To Anne Rice
For showing us the beauty in monsters
And the monstrous in the beautiful
To my husband and son, for keeping the monsters at bay
And I saw in the right hand of him that sat on the throne a book written within and on the backside, sealed with seven seals.
And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, Who is worthy to open the book, and to loose the seals thereof?
And no man in heaven, nor in earth, neither under the earth, was able to open the book, neither to look thereon … Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood….
—REVELATION 5:1–3, 9
I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all.
—T. S. ELIOT
Spring, AD 73
The dead continued to sing.
Three hundred feet above Eleazar’s head, the chorus of nine hundred Jewish rebels rang out in defiance of the Roman legion at their gates. The defenders had sworn to take their own lives rather than be captured. Those final prayers, chanted to Heaven on high, echoed down to the tunnels below, carved out of the heart of the mountain of Masada.
Abandoning the doomed men to their bitter sunlight, Eleazar tore his gaze from the roof of the limestone passageway. He wished that he could chant beside them, that he could give up his own life in a final battle. But his destiny lay elsewhere.
He gathered the precious block into his arms. The sun-warmed stone stretched from his hand to his elbow, the length of a newborn baby. Cradling the stone block against his chest, he forced himself to enter the rough-hewn passage that sliced into the heart of the mountain. Masons sealed the way behind him. No living man could follow.
The seven soldiers who accompanied him forged ahead with torches. Their thoughts must still be with their brothers, the nine hundred above on the sun-scoured plateau. The stronghold had been under siege for months. Ten thousand Roman soldiers, split into enormous camps, surrounded the mesa, ensuring no one could leave or enter. The rebels had vowed, when their chant was complete, to take the lives of their families and then their own, before the Romans overran their walls. They prayed and readied themselves to kill the innocent.
As must I.
Eleazar’s task weighed upon him as heavily as the stone in his arms. His thoughts turned to what awaited below. The tomb. He had spent hours praying in that subterranean temple, knees pressed against stone blocks fitted so close together that not even an ant might escape. He had studied its smooth walls and high, arched ceiling. He had admired the careful handiwork of the craftsmen who had labored to make the space sacred.
Even then, he had not dared to look upon the sarcophagus in the temple.
That unholy crypt that would hold the most holy word of God.
He hugged the stone tighter to his chest.
Please, God, take this burden from me.
This last prayer, like the thousands before it, remained unanswered. The sacrifices of the rebels above must be honored. Their cursed lifeblood must serve a higher purpose.
When he reached the arched doorway to the temple, he could not step through. Others jostled past to their posts. He rested his forehead against the cold wall, praying for solace.
His gaze swept inside. Torchlight flickered, dancing shadows across the stone bricks that formed an arched roof overhead. Smoke swirled above, seeking escape, but there would be none.
Not for any of them.
At last, his eyes settled on the small girl, on her knees, held down by soldiers. His heart ached at the piteous sight of her, but he would not forsake the task that had been asked of him. He hoped that she would shut her eyes so that he might not have to look into them at the end.
Eyes of water …
That was how his long-dead sister had described those innocent eyes, her daughter’s eyes, her little Azubah.
Eleazar stared now at his niece’s eyes.
A child’s eyes still—but it was not a child who glared back at him. She had seen what a child should never see. And soon would see no more.
Forgive me, Azubah.
With one last murmured prayer, he stepped into the torchlit tomb. Guttering flames reflected off the haunted eyes of the seven soldiers who were waiting for him. They had fought the Romans for days, knowing that the battle would end with their own deaths, but not like this. He nodded to them, and to the robed man in their midst. Nine grown men gathered to sacrifice a child.
The men bowed their heads to Eleazar, as if he were holy. In truth, they did not know how unclean he was. Only he and the one he served knew that.
Every man bore bloody wounds, some inflicted by the Romans, others by the small girl they held captive.
The purple robes she’d been forced to wear were too large, making her appear even smaller. Her dirty hands clutched a tattered doll, sewn from leather, tanned the color of the Judean desert, one button eye missing.
How many years ago had he given it to her? He remembered the delight bursting from that tiny face when he knelt and offered it to her. He recalled thinking how much sunlight could be trapped in such a little body, that it could shine so brilliantly, fuel such simple joy at a gift of leather and cloth.
He searched her face now, looking for that sunshine.
But only darkness stared back at him.
She hissed, showing teeth.
“Azubah,” he pleaded.
Eyes, once as calm and beautiful as a fawn’s, glared at him with feral hatred. She drew in a deep breath and spat hot blood in his face.
He staggered, dazed by the silken feel, the iron smell of the blood. With one shaking hand, he wiped his face. He knelt before her and used a cloth to gently brush blood from her chin, then flung the soiled rag far away.
Then he heard it.
So did she.
Eleazar and Azubah both jerked their heads. In the tomb, they alone heard screams from atop the mountain. They alone knew that the Romans had broken through the stronghold’s defenses.
The slaughter above had begun.
The robed one noted their movement and knew what it meant. “We have no more time.”
Eleazar looked to the older man in the dusty brown robe, their leader, the one who had demanded that this child be baptized amid such horror. Age etched the leader’s bearded face. Solemn, impenetrable eyes closed. His lips moved in silent prayer. His face shone with the surety of a man free of doubt.
Finally, those blessed eyes opened again and found Eleazar’s face, as if searching for his soul. It made him recall another stare from another man, many, many years before.
Eleazar turned away in shame.
The soldiers gathered around the open stone sarcophagus in the center of the tomb. It had been carved out of a single block of limestone, large enough to hold three grown men.
But it would soon imprison only one small girl.
Pyres of myrrh and frankincense smoldered at each corner. Through their fragrance Eleazar smelled darker scents: bitter salts and acrid spices gathered according to an ancient Essene text.
All lay in terrible readiness.
Eleazar bowed his head one final time, praying for another way.
Take me, not her.
But the ritual called for them all to play their roles.
A Girl Corrupted of Innocence.
A Knight of Christ.
A Warrior of Man.
The robed leader spoke. His graveled voice did not waver. “What must be done is God’s will. To protect her soul. And the souls of others. Take her!”
But not all had come here willingly.
Azubah yanked free of her captors’ hands and sprang for the door, swift as a fallow doe.
Eleazar alone possessed the speed to catch her. He grabbed her thin wrist. She struggled against his grip, but he was stronger. Men closed in around them. She pulled the doll to her chest and sank to her knees. She looked so wretchedly small.
Their leader gestured to a nearby soldier. “It must be done.”
The soldier stepped forward and snatched Azubah’s arm, wrenching her doll away and tossing it aside.
“No!” she cried, her first word, forlorn, still sounding so much like a child, coming from her thin throat.
She tore free again and surged forth with furious strength. She leaped upon the offending soldier, locking her legs around his waist. Teeth and nails tore at his face as she knocked him hard to the stone floor.
Two solders rushed to his aid. They pulled the wild girl off and pinned her down.
“Take her to the sepulcher!” the leader commanded.
The two men holding her hesitated, plainly fearing to move. The child thrashed under them.
Eleazar saw that her panic was not directed toward her captors. Her gaze remained fixed on what had been stolen from her.
He retrieved the tattered figure of her doll and held it in front of her bloody face. It had quieted her many times when she was younger. He strove to block out memories of her playing in the clear sunshine with her laughing sisters and this doll. The toy trembled in his hand.
Her gaze softened into a plea. Her struggles calmed. She disentangled one arm from the men’s grasps and reached for the doll.
When her fingers touched it, her body sagged as she succumbed to her fate, accepting that escape was not possible. She sought her only solace, as she had as an innocent child, in the companionship of her doll. She did not want to go into the darkness alone. She lifted the figure to her face and pressed her small nose against its own, her shape a sigil of childlike comfort.
Waving his men away, he lifted the now-quiet girl. He cradled her cold form against his chest, and she nestled against him as she used to. He prayed for the strength to do what was right.
The block of stone gripped in his free hand reminded him of his oath.
To the side, their leader began the prayers binding the sacrifice above to the one below, using ancient incantations, holy words, and tossing pinches of incense into the small pyres. Atop the mountain, the rebels took their lives as the Romans broke their gates.
That tragic payment of blood would settle the debt here.
With the block clutched in his hand, Eleazar carried the girl the few steps to the open sarcophagus. It had already been filled, nearly to the rim, sloshing and shimmering. It was to act as a mikveh—a ritual immersion bath for those to be purified.
But rather than blessed water, wine filled this bath.
Empty clay jugs littered the floor.
Reaching the crypt, Eleazar peered into its dark depths. Torchlight turned wine to blood.
Azubah buried her face in his chest. He swallowed bitter grief.
“Now,” their leader ordered.
He held the girl’s small form against his own one last time and felt her release a single sob. He glanced at the dark doorway. He could still save her body, but only if he damned her soul, and his own. This terrible act was the only way to truly save her.
The highest-ranking soldier lifted the girl from Eleazar’s arms and held her over the open tomb. She clutched her doll to her chest, terror raw in her eyes as he lowered her to the surface of the wine. And stopped. Her eyes sought out Eleazar’s. He stretched a hand toward her, then pulled it back.
“Blessed be the Lord our God who art in Heaven,” the leader intoned.
Above them, all chanting stopped. She tilted her head as if she heard it, too. Eleazar pictured blood soaking the sand, seeping toward the mountain’s core. It must be done now. Those deaths marked the final dark act to seal this tomb.
“Eleazar,” the leader said. “It is time.”
Eleazar held out the precious stone block, its holy secret the only force strong enough to drive him forward. The stone block’s weight was nothing in his arms. It was his heart that held him trapped for a breath.
“It must be done,” the robed one said, softly now.
Eleazar did not trust his voice to answer. He moved toward the girl.
The commander released her into the wine. She writhed in the dark liquid, small fingers grasping the stone sides of her coffin. Red bled over its edges and spilled to the floor. Her eyes beseeched him as he placed the stone block atop her thin chest—and pushed. The stone’s weight and the shuddering strength of his arms forced the child deep into the wine bath.
