The Treasury of the Sphinx
An Egyptologist and her partner discover a vast store of riches, then become its guardians. Mature.
To my esteemed colleagues, Victoria began. It was the third draft of her letter asking for more time and funding, and she still sounded desperate. Cambridge wanted another Tutankhamun, but all that the workers had uncovered was sand and stone.
"Ma'am? One of the boys thinks he may have found something."
William stood under the tent flap, surrounded by the glare of the desert sun. Victoria squinted up at her fellow archaeologist like he was a mirage. Then her blue eyes widened.
Victoria slapped on her hat and stuffed her feet into her boots and was still twisting her hair back into a ponytail as she followed William across the camp.
The young Egyptian man still clung to his pickaxe. He beamed brightly, standing next to the apple-sized hole into some deeper darkness behind the rock. William lifted his lantern to the hole. There was a flash of something beyond, but the hole was too small to see through properly.
In her best Arabic, Victoria asked the young man for the pickaxe.
"I could—" William started to say, but Victoria was already hurling the pickaxe at the stone. Each swing bounced back into her joints and clattered her bones. Each new chip of rock she earned with her own effort. She was sweating. Her hands hurt, but it didn't matter. This would prove her right. This would give her purpose. No stone was going to keep her from this.
Victoria dropped the pickaxe. The hole was just about big enough to fit an arm and a head through. She stepped aside for William to stick his head in. He held the lantern out toward her, instead.
"Aren't you going to look?" she asked.
"I thought you might like to go first," he said.
Always a gentleman, even when he had to share her with her first love, Egyptology. She took the lantern in her hand and gave him a smile. They'd have to finish that bottle of wine tonight. 'Tonight' was the distant future, though. Right now, there was what lay beyond the hole.
She put her arm through first to hold the lantern, then stuck her head inside. The lantern light fell on a hall of carved reliefs. The shadows drew out their careful detail. Rich colors and gold paint stood against the dark stone. Each face bore a subtly unique appearance. Every inch of the hall spoke to the wealth and high culture of the kings who built it.
Victoria slid back from the hole, speechless. She passed the lantern to William and heard him swear when he stuck his head inside the chamber. While William called over the foreman to tell him to clear out a path to the hall, Victoria drifted back to her tent in a dream. She picked up her pen and looked at the paper on her desk.
To my esteemed colleagues,
I found it.
By the afternoon, the way was clear. Victoria tried to stay academic. As intact as their find was, it could have been robbed in antiquity. But even so, the reliefs alone could fill ten dissertations.
She walked alongside William through the hall. They were both quiet, soaking in the procession of kings with all their riches. The hall ended in a flight of stairs that opened into a much larger room. The stone ceiling above them was twelve feet high, and the room stretched out so vast that their lantern light couldn't reach the walls.
As she raised her lantern and saw what lay before her, it was like she was a child again, first discovering the ancient mystique of Egypt. Gold shone like captured sunlight. Polished ebony reflected the wealth of old kings. Red granite stood watch in the guise of primal gods. She'd dreamed of finding ancient riches since she was a young girl reading pulp adventures, and now it was real.
Victoria and William were both lost in their own worlds. A dream had come to life before them. Without a word, they split up to follow the winding paths through the grand storeroom. They were silent, in a state of personal reverence. The sheer size alone of this find was unparalleled.
She walked around statues that must have been dragged in on their sides, still fully decked in lavish gold and fabric. She passed ebony chariots waiting for their horses and racks of cedar holding ceremonial swords. A series of shelves stood amid the thrones and statuary, stacked high with papyrus.
Victoria lifted a papyrus scroll from its shelf and unfurled it on a golden lectern. She scanned the page, mouthing the hieroglyphs as she translated them. A throb of pain flashed across her eyes. She closed them and brought her thumb and knuckle to rub her eyelids. A few warm tears ran onto her cheeks. She blinked, turned aside, and brushed her cheeks with her sleeve. Her sharp green, slit-pupiled eyes turned back to the papyrus. Her lantern's light seemed to shine brighter.
