still light down at the junction, a cloud of orange sand and shattered rock billowed in the small space.
“That hurt.” Katya said, coughing. A dark shape rose in the dust cloud, one arm up. He took aim, finger tense. He would single shot now.
“It’s me.” she said. “I’m bleeding.”
A second silhouette, lean and asymmetric coalesced out of the dust. Before Somerset could react, a long, bony arm slashed out, across her neck. Her head jerked back, dark liquid arced through the air.
Somerset’s pulse stopped, breath stopped, time stopped. The gun sights moved instinctively, for the creatures’ head, even as he squeezed the trigger halfway back. The stock punched his shoulder as the single bullet left. Philby’s head exploded and fragments flowered.
Katya’s body hit the floor first, then a second later, Philby’s headless corpse.
“What’s happening!?” Rosario and Patrick were shouting over tacnet. Somerset stabbed the knife into Philby’s desiccated chest. Night-black blood sizzled and fizzed against the silver blade.
Katya sprawled motionless against the rock wall, blood pooling on the floor underneath her head and chest. The shemagh was torn and sodden dark with her blood, loose threads trailed red lines across her face.
“Get down here. Katya’s hurt.” Somerset radioed.
Without waiting, he strode down the right-hand tunnel. Ahead he could see it opened up into a larger space. He clunked a fresh clip into the Steyr and entered the room in a combat crouch, weapon up.
The room was bare. A natural stone dais at the back held a single lump of black rock.
He approached cautiously expecting a trap. It was about the size of two fists, slightly shiny. After the trauma and deaths to get it, it seemed terribly ordinary.
Somerset rummaged under his armour and extracted a white handkerchief. Careful not to touch the stone, he picked it up and wrapped it in the handkerchief, then put the Nigredo in his pocket.