She no longer fought, just held the doll tight against her chest. She lay as quiet as if she were already dead. Her mute lips moved, forming words that disappeared as her small face sank away.
What were those lost words?
He knew that question would haunt his everlasting days.
“Forgive me,” he choked out. “And forgive her.”
Wine soaked his tunic sleeves, scalding his skin. He held her inert form until the prayers of their leader ceased.
For what seemed an eternity.
Finally, he let go and stood. Azubah remained drowned at the bottom, forever pinned under the weight of the sacred stone, ever its cursed guardian. He prayed that this act would purify her soul, an ageless penance for the corruption inside her.
My little Azubah …
He collapsed against the sarcophagus.
“Seal it,” the leader ordered.
A limestone slab, lowered with ropes, ground into place. Men slathered the edges of the lid with a slurry of ash and lime to bind stone to stone.
Eleazar flattened his palms against the side of her prison as if his touch could comfort her. But she was beyond comfort now.
He rested his forehead against the unforgiving stone. It was the only way. It served a higher good. But these truths did not ease his pain. Or hers.
“Come,” their leader beckoned. “What must be done has been done.”
Eleazar drew in a rattling breath of foul air. The soldiers coughed and shuffled to the doorway. He stood alone with her in the dank tomb.
“You cannot stay,” the leader called from the doorway. “You must walk a different path.”
Eleazar stumbled toward the voice, blinded by tears.
Once they left, the tomb would be hidden, the passage sealed. No living being would remember it. Any who dared trespass would be doomed.
He found their leader’s gaze upon him.
“Do you regret your oath?” the man asked. His voice rang with pity, but it also held the hardness of the resolute.
That hardness was the reason why Christ named their leader Petrus, meaning “Rock.” He was the apostle who would be the foundation of the new Church.
Eleazar met that stony gaze. “No, Peter, I do not.”
Who looks on the earth and it trembles
who touches the mountains and they smoke!
October 26, 10:33 A.M., Israel Standard Time
Dr. Erin Granger stroked her softest brush across the ancient skull. As the dust cleared, she studied it with the eyes of a scientist, noting the tiny seams of bone, the open fontanel. Her gaze evaluated the amount of callusing, judging the skull to be that of a newborn, and from the angle of the pelvic bone, a boy.
Only days old when he died.
As she continued to draw the child out of the dirt and stone, she looked on also as a woman, picturing the infant boy lying on his side, knees drawn up against his chest, tiny hands still curled into fists. Had his parents counted his heartbeats, kissed his impossibly tender skin, watched as that tiny heartbeat stopped?
As she had once done with her baby sister.
She closed her eyes, brush poised.
Opening her eyes, she combed back an errant strand of blond hair that had escaped its efficient ponytail before turning her attention back to the bones. She would find out what happened here all those hundreds of years ago. Because, as with her sister, this child’s death had been deliberate. Only this boy had succumbed to violence, not negligence.
She continued to work, seeing the tender position of the limbs. Someone had labored to restore the body to its proper order before burying it, but the efforts could not disguise the cracked and missing bones, hinting at a past atrocity. Even two thousand years could not erase the crime.
She put down the wooden brush and took yet another photo. Time had colored the bones the same bleached sepia as the unforgiving ground, but her careful excavation had revealed their shape. Still, it would take hours to work the rest of the bones free.
She shifted from one aching knee to the other. At thirty-two, she was hardly old, but right now she felt that way. She had been in the trench for barely an hour, and already her knees complained. As a child, she had knelt in prayer for much longer, poised on the hard dirt floor of the compound’s church. Back then, she could kneel for half a day without complaint, if her father demanded—but after so many years trying to forget her past, perhaps she misremembered it.
Wincing, she stood and stretched, lifting her head clear of the waist-high trench. A cooling sea breeze caressed her hot face, chasing away her memories. To the left, wind ruffled the flaps of the camp’s tents and scattered sand across the excavation site.
Flying grit blinded her until she could blink it away. Sand invaded everything here. Each day her hair changed from blond to the grayish red of the Israeli desert. Her socks ground inside her Converse sneakers like sandpaper, her fingernails filled up with grit, even her mouth tasted of sand.
Still, when she looked across the plastic yellow tape that cordoned off her archaeological dig, she allowed a ghost of a smile to shine, happy to have her sneakers planted in ancient history. Her excavation occupied the center of an ancient hippodrome, a chariot course. It faced the ageless Mediterranean Sea. The water shone indigo, beaten by the sun into a surreal, metallic hue. Behind her, a long stretch of ancient stone seats, sectioned into tiers, stood as a two-thousand-year-old testament to a long-dead king, the architect of the city of Caesarea: the infamous King Herod, that monstrous slayer of innocents.
A horse’s whinny floated across the track, echoing not from the past, but from a makeshift stable that had been thrown together on the far end of the hippodrome. A local group was preparing an invitational race. Soon this hippodrome would be resurrected, coming to life once again, if only for a few days.
She could hardly wait.
But she and her students had a lot of work to finish before then.
With her hands on her hips, she stared down at the skull of the murdered baby. Perhaps later today she could jacket the tiny skeleton with plaster and begin the laborious process of excavating it from the ground. She longed to get it back to a lab, where it could be analyzed. The bones had more to tell her than she would ever discover in the field.
She dropped to her knees next to the infant. Something bothered her about the femur. It had unusual scallop-shaped dents along its length. As she bent close to see, a chill chased back the heat.
Were those teeth marks?
“Professor?” Nate Highsmith’s Texas twang broke the air and her concentration.
She jumped, cracking her elbow against the wooden slats bracing the walls from the relentless sand.
“Sorry.” Her graduate student ducked his head.
She had given strict instructions that she was not to be disturbed this morning, and here he was bothering her already. To keep from snapping at him, she picked up her battered canteen and took a long sip of tepid water. It tasted like stainless steel.
“No harm done,” she said stiffly.
She shielded her eyes with her free hand and squinted up at him. Standing on the edge of the trench, he was silhouetted against the scathing sun. He wore a straw Stetson pulled low, a pair of battered jeans, and a faded plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up to expose well-muscled arms. She suspected that he had rolled them up just to impress her. It wouldn’t work, of course. For the past several years, fully focused on her work, she acknowledged that the only guys she found fascinating had been dead for several centuries.
She glanced meaningfully over to an unremarkable patch of sand and rock. The team’s ground-penetrating radar unit sat abandoned, looking more like a sandblasted lawn mower than a high-tech tool for peering under dirt and rock.
“Why aren’t you over there mapping that quadrant?”
“I was, Doc.” His drawl got thicker, as it always did when he got excited. He hiked an eyebrow, too.
He’s found something.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” Nate bounced on the balls of his feet, ready to dash off and show her.
She smiled, because he was right. Whatever it was, she wouldn’t believe it until she saw it herself. That was the mantra she hammered into her students: It’s not real until you can dig it out of the ground and hold it in your hands.
To protect her work site and out of respect for the child’s bones, she gently pulled a tarp over the skeleton. Once she was done, Nate reached down and helped her out of the deep trench. As expected, his hand lingered on hers a second too long.
Trying not to scowl, she retrieved her hand and dusted off the knees of her jeans. Nate took a step back, glancing away, perhaps knowing he had overstepped a line. She didn’t scold him. What would be the use? She wasn’t oblivious to the advances of men, but she rarely encouraged them, and never out in the field. Here she wore dirt like other women wore makeup and avoided romantic involvement. Though of average height, she’d been told that she carried herself as if she were a foot taller. She had to in this profession, especially as a young woman.
Back home, she’d had her share of relationships, but none of them seemed to stick. In the end, most men found her intimidating—which was off-putting to many, but oddly attractive to others.
Still, he was a good field man with great potential as a geophysicist. He would grow out of his interest in her, and things would uncomplicate themselves on their own.
“Show me.” She turned toward the khaki-colored equipment tent. If nothing else, it would be good to get out of the baking sun.
“Amy’s got the information up on the laptop.” He headed across the site. “It’s a jackpot, Professor. We hit a bona fide bone jackpot.”
She suppressed a grin at his enthusiasm and hurried to keep pace with his long-legged stride. She admired his passion, but, like life, archaeology didn’t hand out jackpots after a single morning’s work. Sometimes not even after decades.
She ducked past the tent flap and held it open for Nate, who took off his hat as he stepped inside. Out of the sun’s glare, the tent’s interior felt several degrees cooler than the site outside.
A humming electric generator serviced a laptop and a dilapidated metal fan. The fan blew straight at Amy, a twenty-three-year-old grad student from Columbia. The dark-haired young woman spent more time inside the tent than out. Drops of water had condensed on a can of Diet Coke on her desk. Slightly overweight and out of shape, Amy hadn’t had the years under the harsh sun to harden her to the rigors of archaeological fieldwork, but she still had a keen technological nose. Amy typed on the keyboard with one hand and waved Erin over with the other.
“Professor Granger, you’re not going to believe this.”
“That’s what I keep hearing.”
Her third student was also in the tent. Apparently everyone had decided to stop working to study Nate’s findings. Heinrich hovered over Amy’s shoulder. A stolid twenty-four-year-old student from the Freie Universität in Berlin, he was normally hard to distract. For him to have stepped away from his own work meant that the find was big.
Amy’s brown eyes did not leave the screen. “The software is still working at enhancing the image, but I thought you’d want to see this right away.”
Erin unsnapped the rag clipped to her belt and wiped grit and sweat off her face. “Amy, before I forget, that child’s skeleton I’ve been excavating … I saw some unusual marks that I’d like you to photograph.”
Amy nodded, but Erin suspected she hadn’t heard a word she’d said.
Nate fidgeted with his Stetson.
What had they found?
Erin walked over and stood next to Heinrich. Amy leaned back in her metal folding chair so that Erin had a clear view of the screen.
The laptop displayed time-sliced images of the ground Nate had scanned that morning. Each showed a different layer of quadrant eight, sorted by depth. The pictures resembled square gray mud puddles marred by black lines that formed parabolas, like ripples in the puddle. The black lines represented solid material.
Erin’s heart pounded in her throat. She leaned closer in disbelief.