While she knew the hieroglyphs, the words were dense with mysticism. She leaned closer to the papyrus to read more carefully. A tenseness built across her back. It collected between her shoulders and ran down to her hips, like a little waterfall pooling in each vertebra.
Her hands balled into fists as she shifted one way, then the other. She put her weight against the lectern and stood on her tiptoes. She curled her back, head hung and arching forward.. A soft chorus of cracks met her ears. She sighed and relaxed. The stiffness fled. Her hips swayed, pivoting on her loose, limber spine. The scroll drew her eyes back to the hieroglyphs. She needed to learn its secrets.
Victoria kept reading until her attention drifted down to her feet. The boots she wore dug into the sides of her feet and squeezed her toes. She reached down and grabbed the the heel of her left boot to adjust it. Her wiggling was to no avail; her boots still hurt. She tugged them off and tossed them aside. Victoria stood in the midst of Egyptian riches in her socks, stretched out by her broad toes.
She sunk back into the scroll. It began to make sense: it was a version of an Egyptian creation myth. "All that is seen and not seen are manifestations of the breath of eternal Ptah."
The quiet ripping of her socks didn't reach her ears. Beneath the fabric, her toes had grown thick and padded. Her heels stretched and rose into the air. They left her standing on the balls of her feet like an animal. She leaned harder on the lectern to make up for her shifting balance. The sharp points of her toenails poked holes in her socks. The holes widened as her feet grew, forcing the stitching apart. As her socks ripped open, the cool granite floor touched her bare pads. She stood, barefoot, on furless paws she hadn't even noticed yet. The tops of her socks still clung to her ankles high above the ground.
Victoria couldn't stop reading. This scroll wasn't like the ones she'd read back in Cambridge. It was alive; it had its own energy and agency. If she was more romantic, she might have called it magic.
As she read, her skin warmed as if she was lying in the sun, shaded by palms along the riverside. She closed her eyes and brought a hand to her cheek. She was so excited she was blushing. The dappled warmth swelled across her chest and played along her limbs. Ah, to stretch out on the black banks...
Like warm oil, a tan spread across her skin. It soothed and softened her skin as it passed. A shiver passed down her spine. From her pale skin emerged a Mediterranean complexion with the warming touch of the sun. She sighed, as if she'd just had an entire day's worth of relaxation squeezed into those few moments of change. She continued to read.
Her hair slipped its ponytail as it grew. The hair tie fell to the ground, forgotten next to the scraps of her socks and her discarded boots. Her freed locks were freshly trimmed before they even hit her shoulders. Her thick bangs were cut straight across above her eyebrows. The rest of her hair hung over her shoulders, cut evenly along the top of her chest. Lustrous black dripped from her roots like ink and swallowed up her light brown hair.
Victoria's skin glowed hot against her clothes. Perhaps it was the excitement, she thought. She just needed some air, some room to breathe. Her sharp fingernails plucked open the buttons on her shirt. Too hot. She thrust her shirt off, dropping it on the floor behind her. Still too hot.
That mantra in her head kept her from realizing she was shedding her clothes. Still too hot. Her bra, unclasped and left on the floor. Still too hot. Her shorts, kicked aside next to her boots. She combed her fingers through her dark bangs. Still too hot. Her panties, pulled off and tossed to the side. At last, she was no longer burning up. Heat still radiated from between her legs, but she could bear it now. She wobbled on her feline feet, then clutched the lectern for support again.
Victoria went back to reading the scroll. She breezed through the hieroglyphs with a natural ease. They made sense. They flowed together like a poem, and that poem deserved a voice. She spoke the words to herself breathlessly. Her rough, flattened tongue brushed against her large canines. A tingle of excitement climbed up her spine and brought with it a trail of fur.
The new coat swept across her in waves of softness. She was wrapped in a blanket of her own tawny fur. It curled around her torso and spread out along her limbs. Her chest and neck and face were left bare but for the fur that crept down to her brow and rolled along the bridge of her nose. The tip of her nose darkened, spread into a small feline snout.
