The arm around her shoulder squeezed as if the woman had heard her heart, but it didn’t feel like she was attempting to hold Safia captive, only to reassure her.
In moments, Safia’s eyes acclimated to the gloom enough to recognize that the jungle immediately before her hid a rocky limestone cliff, thick with vines, creepers, and small bushes. The approaching light came from a tunnel in the face of the cliff. Such caverns and passages riddled the Dhofar Mountains, formed from the trickles of monsoon flows melting through the limestone.
As the light reached the tunnel entrance, Safia spotted three figures: an old woman, a child of perhaps twelve, and a second young woman who could’ve been the twin of the one beside her. All were identically dressed in desert cloaks, hoods thrown back.
Additionally, each bore an identical bit of decoration: a ruby tattoo at the outer corner of the left eye. A single teardrop.
Even the child who carried the glass oil lantern.
“She who was lost,” the woman at her side intoned.
“Has come home,” the elder said, leaning on a cane. Her hair was gray, tied in a braid, but her face, though lined, looked vital.
Safia found it hard to meet those eyes, but also impossible to turn away.
“Be welcome,” the elder said, speaking English, stepping aside.
Safia was assisted through the entrance, supported by the woman. Once she was through, the child led the way, lantern held high. The elderly woman kept behind them, thudding with a walking stick. The third woman left the tunnel and strode to the couched camel.
Safia was led onward.
No one spoke for several steps.
Safia, edgy with questions, could not hold her tongue. “Who are you? What do you want with me?” Her voice sounded petulant even to her own ears.
“Be at peace,” the elderly woman whispered behind her. “You are safe.”
For now, Safai added silently. She had noted the long dagger carried in the belt of the woman who had left the tunnel behind them.
“All answers will be given by our hodja.”
Safia startled. A hodja was a tribal shaman, always female. They were the keepers of knowledge, healers, oracles. Who were these people? As she continued, she noted a continual wisp of jasmine in the air. The scent calmed her, reminding her of home, of mother, of security.
Still, the pain in her wounded shoulder kept her focused. Blood had begun to flow anew, through the bandage and down her arm.
She heard a scuffing sound behind her. She glanced over her shoulder. The third woman had returned. She bore two burdens, collected from the camel. In one hand, she carried the silver suitcase, battered now, that held the iron heart. And on her shoulder leaned the iron spear with its bust of the Queen of Sheba.
They had stolen the two artifacts from Cassandra.
Safia’s heart thudded louder, vision tightening.
Were they thieves? Had she been rescued or been kidnapped again?
The tunnel stretched ahead, continuing deep under the mountain. They had passed side tunnels and caves, angling this way and that. She was quickly lost. Where were they taking her?
Finally the air seemed to freshen, growing stronger, the scent of jasmine richer. The passage lightened ahead. She was led forward. A wind flowed down the throat of the tunnel, coming from up ahead.
As they rounded a bend, the tunnel dumped into a large cavern.
Safia stepped into it.
No, not a cavern, but a great bowl of an amphitheater, the roof of which, high overhead, bore a small opening to the sky. Water flowed through the hole in a long, trickling waterfall, draining into a small pond below. Five tiny campfires circled the pool, like the points of a star, illuminating the flowering vines that wreathed the room and hung in long tangles from the roof, some reaching the shallow bowl of the floor.
Safia recognized the geology. It was one of the countless sinkholes that peppered the region. Some of the deepest were found in Oman.
More cloaked figures moved or sat about the chamber. Some thirty or so. Faces turned toward her as the party entered. The illuminated cavern reminded Safia of the thieves’ cave from the story of Ali Baba.
Only these forty thieves were all women.
Safia stumbled into the room, suddenly weak from the trek, blood running hot down one arm, the rest of her body shivering.
A figure rose by one of the fires. “Safia?”
She focused on the speaker. The woman was not dressed like the others. Safia could make no sense of her presence here. “Kara?”
THUMRAIT AIR BASE, OMAN
C ASSANDRA LEANED over the chart table in the captain’s office. Using a satellite map of the region, she had re-created the curator’s map. With a blue Sharpie marker, she had drawn a line from the tomb in Salalah to the one in the mountains, and with a red marker, a line from Job’s tomb to the open desert. She had circled their destination in red, the location of the lost city.
Her present position, Thumrait Air Base, lay only thirty miles away.
“How quickly can you have the supplies ready?” she asked.