This mud puddle had far too many waves. In ten years of fieldwork she’d never seen anything like it. No one had.
This can’t be right.
She traced a curve on the smooth screen, ignoring the way Amy tightened her lips. Amy hated it when someone smudged her laptop screen, but Erin had to prove that it was real—to touch it herself.
She spoke through the strain, through the hope. “Nate, how big an area did you scan?”
No hesitation. “Ten square meters.”
She glanced sidelong at his serious face. “Only ten meters? You’re sure?”
“You trained me on the GPR, remember?” He cocked his head to the side. “Painstakingly.”
Erin kept going. “And you added gain to these results?”
“Yes, Professor,” he sighed. “It’s fully gained.”
She sensed that she’d bruised his ego by questioning his skills, but she had to be certain. She trusted equipment, but not always the people running it.
“I did everything.” Nate leaned forward. “And, before you ask, the signature is exactly the same as the skeleton you were just excavating.”
Exactly the same? That made this stratum two thousand years old. She looked back at the tantalizing images. If the data were correct, and she would have to check again, but if they were, each parabola marked a human skull.
“I did a rough count.” Nate interrupted her thoughts. “More than five hundred. None larger than four inches in diameter.”
Four inches …
Not just skulls—skulls of babies.
Hundreds of babies.
She silently recited the relevant Bible passage: Matthew 2:16. Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.
The Massacre of the Innocents. Allegedly, Herod ordered it done to be certain, absolutely certain, that he had killed the child whom he feared would one day supplant him as the King of the Jews. But he had failed anyway. That baby had escaped to Egypt and grown into the man known as Jesus Christ.
Had her team just discovered tragic proof of Herod’s deed?
October 26, 1:03 P.M., IST
Sweat stung Tommy’s eyes. Eyebrows would come in handy about now.
Thanks again, chemo.
He slumped against another camel-colored boulder. All the rocks on the steep trail looked the same, and every one was too hot to sit on. He shifted his windbreaker under his legs to put another layer of protection between his pants and the scorching surface. As usual, he was holding the group up. Also, as usual, he was too weak to go on without a break.
He struggled to catch his breath. The burning air tasted thin and dry. Did it even have enough oxygen? The other climbers seemed to be fine breathing it. They practically sprinted up the switchbacks like he was the grandpa and they were the fourteen-year-olds. He couldn’t even hear their voices anymore.
The rocky trail—named the Snake Path—twisted up the sheer cliffs of the infamous mountain of Masada. Its summit was only a handful of yards overhead, sheltering the ruins of the ancient Jewish fortress. From his current perch on the trail, Tommy searched out over the baked tan earth of the Jordan Valley below.
He wiped sweat from his eyes. Being from Orange County, Tommy thought he’d known heat. But this was like crawling into an oven.
His head drooped forward. He wanted to sleep again. He wanted to feel cool hotel sheets against his cheek and take a long nap in air-conditioning. After that, if he felt better, he would play video games.
He jerked awake. This was no time to daydream. But he was so tired, and the desert so quiet. Unlike humans, animals and bugs were smart enough to take cover during the day. A vast empty silence swallowed him. Would death be like this?
“Are you okay, honey?” his mother asked.
He startled. Why hadn’t he heard her approach? Did he fall asleep again? He wheezed out, “Fine.”
She bit her lip. They all knew he wasn’t fine. He yanked his cuff over the new coffee-brown blotch of melanoma that disfigured his left wrist.
“We can wait as long as you need to.” She plunked down next to him. “I wonder why they call it the Snake’s Path. I haven’t seen a single snake.”
She spoke to his chin. His parents rarely made eye contact with him anymore. When they did, they cried. It had been like that throughout the last two years of surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation—and now through his relapse.
Maybe they’d finally look him in the face when he lay in his coffin.
“Too hot for snakes.” He hated how out of breath he sounded.
“They’d be snake steaks.” She took a long drink from her water bottle. “Sun-broiled and ready to eat. Just like us.”
His father trotted up. “Everything all right?”
“I’m just taking a break,” his mother lied, covering for him. She wet her handkerchief and handed it to Tommy. “I got tired.”
Tommy wanted to correct her, to tell the truth, but he was too exhausted. He wiped the cloth across his face.
His father started talking, like he always did when he was nervous. “We’re close now. Just a few more yards, and we’ll see the fortress. The actual fortress of Masada. Try to picture it.”
Obediently, Tommy closed his eyes. He pictured a swimming pool. Blue and cool and smelling like chlorine.
“Ten thousand Roman soldiers are camped out all around here in tents. Soldiers with swords and shields wait in the sun. They close off any escape route, try to starve out the nine hundred men, women, and children up there on the plateau.” His father talked faster, excited. “But the rebels stand firm until the end. Even after. They never give up.”
Tommy tugged his hat down on his bald head and squinted up at him. “They offed themselves in the end, Dad.”
“No.” His father spoke passionately. “The Jews here decided to die as free men, rather than fall to the mercy of the Romans. They didn’t kill themselves in surrender. They chose their own fate. Choices like that determine the kind of man you are.”
Tommy picked up a hot stone and tossed it down the trail. It bounced, then vanished over the edge. What would his father do if he really chose his own fate? If he offed himself instead of being a slave to the cancer. He didn’t think his father would sound so proud of that.
He studied his father’s face. People had often said they looked alike: same thick black hair, same easy smile. After chemo stole his hair, no one said that anymore. He wondered if he would have grown up to look like him.
“Ready to go again?” His father hitched his pack higher on his shoulder.
His mother gave his father the evil eye. “We can wait.”
“I didn’t say we had to go,” his father said. “I was just asking—”
“You bet.” Tommy stood up to keep his parents from arguing.
Eyes on the trail, he dragged forward. One tan hiking boot in front of the other. Soon he’d be up top, and his parents would get their moment with him at the fort. That was why he had agreed to this trip, to this long climb—because it would give them something to remember. Even if they weren’t ready to admit it, they wouldn’t have many more memories of him. He wanted to make them good ones.
He counted his steps. That was how you got through tough things. You counted. Once you said “one,” then you knew “two” was coming, and “three” right after that. He got to twenty-eight before the path leveled out.
He had reached the summit. Sure, his lungs felt like two flaming paper bags, but he was glad he’d done it.
At the top stood a wooden pavilion—though pavilion was a pretentious word for four skinny tree trunks topped by more skinny tree trunks laid sideways to cast patchy shade. But it beat standing in the sun.
Beyond the cliff’s edge, desert stretched around him. In its dried-out and desolate way, it was beautiful. Bleached brown dunes rolled as far as he could see. Sand slapped against rocks. Millennia of wind erosion had eaten those rocks away, grain by grain.
No people, no animals. Did the defenders see this view before the Romans arrived?
A killing wasteland.
He turned and scanned the plateau up top, where all that bloodshed had happened two thousand years ago. It was a long flat area, about five football fields long, maybe three times as wide, with a half dozen or so crumbling stone buildings.
This is what I climbed up here for?
His mother looked equally unimpressed. She pushed curly brown hair out of her eyes, her face pink from sunburn or exertion. “It looks more like a prison than a fortress.”
“It was a prison,” his father said. “A death row prison. Nobody got out alive.”
“Nobody ever gets out alive.” Tommy regretted his words as soon as they left his mouth, especially when his mother turned away and slid a finger under her sunglasses, clearly wiping a tear. Still, a part of him was glad that she let herself feel something real instead of lying about it all the time.
Their guide bounced up to them, rescuing them from the moment. She was all bare legs, tight khaki shorts, and long black hair, barely winded by the long climb. “Glad you guys made it!” She even had a sexy Israeli accent.
He smiled at her, grateful to have something else to think about. “Thanks.”
“Like I told everybody else a minute ago, the name Masada comes from the word metzuda, meaning ‘fortress,’ and you can see why.” She waved a long tan arm to encompass the entire plateau. “The casemate walls protecting the fortress are actually two walls, one inside the other. Between them were the main living quarters for Masada’s residents. Ahead of us is the Western Palace, the biggest structure on Masada.”
Tommy tore his eyes away from her lips to look where she pointed. The massive building didn’t look anything like a palace. It was a wreck. The old stone walls were missing large sections and clad with modern scaffolding. It looked like someone was halfway through building a movie set for the next Indiana Jones installment.
There must be a deep history under all that scaffolding, but he didn’t feel it. He wanted to. History mattered to his father, and it should to him, too, but since the cancer, he felt outside of time, outside of history. He didn’t have room in his head for other people’s tragedies, especially not people who had been dead for thousands of years.
“This next building we believe was a private bathhouse,” the guide said, indicating a building on the left. “They found three skeletons inside, skulls separated from the bodies.”
He perked up. Finally something interesting.
“Decapitated?” he asked, moving closer. “So they committed suicide by cutting off their own heads?”
The guide’s lips curved in a smile. “Actually, the soldiers drew lots to see who would be responsible for killing the others. Only the last man had to commit suicide.”
Tommy scowled at the ruins. So they killed their own children when the going got tough. He felt a surprising flicker of envy. Better to die quickly at the hands of someone who loved you than by the slow and pitiless rot of cancer. Ashamed of this thought, he looked at his parents. His mother smiled at him as she fanned herself with the guidebook, and his father took his picture.
No, he could never ask that of them.
Resigned, he turned his attention back to the bathhouse. “Those skeletons … are they still in there?” He stepped forward, ready to peek inside through the metal gate.
The guide blocked him with her ample chest. “Sorry, young man. No one is allowed inside.”
He struggled not to stare at her breasts but failed miserably.
Before he could move, his mother spoke. “How’re you doing, Tommy?”
Had she seen him checking out the guide? He blushed. “I’m fine.”
“Are you thirsty? Do you want some water?” She held out her plastic water bottle.
“Let me put some more sunscreen on your face.” His mother reached into her purse. Normally, he would have suffered the indignity, but the guide smiled at him, a stunning smile, and he suddenly didn’t want to be babied.
“I’m fine, Mom!” he spat out, more harshly than he’d intended.
His mother flinched. The guide walked away.
“Sorry,” he said to his mother. “I didn’t mean it.”