Victoria's eyes devoured the scroll as if they had been starved for years. She came to the end, lifted her head, and let out a satisfied sigh. Then she focused her gaze on her nose. For the first time, she noticed the fur covering it.
"What?" she whispered. She lifted a hand from the lectern just as the fur reached her palms. Paw pads bulged from her palms and fingertips. Tawny fur twisted around her fingers, packing fluff into her hands—no, they were her paws. Her curled nails sprouted into claws, then retracted back into her paws. She struggled to wiggle her fingers. Her thumb retreated into a dewclaw.
The fur wound down her ankles and around her lower paws. Her center of gravity tipped further forward. She tried to prop herself against the lectern, to use her paws to grip the edges. She slipped, raking her claws against the gold. Her paws hit the ground. She stood on all fours.
A growl slipped from her mouth. The sound startled her, but she had no time for shock. All her new, sinewy muscle tightened at once. Her body arched its back and dug its claws dig into the granite. New bones jabbed into the flesh of her shoulders. Muscle welled up around the pair of protrusions in her back. New cartilage and ligaments unfurled, stretching her unfeathered wings.
Knowledge that Victoria never had surged into her mind fully-formed. She opened her mouth and Middle Egyptian rolled off of her tongue. Demotic scrawled across the insides of her thoughts. She fought to focus on what was happening to her over the gods and spells and rituals of old flooding through her.
A thousand pinpricks dotted her new wings. A wrinkle on the bridge of her nose and a rumble in her throat built into a roar. The prickling grew into a burn. The pinion feathers were the first to come in. They faded from white at the base to iridescent blue near the end, and were capped with green. The rest of her feathers flooded in to fill the gaps. Her wings stretched wide, then folded against her back.
Victoria crouched, panting. She looked over her shoulders and slowly stretched her wings toward the ceiling. Her feathers could brush the vaulted roof. In the midst of her awe, a sharp pain struck the base of her spine. Her back legs stiffened and her front legs crumpled. Her cheek pressed against the floor with her hindquarters high in the air..
One leg quivered, then the other. She rocked from side to side. Her muscles wrapped around her twisting tailbone. A tiny stub of a tail twitched behind her. Her claws left scrape marks in the granite as she flexed her muscles. Her tail slid to one side. She let out a yowl. With each flick back and forth, her tail slid out further. It swayed and curled through the air. The last new vertebra clicked into place. Her legs loosened and she flopped onto her side.
Victoria's head spun. The flood of knowledge burst its banks. She clung to what she knew, fighting to keep the current from sweeping her away. It was terrifying and exhilarating all at once. She wanted it all, to be filled to the brim with ancient wisdom, to no longer be a historian but a piece of history itself. Her sense of time vanished beneath the waters. Was this nineteen fifty-one, or the Fifty-First Dynasty?
She put her feet beneath her and rose on all fours. As the fur down her spine bristled, her ears did too. A reflexive tug pulled them up higher. They flicked, and their shape cupped, the tips rounded. Her ears swiveled as she looked around. She needed a mirror.
Her hair rustled as if a breeze blew through it, though there was no wind in the treasury. Small beads of turquoise and gold hung along the tips of her hair. Gold wire looped around her neck, forming a lattice that was filled in with stones of white and green and red. Her eagerness to see herself only grew. A polished golden platter would serve well enough. Holding it with her front paws, she propped it up against the base of the lectern. She sat up straight like a cat and looked into the shining gold.
The dark streak of eyeliner made her green eyes so sharp they could cut. A striped blue-and-gold headdress sat on her head, wrapped around her brow, tucked behind her lion's ears, and draped down to her shoulders. Her beads tinkled as she shifted. The curved chestpiece sat just above her breasts. She was completely covered in fur, aside from a V-shaped patch that started from her shoulders, wrapped around her breasts, and ended just above her bellybutton. Her rich tan stood dark in contrast to her tawny fur. Above her shoulders, she could see the corners of her folded wings.
