The night was long. The night creatures came close, but never close enough to see. They seemed content to pass by the travelers and their horses which suggested to Lincoln, according to the database, that they were on the hunt. Night creatures had a single minded obsession about the hunt. If they were hungry, they would eat whatever was convenient, and of course the sun was death and deep water as well, but otherwise they would not stop or rest until they caught what they were hunting, and ate it.
“I would hate to be on the receiving end of that hunt,” Katie suggested in the morning. “That night creature took out five crocodiles without a sweat, and it looked like it only got bitten because it didn’t know crocodiles had teeth. Even the monster croc got shredded, and the only reason the night creature died was because it couldn’t swim.” Lockhart only got to shrug as Lincoln interrupted their packing.
“Please hurry. Alexis is only two days ahead of us. We might be able to catch her at the gate.”
Roland looked over Lincoln’s shoulder so Lincoln could not see. He shook his head, and Lockhart understood. The group was not getting closer. They appeared to be falling further behind, by at least a day. Still, he wanted to be encouraging.
“We will catch them. If not this time, maybe the next.” No one argued the point. They saddled up and rode off with the sunrise at their backs.
The travelers were quiet through the day apart from Lincoln’s incessant calls for them to hurry up. It did not help. Travel through the Nile Delta was slow going with a lot of backtracking around swampy places and trying to find safe places to cross the broken river. There were not many people, just a few small villages, and those people stared and gaped plenty, but offered little information about a safe path to Bubastis – which Lincoln had calculated as their destination but which most of the locals never heard of.
By the time they arrived in Bubastis, the sun was ready to set. Roland was relieved, Boston was grumpy, Katie was exhausted and tired of fingering her rifle, Lockhart was stoic and silent and even Lincoln had closed his mouth for a long time, needing to conserve his strength to bring along Captain Decker’s horse.
They dismounted near the center of Bubastis where there was a crude stone carving of a housecat. Katie called it the luck goddess. This village was a slightly larger small village of the same type and construction they had seen during the day, but no one seemed to be around.. The travelers thought nothing of it. They were well experienced by then in the mixed receptions they got, so they set about caring for their horses and ignored the people until the expected delegation arrived.
“Bast,” Lincoln read from the database at that moment. “Also named Anu, sister to Anubis.” He paused when the men arrived.
“Strangers, who ride upon great and strange beasts,” the man bowed, and the delegation assented to the bow. “You are clearly a great and powerful people. How may we serve you.” The man bowed again, and so did most of the others. Lockhart spoke to the elder who did not bow very much at all.
“We are seeking a friend.”
Lincoln stepped up and ventured a guess that these people had heard the story. “We are seeking Phoenix, the one reborn to her youth by the flames.”
“Ahh,” Several faces lit up with smiles. “The fire of glorious Aton, herself.” One man spoke and pointed to the setting sun. “The friend of the gods. She is to be found down the long path where her family resides. They farm when the flood rises.”
A second man shoved his way to the front. It was the elder who did not bow to the strangers, the one to whom Lockhart spoke, and he spoke back to Lockhart. “We have sent for her, but she has not come. And our goddess has abandoned us to the creatures of Set. They came just before the sun and chased me from my house.” He dropped his face into his hands and did not hesitate to let his tears flow. “My family.” His voice trailed off, but his neighbors were there to touch him, hold him and offer their comfort.
Lockhart said nothing. He simply retrieved the shotgun from his saddle holster. Katie checked her rifle for the umpteenth time that day. Roland looked at his dwindling supply of arrows while Lincoln went for Captain Decker’s gun. Lockhart decided some instructions were appropriate.
“Lincoln and Boston, stay with the horses. Roland, take the Captain’s rifle. No arguments.” He turned to the men. “Show us where.”
They moved as a group, afraid that the creatures of Set might come bounding out and attack them at any moment. They stopped several yards from the house and pointed. Lockhart let his hands do the talking and he, Roland and Katie quickly got in position.
When they were ready, Lockhart kicked in the flimsy door. It broke free from its moorings and crashed to the floor, but he was busy, pointing his shotgun to the back left of the room while a kneeling Katie beside him had her rifle trained on the back right corner. Roland jumped through the window at the same time and covered the center. There were no night creatures to be seen, but there was a big hole in the center of the floor and pieces of shredded humans scattered everywhere. Lockhart, the former police officer was trained to stuff his feelings down at the grisly scene. No one knew what the elf might be thinking, but Katie, the marine had to turn away.
The elderly man who owned the house came up and tried to go inside, but Katie caught him. “Don’t go in there.” She shouted over the man’s shoulder. “Burn the house.” At least a couple of the others nodded like they understood.
Inside, Roland slipped down into the hole while Lockhart watched. “They appear to have dug their way out. The hole is filled with loose dirt with only a small hole at the top for air.”
“Which direction?” Lockhart wondered out loud. When Roland pointed he brought them quickly back to the others. “Which way to the house of Phoenix?” The men also pointed and Lockhart nodded. It was the same direction.
Katie still held the elderly man and Lockhart went to help. They forced him to mount Captain Decker’s horse and told him to hold tight to the saddle horn. Then they mounted and Lockhart hoped Phoenix’ farm was not too distant.
Lincoln rode out front with the old man so the old man could lead the way. Roland scouted ahead and Boston stayed between Lincoln and Lockhart with an eye open to make sure the old man stayed in the saddle. Lockhart and Katie brought up the rear, but their eyes, and Roland’s eyes looked for signs in the ground of underground digging.
“No telling how fast they dig or how far they have gotten,” Lockhart said.
“I bet they have help,” Katie added and to Lockhart’s curious stare she said, “this is water and swampland. They drown. They can’t afford to run into any water that might flood the tunnel.”
“Who do you figure?” Lockhart asked.
“Set,” Boston answered. She had been listening in.
“The god?” Katie was still having trouble with that whole concept, but Boston and Lockhart both nodded.