“It’s fine,” she said. “I’ll be over there with your father. Take your time here.”
Feeling terrible, he watched her walk away.
He crossed over to the bathhouse, angry at himself. He leaned on the metal gate to see inside—the gate creaked open under his weight. He almost fell through. He stepped back quickly, but before he did so, something in the corner of the room caught his eye.
A soft fluttering, white, like a crumpled piece of paper.
Curiosity piqued inside him. He searched around. No one was looking. Besides, what was the penalty for trespassing? What was the worst that could happen? The cute guide might drag him back out?
He wouldn’t mind that at all.
He poked his head inside, staring at the source of the fluttering.
A small white dove limped across the mosaic floor, its left wing dragging across the tiles, scrawling some mysterious message in the dust with the tip of its feathers.
Poor thing …
He had to get it out of there. It would die from dehydration or get eaten by something. The guide probably knew a bird rescue place they could bring it to. His mother had volunteered at a place like that back home in California, before his cancer ate up everyone’s life.
He slipped through the gap in the gate. Inside, the room was smaller than his father’s toolshed, with four plain stone walls and a floor covered by a faded mosaic made of maddeningly tiny tiles. The mosaic showed eight dusty red hearts arranged in a circle like a flower, a row of dark blue and white tiles that looked like waves, and a border of terra-cotta and white triangles that reminded him of teeth. He tried to imagine long-ago craftsmen putting it together like a jigsaw puzzle, but the thought made him tired.
He stepped across the shadowy threshold, grateful to be out of the unforgiving sun. How many people had died in here? A chill raced up his spine as he imagined the scene. He pictured people kneeling—he was certain they would be kneeling. A man in a dirty linen tunic stood above them with his sword raised high. He’d started with the youngest one, and by the time he was done, he barely had the strength to lift his arms, but he did. Finally, he, too, fell to his knees and waited for a quick death from his friend’s blade. And then, it was over. Their blood ran over the tiny tiles, stained the grout, and pooled on the floor.
Tommy shook his head to clear the vision and looked around.
They were probably taken to a museum or maybe buried someplace.
The bird raised its head, halting its journey across the tiles to stare up at Tommy, first with one eye, then the other, sizing him up. Its eyes were a brilliant shade of green, like malachite. He’d never seen a bird with green eyes before.
He knelt down and whispered, his words barely a breath. “Come here, little one. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
It stared with each eye again—then took a hop toward him.
Encouraged, he reached out and gently scooped up the wounded creature. As he rose with its warm body cradled between his palms, the ground shifted under him. He struggled to keep his balance. Was he dizzy because of the long climb? Between his toes, a tiny black line skittered across the mosaic, like a living thing.
Snake was his first thought.
Fear beat in his heart.
But the dark line widened, revealing it to be something worse. Not a snake, but a crack. A finger of dark orange smoke curled up from one end of the crack, no bigger than if someone had dropped a lit cigarette.
The bird suddenly burst from his palms, spread its wings, and sailed through the smoke as it fled out the door. Apparently it hadn’t been that injured. The smoke wafted Tommy’s way, beat by the passing wings. It smelled surprisingly sweet with a hint of darker spices, almost like incense.
Tommy crinkled his brow and leaned forward. He held his palm over the smoke. It rose up between his fingertips, cold instead of warm, as if it came from some cool place deep within the earth.
He bent to look at it more closely—when the mosaic cracked under his boots like glass. He jumped back. Tiles slipped into the gap. Blues, tans, and reds. The gap devoured the pattern as it grew wider.
He backpedaled toward the door. Gouts of smoke, now a reddish orange, boiled up through the splintering mosaic.
A grinding groan rose from the mountain’s core, and the entire room shook.
He leaped out the bathhouse door and landed hard on his backside. In front of him, the building gave a final, violent jerk, as if slapped by an angry god—then toppled into the chasm opening beneath it.
The edges crumbled wider, only feet away. He scooted backward. The chasm chased him. He gained his feet to run, but the mountaintop jolted and knocked him back to the ground.
He crawled away on his hands and knees. Stones shredded his palms. Around him, buildings and columns smashed to the ground.
God, please help me!
Dust and smoke hid everything more than a few yards away. As he crawled, he saw a man vanish under a falling section of wall. Two screaming women dropped away as the ground split beneath them.
He crawled toward his mother’s voice, finally clearing the pall of smoke.
“Here!” he coughed.
His father rushed forward and yanked him to his feet. His mother grabbed his elbow. They dragged him toward the Snake Path, away from the destruction.
He looked back. The fissure gaped wider, cleaving the summit. Chunks of mountain fell away and rumbled down to the desert. Dark smoke churned into the achingly blue sky, as if to take its horrors to the burning sun.
Together, he and his parents stumbled to the cliff’s edge.
But as quickly as it began, the earthquake ceased.
His parents froze, as if afraid any movement might restart the quakes. His father wrapped his arms around them both. Across the summit, pained cries cut the air.
“Tommy?” His mother’s voice shook. “You’re bleeding.”
“I scraped my hands,” he said. “It’s no big deal.”
His father let them go. He’d lost his hat and cut his cheek. His normally deep voice came out too high. “Terrorists, do you think?”
“I didn’t hear a bomb,” his mother said, stroking Tommy’s hair like he was a little boy.
For once, he didn’t mind.
The cloud of blackish-red smoke charged toward them, as if to drive them off the cliff.
His father took the suggestion and pointed toward the steep trail. “Let’s go. That stuff could be toxic.”
“I breathed it,” Tommy assured them, standing. “It’s okay.”
A woman ran out of the smoke clutching her throat. She ran blind, eyelids blistered and bleeding. Just a few steps, then she pitched forward and didn’t move.
“Go!” his father yelled, and pushed Tommy ahead of him. “Now!”
Together, they ran, but they could not outpace the smoke.
It overtook them. His mother coughed—a wet, tearing, unnatural sound. Tommy reached for her, not knowing what to do.
His parents stopped running, driven to their knees.
It was over.
“Tommy …” his father gasped. “Go …”
Disobedient, he sank down beside them.
If I’m going to die anyway, let it be on my own terms.
With my family.
A sense of finality calmed him. “It’s okay, Dad.” He squeezed his mom’s hand, then his dad’s. Tears flowed when he thought he had none left. “I love you, so much.”
Both of his parents looked at him—square in the eye. Despite the terrible moment at hand, Tommy felt so warm right then.
He hugged them both tightly and still held them as they went limp in his grasp, refusing to let gravity take them as death had. When his strength gave out, he knelt next to their bodies and waited for his own last breath.
But as minutes passed, that last breath refused to come.
He wiped an arm across his tearstained face and stumbled to his feet, refusing to look at his parents’ crumpled bodies, their blistered eyes, the blood on their faces. If he didn’t look, maybe they weren’t really dead. Maybe it was a dream.
He turned in a slow circle facing away from them. The foul smoke had blown away. Bodies littered the ground. As far as he could see, everything was dead still.
It was no dream.
Why am I the only one still alive? I was supposed to die. Not Mom and Dad.
He looked down again at their bodies. His grief was deeper than weeping. Deeper than all the times he’d mourned his own death.
It was wrong. He was the sick one, the defective one. He had known for a long time that his death was coming. But his parents were supposed to carry on memories of him, frozen at the age of fourteen in a thousand snapshots. The grief was supposed to be theirs.
He fell to his knees with a sob, thrusting his hands toward the sun, his palms upraised, both beseeching and cursing God.
But God wasn’t done with him yet.
As his arms stretched to the sky, one sleeve fell back, baring his wrist, pale and clear.
He lowered his limbs, staring at his skin in disbelief.
His melanoma had vanished.
October 26, 2:15 P.M., IST
Kneeling in the trench, Erin surveyed the earthquake’s damage and sighed in frustration. According to initial reports, the epicenter was miles away, but the quaking rocked the entire Israeli coastline, including here.
Sand poured through the broken boards that shored up the sides of her excavation, slowly reburying her discovery, as if it were never supposed to have been unearthed.
But that wasn’t the worst of the earthquake’s wrath. Sand could be dug out again, but a cracked plank sat atop the child’s skull, the one she had been struggling to gently release from the earth’s grip. She didn’t permit herself to speculate about what lay under that chunk of wood.
Just please let it be intact …
Her three students fidgeted near the trench, keeping to the edge.
Holding her breath, Erin eased up the splintered plank, got it free, and blindly passed it to Nate. She then lifted the tarp that she’d covered the tiny skeleton with earlier.
Shattered fragments marked where the baby’s once-intact skull had been. The body had lain undisturbed for two thousand years—until she exposed it to destruction.
Her throat tightened.
She sat in the trench and brushed her fingertips lightly over the bone fragments, counting them. Too many. She bowed her head. Clues to the baby’s death had been lost on her watch. She should have finished this excavation before following Nate to the tent to study the new GPR readings.
“Dr. Granger?” Heinrich spoke from the edge of the trench.
She leaned back quickly so he would not think she was praying. The German archaeology student was too bound up with religion. She didn’t want him to think that she was, too. “Let’s get a plaster cast over the rest of this, Heinrich.”
She needed to protect the rest of the skeleton from aftershocks.
Too little, too late, for the tiny skull.
“Right away.” Heinrich combed his fingers through his shaggy blond hair before heading toward the equipment tent, which had ridden out the earthquake undamaged. The only modern casualty was Amy’s Diet Coke.
Heinrich’s sylphlike girlfriend, Julia, trailed behind him. She wasn’t supposed to be on the dig site at all, but she was passing through for the weekend, so Erin had allowed it.
“I’ll check out the equipment.” Amy’s anxious voice reminded Erin of how young they all really were. Even at their age, she had not been so young. Had she?
Erin gestured around the hippodrome. It had been in ruins long before their arrival. “The site’s been through worse.” She injected false cheer into her voice. “Let’s get to work putting it to rights.”
“We can rebuild it. We have the technology. Better than it was before.” Nate hummed the theme music from the Six Million Dollar Man.
Amy gave him a flirtatious smile before heading off to the tent.
“Can you fetch me a new board?” Erin asked Nate.