Victoria brought a free paw up to touch her dark, flat feline nose. She lowered her paw to her chest, spread her paw pads as wide as possible, and gripped one of her breasts. A low purr rose from her throat. She set her paw back down. Had her chest grown? She curled her back, turned sideways, and checked her reflection. Whether or not it had grown, her bust had a careful, measured beauty, as if carved from red granite.
The flood in her mind receded. New memories surfaced: the taste of a fresh fish eaten in the shade of the temple gate, the warmth of the sun on her chest while napping on a palace balcony, and the voices of kings upon kings asking her to protect their most precious treasures. These memories weren't hers, but she took them in and accepted them as her duty to protect, just like the wealth all around her.
Victoria had to find William. There were so many things she could tell him. All the scrolls in Alexandria couldn't hold everything she wanted to say.
She retraced her path on all fours. Her steps sang a hymn to the Eye of Re. Her heart beat the sed-festival drums. Even her breath whispered of Ptah.
The scent of a stranger inside of her treasury put Victoria on edge, but she knew William and trusted him. He'd understand that she needed to keep this safe. Her sensitive nose led her along his meandering path, until she found him, gazing up at a seated black statue of Mentuhotep II.
She padded to a stop and sat down. Her wings adjusted with a soft flutter. William was still entranced with the statue's stark paint and thick features. She took a deep breath, then broke the silence, saying, "William, look."
He turned his head and looked over his shoulder. His eyes widened and he froze.
"Isn't it brilliant?" With her wings as counterbalance, Victoria balanced on her back feet. She spread her arms wide, showing off her body.
William took a step back. His brow wrinkled as if he was afraid. His lips hung parted slightly as his eyes darted up and down her body. His chest rose, as if a scream was rising in his throat. She didn't understand. This was an amazing discovery. Was he just in shock?
"Will, it's me. Victoria. Don't I look beautiful?" Her wings unfurled. They glimmered in the lantern light, throwing vast shadows against the walls. She was a marvel of art, a sphinx brought to life. He had to be able to appreciate that.
He spoke, finally. "That—that is you. God, we've got to get you out of here." He took a hesitant step toward her. His eyes were filled with concern that she didn't need.
The thought of leaving chilled Victoria's fur. This treasury was too important to go unguarded, now that it had been found She folded her wings and looked William in the eyes. Her gaze glinted in the lantern light. "I don't want to leave. I have to protect this place. But I can tell you so much now. I've seen so much. Ptah gave me this gift, and—"
"Listen to what you're saying. You're not yourself," William said, his voice raw with worry. "These artifacts belong in a museum. You're talking about gods like they're—"
"What?" The bridge of Victoria's nose wrinkled as she bared her fangs. "The treasure stays here. I have to protect it!"
"We're archaeologists. We have to be able to study the past. You should understand that," William said. His eyes darted to her clenched claws, then back to her face. He took a step back.
He didn't understand. He had no idea of the glories she protected, no idea of the history she'd seen. If he had a glimpse of that knowledge, maybe he would understand. But he didn't. He wanted to take the treasure. That made him a thief. Her love for him only made his betrayal sting sharper.
"No!" she roared. She crouched, her muscles tight and wings raised.
He backed away, shrinking into his shoulders. "Victoria—!"
With one flap of her wings, she sprung at him. He hit the stone and skidded on the floor. Her claws sunk into his clothes and held tight. Her eyes were wide, her pupils narrow slits. She stood over him, fangs bared. Glittering jewelry hung in the air around her snarl.
"If you want the treasure, answer my riddle, thief," she spat. "'Who keeps wealth each day, but may never take a coin of it?'"
William glanced around for a way out, but there was none. His chest rose and fell under her paws. He asked, "Is, ah, is it a bank?"
"Wrong," she said, leaning closer. "A guard."
Victoria's smile was broad and vicious. She would make him useful yet. She shut her eyelids and drew ancient words from the depths of her mind. They slid into her throat and rolled off her lips like cold, dark water pouring over him.
