Marid coughed in the dust. All around him, Professor Swiggle and company were coughing as well, but by this point the desert Aisha could care less about their welfare. He was still simmering at the memory of that obnoxious Chia just touching the door like that, out of complete ignorance, with no respect at all for danger.
Well, they were doomed now. It seemed they had triggered another booby trap of sorts. The ceiling had caved in, and the door--
"Um, uncle?" asked Jensen, who had scrambled up a pile of rubble with a clumsiness utterly unbefitting a Mynci. "The door looks to be open!"
"It's open?" the Chia roared, almost tearing the scroll as he charged toward the door. "We did it, then!"
"We did it!" Silar echoed, bouncing after the professor with equal disregard for the sanctity of the monument.
Marid sighed and dragged himself after them. He didn't bother to voice his concern that they might have permanently damaged this part of the monument.
"What's next on the scroll?" Jensen asked. He was squealing like a child.
"It looks like a diagram of sorts. A forked path?"
Marid cleared his throat. "We are in a forked passageway, sir."
The archaeologists looked at him like they'd just remembered he existed, and then the same stupid dependency came into their eyes. The same expectation that he would lead the way.
"Follow me," Marid said, choosing the upward-sloping path... and bumping headfirst into his dad. "Dad! What are you doing here?!?"
"The better question is, what are you doing here?" the elder Aisha said with a frown. "You weren't supposed to take them into the hidden wing!"
Silar's voice cut into their conversation from behind. "I thought our agreement was for you to give us a full and complete tour of the monument?"
Marid's father turned on the shadow Kyrii with the speedy venom of a Cobrall. "Yes," he said, "the monument -- not the tomb."
"Tomb?" Professor Swiggle echoed, huffing and puffing as he came up the slope.
"You heard me correctly, you Slorg... the tomb," Marid's father said, and his voice began to shake -- not with anger, Marid saw, but with fear and grief.
"What did the Faerie Queen say about Kiara?" Marid whispered.
"Just get these guys out of here. Get. Them. Out."
"We can't," Marid said. "The main entrance is caved in." He gestured accusingly toward Jensen, who only grinned.
Marid's father looked troubled. "I came in by the emergency portal," he said, "but as we know, it's one-way."
"Which leaves us only one more path, then," Professor Swiggle said, turning back down the slope toward the second path in the fork.
Marid and his father winced at Swiggle's use of the word "us." However, seeing no other choice, they, too, descended in the wake of Jensen's childish skip and Silar's cool stride.
Professor Swiggle and Silar were already bent over the scroll when the two Aishas caught up.
"Give me that," Marid's father said roughly.
The Chia gave him a disdainful look. "You don't know the first thing about the Poogle scholar Elias," he said.
"You don't know the first thing about the history of this monument," Marid's father snapped back.
"It might interest you to know," Professor Swiggle went on quietly, "that Elias was in search of an ancient cure."
"We are not gravediggers or robbers, Dirma," the professor said, straightening his collar. "We just want to follow the trail of Elias and try to uncover what he learned. His wisdom has been lost to time for a millennium."
"How many years in our calendar is that, Marid?" Dirma asked as he turned to his son.
Marid whispered the answer.
Dirma turned pale. "That is almost exactly how long the Aisha princess Laila has been buried for."
"It seems we have much to learn from each other, then," Professor Swiggle said.
Dirma sighed. "I suppose I have to agree. Watch your step, will you?" he added grumpily as he stepped forward.
"Sir, the map," Silar said.
"I don't need it," Dirma replied. "I've visited this tomb for years. I... I've never shown it to Marid, because it is not yet his time, but--" He pressed his lips together and didn't finish the sentence.
The narrow passageway opened into a wide, stone-paved room. At the center of it shimmered an elaborate casket.
"The Tomb of Shaila," the archaeologists murmured together, Jensen's voice on top.
"It's the Tomb of Laila," Dirma said, obviously annoyed. "Laila, my ancestor!"
"No, you don't understand," Professor Swiggle began -- quickly adding, in response to the look on Dirma's face, "no, uh... I didn't mean that in an offensive way--"
Silar stepped in. "Elias traced a key ingredient of the cure all the way to this location in the Lost Desert."
"Yes, yes," Swiggle almost chirped.
"Shaila -- the name by which she is known, in our lands -- was supposed to have died from that rare hereditary disease."
Dirma looked thunderous with hope. "Why didn't you say this sooner?!?"
"You wouldn't listen, sir."
"And neither, if I might say so, would you," Marid said. "I told you to stay on the main path."
Professor Swiggle's eyes twinkled good-humouredly. "And yet, here we are."
The group stood together for a moment, in silent reverence, before the casket and the stone walls.
Professor Swiggle smiled and blinked as the reporters milled around him.
"How does it feel, sir, to have your discovery listed in the journal of the Neopian Hospital?"
"How does it feel to know that dozens of Neopets afflicted with this rare disease can now be cured?"
Swiggle waved for them to be silent. "Before I talk at all about my part in the discovery," he said, "I must make my acknowledgements to a pair of desert Aishas. Their names are Dirma and Marid, and they are among the most courageous explorers I have known."
In a tent in the desert, under a deep shimmering sky...
"Dad! Marid! Oh... how many years have I been asleep?"
"It doesn't matter now, it doesn't matter." The sound of sobbing followed. "It is all over now."