“Sure thing, Doc.”
As he left, his tune drifted through her mind. What if they could actually rebuild it? Not just the excavation, but the entire site.
Her gaze traveled across the ruins, picturing what this place must have once looked like. In her mind’s eye, she filled in the half that had long since crumbled away. She imagined cheering crowds, the rattle of chariots, the pounding of hooves. But then she remembered what came before the hippodrome was constructed: the Massacre of the Innocents. She imagined the raw panic when soldiers snatched infants from their helpless mothers. Mothers forced to see swords cut short the wailing of their babies.
So many lives lost.
If she was right about her discovery, she began to suspect the real reason why Herod had built this hippodrome at this spot. Had it given him some dark amusement to know the trampling of hooves and the spill of the blood further desecrated the graves of those he had slaughtered?
Shrill neighing startled her out of her thoughts. She stood and looked toward the stables, where a groom walked a skittish white stallion. She knew horses. She had spent many happy childhood hours at the compound’s stable and knew firsthand how they hated earthquakes. The great, sensitive beasts were restless before a quake struck and unsettled after. She hoped these were being properly taken care of.
Heinrich and Nate returned. Nate had an intact board, while Heinrich carried a box of plaster, a water jug, and a bucket. An art minor, he had careful hands, just what she needed to help put the broken pieces in place.
Nate handed her the board. It brought with it the forest scent of pine, out of place here in this desert. Taking care to avoid the remains of the skeleton, he climbed in next to her. Together she and Nate shouldered the board between its braces and back against the edge of the trench. She hoped it wouldn’t fail her like the last one.
While Nate left to check on his equipment, she and Heinrich dug out sand. The board had damaged the skull and the left arm. She remembered the tiny fontanel, the angle of the neck. There had been clues there, she felt certain. Now lost forever.
Intending to preserve what was left, she raised her camera and focused first on the shattered skull. She took several shots from multiple angles. Next, she photographed the broken arm, shattered mid-radius. As she clicked away, her forearm gave a twinge of sympathy. Her own arm had hurt off and on since she was four years old.
Placing her camera down, still staring at that broken limb, she stroked her fingers down her left arm and slipped into a painful past.
Her mother had pushed her toward her father, urging her to show the crayon picture of the angel that she had drawn. Proudly, with the hope of praise, she held it toward his callused hand. He was so tall that she barely reached past his knee. He took the picture, but only glanced at it.
Instead, he sat and pulled her into his lap. She began to tremble. Only four, she knew already that her father’s lap was the most dangerous place in the world.
“Which hand did you use to draw the angel?” His booming voice washed over her ears like a flood across the land.
Not knowing enough to lie, she held up her left.
“Deceit and damnation arise from the left,” he said. “You are not to use it to write or draw with ever again. Do you understand?”
Terrified, she nodded.
“I will not let evil work through a child of mine.” He looked at her again, as if expecting something.
She did not know what he wanted. “Yes, sir.”
Then he lifted his knee and snapped her left arm across it like a piece of wood.
Erin gripped the site of the fracture, still feeling that pain. She pressed hard enough to know the bone had healed offset. Her father had not allowed her to visit a doctor. If prayer could not heal a wound, or save a baby’s life, then it was not God’s will, and they must submit always to God’s will.
When she fled her father’s tyranny, she spent a year teaching herself to write with her left hand instead of her right, anger and determination cut into every stroke of the pen. She would not let her father shape who she became. And so far, evil did not seem to have invaded her, although her arm ached when it rained.
“So the Bible was correct.” Heinrich drew her out of her reverie. He lifted a handful of sand off the baby’s legs and deposited it on the ground outside the trench. “The slaughter happened. And it happened here.”
“No.” She studied scattered bone fragments, trying to decide where to start. “You’re overreaching. We have potential evidence that a slaughter occurred here, but I doubt it has anything to do with the birth of Christ. Historical fact and religious stories often get tangled together. Remember, for archaeological purposes, we must always treat the Bible as a …” She struggled to find a noninflammatory word, gave up. “A spiritual interpretation of events, written by someone bent on twisting the facts to suit their ideology. Someone with a religious agenda.”
“Instead of an academic one?” Heinrich’s German accent grew stronger, a sign that he was upset.
“Instead of an objective agenda. Our ultimate goal—as scientists—is to find tangible evidence of past events instead of relying on ancient stories. To question everything.”
Heinrich carefully brushed sand off the little femur. “You don’t believe in God, then? Or Christ?”
She scrutinized the bone’s rough surface. No new damage. “I believe Christ was a man. That he inspired millions. Do I believe that he turned water into wine? I’d need proof.”
She thought back to her First Communion, when she had believed in miracles, believed that she truly drank the blood of Christ. It seemed centuries ago.
“But you are here.” Heinrich swept his pale arm around the site. “Investigating a Bible fable.”
“I’m investigating a historical event,” she corrected. “And I’m here in Caesarea, not in Bethlehem like the Bible says, because I found evidence that drew me to this site. I am here because of facts. Not faith.”
By now, Heinrich had cleared the bottom of the skeleton. They both worked faster than usual, wary that an aftershock might strike at any time.
“A story written on a pot from the first century led us here,” she said. “Not the Bible.”
After months of sifting through potsherds at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem, she had uncovered a misidentified broken jug that alluded to a mass grave of children in Caesarea. It had been enough to receive the grant that had brought them all here.
“So you are trying to … debunk the Bible?” He sounded disappointed.
“I am trying to find out what happened here. Which probably had nothing to do with what the Bible said.”
“So you don’t believe that the Bible is holy?” Heinrich stopped working and stared at her.
“If there is divinity, it’s not in the Bible. It’s in each man, woman, and child. Not in a church or coming out of the mouth of a priest.”
“I need to get brushes.” She hauled out of the trench, fighting back her anger, not wanting her student to see it.
When she was halfway to the equipment tent, the sound of a helicopter turned her head. She shaded her eyes and scanned the sky.
The chopper came in fast and low, a massive craft, khaki, with the designation S-92 stenciled on the tail. What was it doing here? She glared at it. The rotors would blow sand right back onto the skeleton.
She spun around to tell Heinrich to cover the bones.
Before she could speak, a lone Arabian stallion, riderless and ghostly white, bolted across the field from the stables. It would not see the trench. She rushed toward Heinrich, knowing she would be too late to beat the horse to him.
Heinrich must have felt the hoofbeats. He stood just as the horse reached the trench, spooking the rushing animal further. It reared and struck his forehead with a hoof. Heinrich disappeared into the trench.
Behind her, the helicopter powered down.
The stallion edged away from the noise, toward the trench.
Erin circled around the horse. “Easy, boy.” She kept her voice low and relaxed. “No one’s going to hurt you here.”
A large brown eye rolled to stare at her. The horse’s chest heaved, his quivering flanks coated in sweat, froth spattering his lips. She had to calm him and keep him from falling into the trench where Heinrich lay motionless.
She stepped between the trench and the horse, talking all the while. When she reached up to stroke his curved neck, the stallion shuddered, but he did not bolt. The familiar smell of horse surrounded her. She drew in a deep breath and exhaled. The animal did the same.
Hoping the horse would follow, she stepped to the side, away from Heinrich. She had to move him someplace safer in case he spooked again.
The stallion moved a step on trembling legs.
Nate came running, followed by Amy and Julia.
Erin held up a hand to stop them.
“Nate,” she said in a singsong voice. “Keep everyone back until I get the horse away from Heinrich.”
Nate skidded to a stop. The others followed suit.
The horse blew out heavily, and his sweat-stained withers twitched.
She threaded her fingers into his gray mane and led him a few steps away from the trench. Then she nodded to Nate.
A cry drew her attention over her shoulder, to a small robed figure flying across the sand. The man, plainly the horse’s handler, came rushing forward.
He dropped a lead over the animal’s head, jabbering and gesturing to where the helicopter had landed. Erin got it. The animal didn’t like helicopters. She didn’t much either. She patted the horse on his withers to say good-bye. The handler led him away.
Amy and Julia had already climbed down next to Heinrich. Julia held one hand to his forehead. Blood coated the side of his face. Julia murmured to Heinrich in German. He didn’t answer. Erin held her breath. At least he was still breathing.
Erin joined them. Kneeling down, she gently moved Julia’s hand aside and felt his head. Plenty of blood, but the skull seemed intact. She stripped off her bandanna and held it against the wound. Far from sterile, but it was all she had. Warm blood wet her palm.
Heinrich opened his gray eyes, groaning. “It takes a sacrifice. In crushed skulls. This site.”
She gave him a tight smile. Two skulls crushed on her watch.
“How do you feel?” she asked.
He muttered something in German through bloodless lips. His eyes lost focus, rolling backward. She had to get him to a doctor.
“Dr. Granger?” A voice with an Israeli accent spoke from behind her. “Please stand at once.”
She put Julia’s trembling hand over the makeshift bandage and stood, hands in the air. In her experience, people used that tone only when they were armed. She turned very slowly, Heinrich’s blood already drying on her palms.
Soldiers. A lot of soldiers.
They stood in a semicircle in front of the trench, dressed in desert sand fatigues, sidearms on their belts, automatic weapons strapped around their shoulders. Eight in all, each standing at attention. They wore gray berets, except for the man in front. His was olive green; obviously their leader. The guns weren’t pointed at her.
She lowered her hands.
“Dr. Erin Granger.” It was a statement, not a question. He didn’t sound like he ever asked questions.
“Why are you here?” In spite of her fear, she kept her voice even. “Our permits are in order.”
He studied her with eyes like two oiled brown marbles. “You must come with us, Dr. Granger.”
She had to take care of Heinrich first. “I’m busy. My student is injured and—”
“I’m Lieutenant Perlman. With Aman. I’ve been ordered to fetch you.”
As if to underline his point, the soldiers raised their weapons a fraction of an inch.
Aman was Israeli military intelligence. That couldn’t be good. Anger rose in her chest. They had come to fetch her, and their machine had spooked the horse that hurt Heinrich. Erin kept her voice steady, but it still came out cold. “Fetch me to where?”