William's mouth opened, as if he wanted to cry out but couldn't. His eyes spoke all the fear Victoria wanted to see. Now he would get a taste of the floodwaters. He would learn why she had to protect this treasure, whether he wanted it or not.
He groped at the ground, trying to tug himself away from Victoria. His fingers cracked and curled and forced black claws from his fingertips. His hands drooped, heavy with leathery pads and black fur. Victoria rose off of his chest. She didn't miss a word. The waters rushed over his mind.
William thrashed. His head rolled from side to side. He panted through his mouth. With a great heave of his lungs, the buttons of his shirt snapped free. Black fur washed over his chest. His ribs creaked forward with each panting breath.
Victoria felt his resistance against her lips. She tasted his terror. Her anger wouldn't be satisfied unless he was brought to heel. If not as equals, then as servant and mistress.
He tried to sit up, propped on one trembling paw-hand. As his head rose, his tongue unrolled. It flopped neatly between his large canines and dangled off of his lip. His free hand flew up to clap his mouth shut. The flesh and bone of his face pulled forward as if someone had hooked their finger under his jaw and pulled. A whine and yelp squeezed out of his throat.
William's eyes watered. He screwed them shut, wrinkled his face, and bared his canine teeth. With a kr-krack, his neck stretched. Taller, muscular, curling forward, thick at his shoulders and narrowing toward his head; the proportions were inhuman. The shoulders of his shirt strained against his collar. He hunched as if squeezed into a smaller and smaller seat. The prickle of snapping stitches came seconds before his sleeves ripped open, freeing thick shoulders and arms wrapped in lean muscle.
Victoria bowed her head in concentration. The flood waters burst through his resistance, scattering his thoughts to the currents. The only thing he had to cling to was his sense of duty. Through the howling rush: Serve your mistress. Obey your mistress.
His jaw shot open and he howled. His snout shuddered forward in bursts of bone. His boots fell from his paws. He curled over, eyes still closed, clutching at the shreds of his shirt.
Victoria took a deep breath. The spell done, the inundation subsided. She had filled him with every prayer, hymn, spell and myth she knew about duty and loyalty.
William's breathing slowed. His tall ears rose to attention. He lifted his head and opened his eyes. They were solid, featureless gold. He blinked; golden eyeliner traced around his eyes. As he rose to his feet, the remains of his pants unraveled and re-wove themselves into a linen kilt. The jackal-headed guardian stood quietly, waiting for his mistress to speak.
"Now, we'll protect the treasure." Victoria spoke in Middle Egyptian, as it felt more natural. "Together."
William closed his eyes and bowed his head. "I will serve you, beautiful child of Ptah."
"Charmer," Victoria purred. She twirled a lock of hair around a paw pad, pretending to be bashful.
In the late afternoon, the setting sun shone into the entrance hall of Iset's treasury. Victoria had taken the name Iset-Nofret; an English name just didn't seem right. The sun's warmth fully soaked her tanned skin and golden fur. She lay on her side, back legs stretched out behind her, resting her chin on her paws.
She rolled onto her stomach with a tinkle of beads. Setting her paws out as far in front of her as she could, she stretched her front legs, her hindquarters up in the air, then her back legs, chest thrust forward. She yawned, folding her ears back and baring her fangs. It had been a quiet, lazy day. The dig site laid abandoned ever since she'd scared all the workers away.
Next to her, in the shade, her jackal-headed guard stood watch. She had given William the name Neheb, as he'd refused to choose a new name himself. As his mistress, it was hers to choose, he'd said.
Iset walked out of the sun and into the shade next to Neheb, then reared back onto her hind legs. Her wings spread slightly to keep her balance. She trailed one claw against the contour of his chest, then leaned in close and kissed him on the cheek. A small smile softened his stoic expression. He put his arm around her back to hold her up, then kissed her back on the lips.
Someday soon, more archaeologists would come, looking for their missing colleagues. If they asked nicely, Iset might tell them a few stories. If not, they'd have to hope they were good at riddles.