The young captain licked his lips. He was the leader of the Harvest Falcon depot, the USAF’s source of supplies and war materials for its bases and troops throughout the region. He carried a clipboard and tapped items off with the tip of a ballpoint pen. “Tents, shelters, equipment, rations, fuel, water, medical supplies, and generators are already being loaded into transport helicopters. You’ll be supplied on-site at zero seven hundred as instructed.”
The man still wore a frown as he studied their place of deployment. “This is the middle of the desert. Refugees are funneling into the air base hourly. I don’t see how placing an advance camp out there will help.”
A gust of wind rattled the asphalt shingles atop the building.
“You have your orders, Captain Garrison.”
“Yes, sir.” But his eyes looked little settled, especially when he glanced out the window to the hundred men lounging on packs, checking weapons, wearing dun-colored sand fatigues, no insignia.
Cassandra let him have his doubts as she headed to the door. The captain had received his orders, passed through the chain of command from Washington. He was to aid her in outfitting her team. Guild command had orchestrated the cover story. Cassandra’s team was a search-and-rescue unit sent to help refugees fleeing the coming sandstorm and to aid in any rescue during the storm itself. They had five all-terrain trucks with giant sand tires, an eighteen-ton M4 highspeed desert tractor, a pair of transport Hueys, and six of the one-man VTOL copter sleds, each fitted and lashed to open-bed four-wheel-drive trucks. The overland team would leave within the half hour. She would be accompanying them.
Exiting the command depot for Harvest Falcon, Cassandra checked her watch. The sandstorm was due to slam into the region in another eight hours. Reports were coming in of winds gusting to eighty mph. Already the winds here, where the mountains met the desert, were kicking up.
And they were heading into the teeth of the storm. They had no choice. Word had come from Guild command, some hint that the source of the antimatter could be destabilizing, that it could self-destruct before it was discovered. That must not happen. Timetables had been accelerated.
Cassandra searched the dark airfield. She watched a lumbering British VC10 tanker touch ground off in the distance, illuminated by landing lights. Guild command had shipped in the men and additional equipment yesterday. The Minister had coordinated with her personally after the firefight last night. It was damn lucky she had learned the location of the lost city before losing Safia. With such a significant discovery, the Minister had been grudgingly satisfied with her performance.
She was not.
She pictured Painter crouched in the alley between the ruins and the tomb. The sharpness of his eyes, the crinkles of concentration, the way he moved so swiftly, pivoting on one leg, sweeping out his gun. She should have shot him in the back when she had the chance. She risked hitting Safia, but she had lost the woman anyway. Still, Cassandra hadn’t shot. Even when Painter swung on her, she had paused a fraction of a second, falling back instead of pushing forward.
She clenched a fist. She had hesitated. She cursed herself as much as she cursed Painter. She would not make that mistake a second time. She stared across the acres of tarmac and gravel.
Would he come?
She had noted that he had stolen her map during his escape, along with one of the vehicles, her own truck. They found it abandoned and stripped of gear, buried in the forest a few miles down the road.
But Painter had the map. He would definitely come.
Yet not before she was ready for him. She had plenty of manpower and firepower to hold off an army out there. Let him try.
She would not hesitate a second time.
A figure appeared from a small outbuilding near the parked trucks, her temporary command center. John Kane strode toward her, his left leg stiff in a splint. He scowled as he stomped to her side. The left side of his face was sealed with surgical glue, giving his features a bluish tint. Beneath the glue, claw marks slashed across his cheek and throat, blackened with iodine. His eyes glinted brighter than usual in the sodium lights. A slight morphine haze.
He refused to be left behind.
“Cleanup was completed an hour ago,” he said, tucking back his radio mike. “Assets have all been cleared out.”
She nodded. All evidence of their involvement with the firefight at the tomb had been removed: bodies, weapons, even the wreckage of the VTOL copter sled. “Any word on Crowe’s crew?”
“Vanished into the mountains. Scattered. There are side roads and camel trails throughout the mountains. And heavy patches of forest in all the deep valleys. He and those sand rats have tucked their tails and gone into hiding.”
Cassandra had expected as much. The firefight had left her team with limited manpower for a proper pursuit and search. They had to take care of their own wounded and clear the site before local authorities responded to the fiery attack. She had evacuated in the first airlift, radioing Guild command of the operation, playing down the chaos, highlighting their discovery of the true site of Ubar.
The information had bought her life.