“I’m not authorized to say.”
The lieutenant did not look like he would be backing down anytime soon, but she could make use of him. “Your helicopter frightened a horse, and it wounded my student.” She balled her hands into fists at her sides. “Badly.”
He looked down at Heinrich, then inclined his head to one of the soldiers. The man pulled a trauma kit from a pack and climbed into the trench. A medic. That was something. She unclenched her hands and wiped her bloody palms on her jeans.
“I want him airlifted to a hospital,” she said. “Then, perhaps, we can talk about other things.”
The lieutenant looked down at the medic. The man nodded, looking worried.
That couldn’t be good.
“Very well,” Perlman said.
He gestured, and his men responded quickly. Two soldiers helped lift Heinrich out of the trench; another two hauled over a stretcher. Once loaded, he was carried toward the helicopter. Julia followed them, sticking close to his side.
Erin drew in a deep breath. A helicopter ride to the hospital was the best chance Heinrich had.
She took Lieutenant Perlman’s proffered hand, noticing his strength as he pulled her out of the trench.
Without a word, he turned and headed back toward the helicopter. The remaining soldiers stepped in behind her, indicating that she should follow. She stomped after Perlman. She was being kidnapped from her site at gunpoint.
She wouldn’t win this fight, but she would get what information she could from them. “Does this have to do with the earthquake?” she called to Perlman.
The lieutenant glanced back, didn’t answer, but she read his face. Her mind filled in the blanks. Earthquakes broke things. But they also uncovered them.
All of which raised another question.
There were plenty of other archaeologists in Israel. What reason could they have to drag her out of her own dig? No ancient treasure warranted this kind of urgency. Archaeologists didn’t get shuttled around in military helicopters.
Something was very wrong.
“Why me?” she pressed.
Perlman finally responded. “I can only say that it is a delicate situation, and your expertise has been requested.”
“I could not say.”
“If I refuse?”
Perlman’s gaze bored into her. “You’re a guest of our country. If you refuse to come with us, you’ll no longer be a guest of our country. And your friend will not be taken to the hospital in our helicopter.”
“I think the embassy would not condone this treatment,” she bluffed.
His lips twisted into an unconvincing smile. “It was a member of the delegation at the U.S. embassy who recommended you.”
She fought to conceal her surprise. So far as she knew, no one in the embassy cared anything about her. Either Perlman was lying, or he knew way more than she did. Regardless, the time for talking was past. She had to get Heinrich to a hospital.
So she continued walking toward the helicopter. The soldiers had dropped into formation around her as if she might bolt like the stallion.
Nate and Amy hurried along behind. Nate looked belligerent, Amy worried.
Erin turned and walked backward, calling out instructions. “Nate, you’re in charge until I return. You know what needs to be done.”
Nate talked over a soldier’s shoulder. “But, Professor—”
“Stabilize the skeleton. And have Amy study the left femur before you jacket it.”
Nate pointed toward the helicopter. “Are you sure it’s safe to go with them?”
She shook her head. “Contact the embassy the second I’m gone. Confirm that they recommended me. If they didn’t, call in the cavalry.”
The soldiers didn’t miss a step, impassive faces staring straight ahead. Either they didn’t speak English, or they weren’t worried about her threat. Which could be a good thing or a very bad one.
“Don’t go,” Nate said.
“I don’t think I have a choice,” she said. “And neither does Heinrich.”
She saw him swallow that truth, then nod.
Lieutenant Perlman beckoned from the open cabin door. “Here, Dr. Granger.”
The helicopter’s whirling blades began to roar louder as she ducked under them.
She climbed inside the chopper and strapped into the only empty seat. Heinrich lay on a stretcher on the other side of the craft with Julia in a seat next to him. Julia flashed her a shaky smile, and Erin gave her a thumbs-up. Did they even do that in Germany?
As the chopper lifted off, Erin turned to the soldier next to her and pulled back in surprise. He was no soldier. He was a priest. He wore black pants, overhung by an ankle-length hooded cassock, along with black leather gloves, dark sunglasses, and the familiar white collar of the Roman Catholic clergy.
She recoiled. The priest leaned away from her as well, one hand reaching to adjust his hood.
She’d had more than enough squabbles with Catholic priests over the years concerning her archaeological work. But at least his presence lent some credibility to her hope that it really was an archaeological site she was being called to, something religious, something Christian. The downside was that this priest would probably claim the artifacts before she could see them. If so, she would have been pulled from her site and blood spilled for nothing.
That’s not going to happen.
The woman seated beside him smelled of lavender, horse, and blood. Scents as out of place in this modern era as Father Rhun Korza himself.
She offered her hand. He had not intentionally touched a woman in a very long time. Even though dried blood streaked her palm, he had no choice but to take it, grateful that he wore gloves. He steeled himself and shook. Her warm hand felt strong and capable, but it trembled in his. So, he frightened her.
He dropped her hand and shifted away, seeking to put space between them. He had no wish to touch her again. In fact, he wished she would climb back out of the craft and return to her safe study of the past.
For her own sake as much as his own.
Before receiving his summons, he had been dwelling in deep meditation, in seclusion, ready to forsake the greater world for the beauty and isolation of the Cloister, as was his right. But Cardinal Bernard had not let him stay there. He had pulled Rhun from his meditative cell and sent him on this journey into the world to fetch an archaeologist and search for an artifact. Rhun had expected the archaeologist to be a man, but Bernard had chosen a woman, and a beautiful one at that.
Rhun suspected what that meant.
He gripped the silver cross at his throat. Metal warmed through his glove.
Above his head rotor blades throbbed like a massive mechanical heart, beating fast enough to burst.
His gaze fell on the second woman. She was German, from her whispered words to the man on the stretcher. Blood streaked her white cotton dress. She gripped the hand of the wounded man, never taking her eyes off his face. The iron smell of his blood blanketed the airborne vehicle.
Rhun closed his eyes, fingered the rosary on his belt, and began a silent Our Father. Vibrations shuddered through his prayer.
He would much rather travel on a mule with a naturally beating heart.
But the blades drowned out more dangerous sounds—the heavy drip of blood from the split scalp to the floor, the quick breathing of the woman next to him, and the faraway neighing of a frightened stallion.
As the vehicle banked, the stench of jet fuel rolled in. Its foreignness stung his nostrils, but he preferred it to the scent of blood. It gave him the strength to let himself look at the injured man, at the blood running in threads along the metal floor, then dropping out toward the harsh stone landscape below.
This late in the fall, the sun set early, in less than two hours. He could ill afford a delay to aid a wounded man. Much rested on his shoulders.
Out of the corner of his eye, he studied the woman next to him. She wore threadbare denim jeans and a dusty white shirt. Her intelligent brown eyes traveled once around the cabin, seeming to assess each man. Those eyes skittered past him as if he were not there. Did she fear him as a man, as a priest, or as something else?
He tightened his gloved hands on his knees and meditated. He must purge thoughts of her from his mind. He would need all his holy strength for the task ahead. Perhaps, after it was complete, he could return to the Sanctuary, to the Cloister, and rest undisturbed.
Suddenly the woman brushed him with her elbow. He tensed, but did not jump. His meditation had steadied him. She leaned forward to check on her colleague, her fine eyebrows drawn down in worry. The man would not recover, but Rhun could not tell her so. She would never believe him. What did a simple priest know of wounds and blood?
Far more than she could ever imagine.
Erin’s cell phone vibrated in her pocket. She drew it out and held it next to her leg to conceal it from Lieutenant Perlman. She doubted he would want her texting from the helicopter.
Amy wrote her:
“Hey, Prof. Can u talk?”
The lieutenant seemed to be looking the other way.
Amy’s answer came back so quickly she must have been typing while Erin was thinking.
Took a look at that skeleton’s femur.
It had gnaw marks.
That confirmed Erin’s earlier assessment. She had noted what looked like teeth marks on the bone. She struggled to type as the helicopter jolted.
Not uncommon … Lots of desert predators out here.
Amy’s response was slow, her answer long to type out:
But the bite marks match what I saw on that dig in New Guinea. Same dentition. Same pattern of gnawing.
Erin’s heart sped up, knowing the subject of Amy’s last dig: the headhunters of New Guinea. That could mean only one thing …
But cannibalism? Here?
If true, the story behind this mass grave of children might be even worse than the tale of Herod’s massacre. But it still seemed unlikely. The newborn’s skeleton had been fairly large, with no obvious signs of malnutrition that might indicate a famine, which might warrant such depraved hunger.
she typed back.
4 incisors. Continuous arch. It was HUMANS who gnawed that baby’s bones.
Erin lifted her thumb, momentarily too shocked to type—then Lieutenant Perlman suddenly snatched the phone out of her grip, making her jump. He switched it off.
“No outside contact,” he yelled.
She swallowed her anger and crossed her arms, submitting. No point getting further on his bad side.
The lieutenant dropped the phone into his shirt pocket. She missed it already.
She was relieved when the helicopter touched down at the pad at Hillel Yaffe Medical Center. Perlman had kept his word. White-suited hospital personnel sprinted toward them. She’d heard that they had a good trauma team, and she was grateful to see such a rapid response. She reached to unbuckle her harness, but Perlman covered her hand.
“No time,” he warned.
His men had already climbed out and unfastened the stretcher. Julia stood next to it on the ground, still holding Heinrich’s fingers. She lifted her free hand to wave to Erin. Heinrich’s chest rose and fell as they wheeled him off. Still breathing. She hoped that would be true the next time she saw him.
As soon as the soldiers were back on board, the chopper lifted fast and hard.
She turned her gaze from the hospital to stare at the spread of desert beyond Caesarea as her thoughts moved from her anxiety about Heinrich to another gnawing worry.
Where are they taking me?
October 26, 3:12 P.M., IST
Tel Aviv, Israel
Bathory Darabont stood poised in the shadows, hidden on a second-story landing above the hotel. She stared down to the tiled fountain that dominated the hotel lobby, water splashing from the wall into a half-round basin of monstrous green marble. She guessed the water was two or three feet deep. She stroked the ornate brass railing as she calculated the drop from where she stood.
Twenty-five feet. Probably survivable. Definitely intriguing.
The man next to her rattled on. With his masses of curly dark hair, huge brown eyes, and straight nose, he looked like he had just stepped out of a fresco depicting Alexander the Great. Of course, he knew that he was beautiful and rich, some distant prince of a distant land—and that made him accustomed to getting his own way.
This bored her.
He strove to talk her right out of her designer silk dress and into his bed, and she wasn’t necessarily averse to that, but she was more interested in action than in preliminaries.
She pushed back her waist-length red hair with one languid white hand, watching his eyes linger on the black palm tattooed across her throat. An unusual mark, and more dangerous than it looked.
“How about a bet, Farid?”
His brown eyes returned to her silver ones. He really did have the most amazing long dark lashes. “A bet?”
“Let’s see who can jump into that fountain.” She pointed one long finger down into the atrium. “Winner takes all.”
“The stakes?” He flashed her a perfect smile. He looked like he might like games.
She did, too, and held out one slender wrist. “If you win, I give you my bracelet.”
The diamond bracelet cost fifty thousand dollars, but she had no intention of losing it. She never lost.
He laughed. “I don’t need a bracelet.”
“And I give it to you in your hotel room.”
Farid looked over the railing and fell silent. She liked him better silent.
“If I win …” She stepped so close to him that her silk dress brushed his warm leg. “I get your watch—and you give it to me in my room.”
A Rolex; she suspected it cost about the same as her bracelet. She had no need of it either. But the jump would cut short the flirting and might lead to more inspired and passionate lovemaking than Farid was probably capable of.
“How can I lose?” he said.
She gave him a long and languorous kiss. He responded well. She slipped her phone into his pocket, fingers tracing a metal knife that she found there. Farid was not so defenseless as he appeared. She remembered her mother’s words.
Even a white lily casts a black shadow.
When she drew back, Farid slid both hands down her silk-covered back. “How about we skip the jump?”
She laughed. “Not on your life.”
Grasping the cold railing with both hands, she vaulted over the side.
She opened into a swan dive, falling, arms out straight and back arched. Her dress fluttered against her thighs. For a moment she thought that she had misjudged the depth and the fall would kill her, and in that moment she felt more relief than fear. She hit the water flat, distributing her weight.
The violent slap stole her breath.
For a second, she floated facedown in the cool blue, breasts and belly stinging, her unsettled blood finally quiet. Then she rolled over, pushing her now transparent bodice out of the water while dipping her head to slick back her hair, laughing brightly.
When she stood up, the entire lobby stared. A few onlookers applauded, as if she were part of a show.
Far above, Farid gaped.
She climbed out of the fountain. Water streamed from her body and spread across the expensive woolen carpet. She bowed to Farid, who returned the gesture with a slight nod, followed by the dramatic unbuckling of his Rolex and the lift of an eyebrow, conceding she had won the bet.
Minutes later, they stood outside her door. She shivered slightly in her damp clothes in the air-conditioned hallway. Farid’s bare palm, as soft as silk but as hot as a coal, ran up her back under her thin dress, raising an entirely different shiver. She sighed and glanced darkly toward him, craving the heat of his flesh far more than any companionship he could offer.
She retrieved her key card, the newly won Rolex dangling from her wrist.
As she unlocked the door and pushed it open, her phone buzzed, but it came from Farid’s pants. She turned, slipped her hand into his pocket, and tugged it free.
“How did that get there?” he asked, surprised.
“I put it there when I kissed you.” She smiled at him. “So it wouldn’t get wet. I knew you’d never jump.”
A wrinkle of hurt pride blemished his perfect forehead.
Standing in the doorway, she checked her phone. It was a text message, an important one from the name of the sender. She went cold all over, beyond anything a shiver could warm through or a heated touch could soothe.
No more time for play.
“Who is Argentum?” Farid asked, reading over her shoulder.
Oh, Farid … a woman likes to keep her secrets.
It was why she traveled under so many false names, like the one she used to book this room.
“It appears I have some pressing business to attend,” she said, stepping through the doorway and turning. “I must bid you good-bye here.”
A dark disappointment showed in his face, a flicker of anger.
He abruptly shoved her deeper into the room, following close. He grabbed her roughly and shoved her against the wall, kicking the door shut.
“I’ll say when we’re finished,” he said huskily.
She lifted an eyebrow. So there was some hidden fire in Farid after all.
Smiling up at him, she tossed her phone to the bed, pulled him even closer, their lips almost touching. She swung him around so he was now the one with his back to the wall. She reached to his pants, which widened his dark smile. But he mistook what she searched for—she removed his hidden knife instead.
She opened it one-handed, and with a quick thrust, she buried it in his eye socket, punching it up and back. She kept hold of his body, pressed against the wall, feeling his body’s heat through her thin clothes, knowing that warmth would quickly expire, snuffed out with his life. She savored that waning heat, held him tightly as the death tremors shook through him.
As they ended, she finally let go.
His body sagged to the ground, his life spent.
She left him there, stepped to the bed, and sat down, crossing a long leg. She retrieved her phone and opened the attached image file that had been sent to her.
On the screen, a single photo appeared, of a piece of paper covered with a strange script. The handwriting stemmed from another time, better suited to being scratched on parchment with a sliver of bone. More code than language, it was written in an archaic form of Hebrew.
As part of her training, she had studied ancient languages at Oxford and now read ancient Greek, Latin, and Hebrew as easily as her native Hungarian. She deciphered the message carefully, ensuring she made no mistake. Her breath quickened as she worked.
A quake destroyed Masada.
A great death came with it
brutal enough to mark Its possible unearthing.
She brought a hand to her white throat, fingertips brushing the mark that blackened her skin, thinking of the night she received it and became forever tainted. Her blood burned still.
She read on.
Go. Search for
A Knight has been dispatched to retrieve it.
Let nothing stop you.
You must not fail.
She stared at the phrase in Herodian Aramaic. The Belial had waited long for this message.
Her lips shaped impossible words, not daring to speak them aloud.
The Book of Blood
A surge of unfamiliar fear pulsed through her fingertips.
He whom she served had long suspected the Jewish mountain stronghold might hide the precious book. Along with a handful of other sites. It was one of the reasons she had been sequestered here, deep within the Holy Land. A few hours’ distance from dozens of possible ancient landmarks.
But was he correct? Did Masada mark the true resting place for the Book of Blood? Once she and her team revealed their presence, they could not be hidden again. Was this enough of a sign to warrant that risk?
She knew the answer to only the last question.
If the book were truly unearthed, it offered a singular opportunity—a chance to end the world and forge a new one in His name. Although she had been trained from a young age, she had never truly expected this day to arrive.
Preparations must be made.
She pressed the second number on her speed dial and pictured the large muscular man who would answer on the first ring.
Her second in command, Tarek.
“Your wish?” His deep voice still bore traces of a Tunisian accent, although he had not spoken with a countryman for a lifetime.
“Wake the others,” she ordered. “At long last, the hunt begins.”
October 26, 3:38 P.M., IST
Airborne above Israel
Erin longed to be on the ground, away from the heat and noise and dust, and from the priest. She was too hot herself, and the priest must have it worse in his long cassock and hood. She tried to remember when Catholic priests stopped wearing hoods. Before she was born. Between his hood and his sunglasses, she saw only his chin, square with a cleft in the middle.
A movie-star chin, but he made her uneasy. As far as she could tell, he had not moved in more than half an hour. The helicopter dropped a few feet, but her stomach stayed up in the air. She swallowed. She wished that she had thought to bring water. The soldiers didn’t seem to have any, but they didn’t seem to care. The priest didn’t either.
Monotonous arid landscape slipped by below. Since the helicopter left the hospital, it had been flying east and north, toward the Sea of Galilee. Every minute of flight changed their possible destination, but Erin had lost interest in trying to guess where she might land.
They closed in on a familiar flat-topped mountain that climbed steeply out of the desert. She made out the white finger of the ramp that the Romans had built to finally breach its walls.
It hadn’t even been on her list of possible sites. Masada had been thoroughly excavated in the sixties. Nothing new had come out of the site in decades. Tourists had been tramping all over it.
Perhaps the earthquake had uncovered something nearby. A Roman camp? Or the remains of the nine hundred Jewish rebels? Only thirty or so bodies had ever been recovered. They had been reburied with full military honors in 1969.
She craned her neck to get a better view. Unbroken sand stretched in all directions. No sign of activity around the base, but she spotted a large helicopter on the summit. That must be where she was headed. She sat straighter, eager to discover what required her immediate attention.
The priest moved almost imperceptibly, a slight shift of his handsome chin. So he still lived. She had forgotten to take him into account while guessing their destination. Though primarily a Jewish landmark, Masada was also home to the ruins of a Byzantine church, circa AD 500. The earthquake might have exposed Christian relics. But, if the Israelis planned to turn the relics over to the priest, why bring her in the first place? Something didn’t add up.
The helicopter descended toward the summit, kicking sand through the open doorway. She squinted against the hot grit and cupped her hands around her eyes. She should have brought protective goggles. And water. And dinner. And a backup phone.
She wished Perlman hadn’t taken her cell phone. Surely her students had reported in by now to let her know Heinrich’s condition. Otherwise … well, she didn’t want to think about otherwise. He had been at the site as her grad student. Whatever happened to him was her responsibility.
Erin brought her pinkie finger and thumb to her ear to pantomime the word phone.
Perlman fished it out of his pocket. He yelled over the noise. “Keep it off.”
“Yes, sir.” At this decibel level, he wouldn’t hear the sarcasm.
He handed the phone to her, and she stuck it into her back pocket. The second he turned his back, she intended to turn it on and check her messages.
The summit came into view.
She leaned out, searching below, stunned. It took her a thundering moment to understand what she was seeing.
Masada was … gone.
The walls, the buildings, the cisterns were piles of rocks. The casemate wall that had surrounded the fortress for thousands of years had been completely destroyed. Rubble stood in place of the columbarium and synagogue. The mountain had practically been cleaved in two. She had never seen such devastation up close.
The pilot slowed the engines, and they whined out in a lowering pitch as the skids scraped the top of the mountain and the helicopter settled to a stop.
She strained to see through the cloud of dust surrounding them. Black rectangles had been lined up near the edge of the plateau. They were too regularly shaped to be natural. Two people dropped a new one next to the others.
Body bags. Full ones.
Masada was one of the most popular tourist sites in Israel. It had probably been teeming with tourists when the quake struck. How many more lives had the cursed mountain claimed? Her stomach lurched again, but this time not from the helicopter.
A cool hand fell on her shoulder, and she jumped. The priest. He, too, must have noted the dead. Maybe she had been wrong all along. Maybe he was here to perform Last Rites or look after the dead at the behest of the Church.
She felt sick at the thought of how excited she had been a few minutes before. This was no archaeological site. It was a disaster scene. She wished that she were back in Caesarea.
Lieutenant Perlman jumped out and barked orders in Hebrew. Men spilled from both sides of the chopper and headed toward the body bags. They must have been summoned to collect the bodies. No wonder the officer had been so tight-lipped about it. She didn’t envy him his task.
The priest sprang out of the helicopter, graceful as a desert cat. His long cassock swirled in the rotor wash. He pulled his hood closer to his face and turned his head from side to side as if searching.
She fumbled with sweat-slick hands to unclip her safety harness. The floor seemed to lurch when she stood. She steadied herself against the seat back and took a few deep breaths. The Israelis had had a reason to bring her here, and she’d best calm down and find out what it was.
The priest turned and offered her help, gloved palm upturned in an old-fashioned, almost courtly gesture. It was certainly nothing like the way Lieutenant Perlman had hauled her out of the trench before she started this journey.
Grateful for the support, she took his hand. He released it the instant her sneakers touched the limestone.
The wind blew back his hood, revealing a pale face with high cheekbones and thick dark hair. A handsome man, for a priest.
“Tot ago attero … ,” he murmured as he pulled his black hood back over his head, masking his face again. She translated his Latin words. So many lost.
The priest bowed before striding off purposefully, as if he, at least, knew why he was here.
She shielded her eyes and looked at the sun, already low in the sky. The sun set in about an hour. If they did not get the bodies removed by then, jackals would arrive. In spite of the heat, she shivered.
She forced her eyes to look at the ruined site, beyond the body bags, to figures dragging corpses from the rubble. Figures wearing sky-blue biohazard suits.
Biohazard suits for an earthquake?
Before she could ask why such a precaution was necessary, a tall soldier strode forward. He wasn’t wearing a biohazard suit. Comforting.
He headed straight for her. Even without the flag sewn on the shoulder patch of his khaki jacket, she would have known that he was American. Everything about him said apple pie: from his wheat-blond hair, shorn into an army standard crew cut, to his square-jawed face and broad shoulders. Clear blue eyes fixed on her, taking her measure in a single tired breath. She liked him. He seemed competent, and not inured to the tragedy he was dealing with. But what was the American military doing on an Israeli mountaintop?
“Dr. Erin Granger?”
So, he did expect her. Should she be relieved or even more worried? “Yes, I’m Dr. Granger.”
The soldier looked past her shoulder toward the priest, who headed away through the rubble. One eyebrow rose. “I wasn’t apprised of a priest coming here,” he said to Lieutenant Perlman.
The Israeli waved to two of his men and pointed to the priest before answering, “The Vatican requested Father Korza’s presence. A Catholic tourist party was here during the quake. It included a cardinal’s nephew.”
That explained the priest, Erin thought. One tragic mystery solved. The soldier seemed to agree with her assessment and faced her again.
“Thank you for coming, Dr. Granger. We need to hurry.” He headed away from the helicopter, aiming toward the worst of the destruction.
She jogged to keep up with his long legs, trying to focus on him and on her footing, not on the body bags. This morning these people had been as alive as she. She talked to keep from thinking. “I was pulled from a dig without a word of explanation. What’s going on here?”
“That sounds familiar.” His lips slipped into a tired grin. “I was in Afghanistan yesterday, Jerusalem a few hours ago.” He halted, wiped his palm on his sand-colored T-shirt, and stuck out his hand. “Let’s start over. Sergeant Jordan Stone, Ninth Ranger Battalion. We’ve been called in by the Israelis to help out here.”
His grip was warm and firm without being aggressive, and she immediately noticed a white line on his left hand, where a wedding band should go. Embarrassed that she had focused on that detail, she quickly dropped his hand. “Dr. Erin Granger,” she repeated.
He started walking. “Don’t mean to be rude, Doc, but if you want any archaeology left to study, we need to hurry. We’ve been having aftershocks.”
She kept pace. “Why the biohazard suits? Was this a chemical or biological attack?”
Before she could ask what that meant, the sergeant stopped at the edge of a tumble of limestone that blocked the view forward. He turned fully to her.
“Doc, I need you to brace yourself.”
Jordan doubted that Dr. Granger had ever seen anything like this. The path led through a maze of rubble and crushed bodies: some covered, others staring blindly at the unforgiving sun, adults and children. But, short of putting blinders on her like a horse, he saw no way to protect her. She’d have to walk through it to get to the temporary base camp set up at the edge of the chasm that the quake had opened.
He sidestepped a body covered with a blue tarp. He didn’t allow himself to be distracted by the dead; he had seen enough corpses in Afghanistan. Later tonight, privately, he might drink too much Jack Daniel’s to keep him from thinking too much. Until then, he had to remain in control of both his team and his feelings.
The archaeologist was a bit of a surprise. Not that she was a woman. He had no issues working with women. Some were competent, some weren’t; no different from any man. But why had an archaeologist been sent to the site to begin with?
He wiped sweat off his forehead with the back of his wrist. Dusk closed in, but the temperature still crested ninety degrees. He took a deep breath, tasting hot desert air mixed with the copper tang of blood. Then he noticed Dr. Granger was no longer behind him.
He waited for her to struggle over, saw glints of sympathy and compassion in her eyes as she searched the rubble, studying bodies, mourning deaths. She wouldn’t soon forget today.
He walked back. “You okay?”
“As long as I keep moving. Stop too long, and you’ll be carrying me the rest of the way.” She offered him a hollow smile—it seemed to take a gargantuan effort.
He walked, more slowly than before, trying to pick a path that kept them away from the scattered bodies. “Most victims died instantly. Chances are they didn’t feel a thing.”
It was a lie. And she only had to look at the bodies to know it.
She raised a skeptical eyebrow, but she didn’t call him on it, which he appreciated.
She stared at a young woman’s body. Blisters covered her face and dried blood crusted around her mouth and eyes. Not your typical earthquake victim. “Not all these bodies were crushed. What happened to the others, Sergeant?”
“Call me Jordan.” He hesitated. He bet she’d call him on it if he lied this time. Better to tell her as little as possible than to have her guessing. “We’re still testing, but from the initial gas chromatograph readouts, we suspect they were exposed to a derivative of sarin.”
She tripped over a stone brick, kept going. He admired her grit. “Nerve gas? Is that why the American military is involved?”
“The Israelis asked for our help because we’re experts in this field. So far, we haven’t confirmed the nature of the gas. It most closely resembles sarin. Rapid effects, quick dispersion. By the time the first responders arrived on Masada, the gas was already inert.”
A bit of luck there, Jordan thought, or the casualty count would have been much higher. The Israelis had thought the earthquake was their biggest problem. The first responders hadn’t donned suits until they found the first bodies.
“Who would do that?” Her voice carried the shocked tone of one unused to confronting everyday evil firsthand. He envied her.
“I wish I had an answer for you.”
Even the gas was a mystery. It had none of the markers of a modern, weaponized agent. In breaking down the gas’s essential components, his team had found bizarre anomalies. Like cinnamon. Who the hell puts a spice into a nerve agent? His team was still trying to track down several other equally odd and elusive ingredients.
It unsettled him not to know the gas’s true origin. That was his job, and he was usually damn good at it. He hated to think he’d found a previously unidentified nerve gas with this kind of killing power, especially in the Middle East. Neither his superiors nor the Israelis would be happy to hear that.
He had to step over a body bag. He reached for Dr. Granger’s hand, both to steady her and as a gesture of reassurance. Her grip was more muscular than he expected. She must be lifting more than pencils.
“Was this a terrorist attack?” Her voice remained firm, but he felt the fine tremor in her arm. Best to keep her talking.
“That’s what the Israelis initially thought.” He released her hand. “But the toxic exposure coincided exactly with the earthquake. We suspect old toxic canisters might be buried underground here, and the tremor cracked them open.”
Her brow furrowed. “Masada is a sacred archaeological site. I can’t see the Israelis dumping anything like that here.”
He shrugged. “That’s what my team and I are here to find out.”
He had his orders: find the source and safely remove or detonate any remaining canisters.
He and the doctor walked a few steps in silence. He heard a thump as someone dropped a body bag into a helicopter. They’d better work faster. Night would fall soon, and he didn’t want to waste a man on jackal patrol.
He noted that the doctor’s eyes had grown glassy and wide, her breathing harder. He needed to keep her talking. “Almost to camp.”
“Were there any survivors?”
“One. A boy.” He gestured toward the mobile P3 containment lab, the billowing plastic tent where the teenager was being held.
“Was he here alone?” she asked.
“With his parents.”
The boy allegedly inhaled several large gulps of the chemical agent and survived. He had described the gas as a burnt reddish orange with a sweet, spicy smell to it. No modern nerve gas fit that description.
Jordan glanced back to her. “His parents didn’t make it.”
“I see,” Erin said quietly.
He stared across the rubble to the containment tent. Through the clear plastic walls, Jordan watched the priest kneel next to the boy. He was glad to see someone with the kid. But what priestly words could the man come up with to comfort him?
Suddenly his own job didn’t seem so hard.
“Is that your camp?” She pointed in front of him to a makeshift canvas lean-to pitched at the edge of the fissure.
Camp was a generous description. “Be it ever so humble.”
He spared the fissure another glance. It cut through the ground like a giant scar, five yards wide, perhaps a hundred long. Even though a simple earthquake created it, it felt unnatural.
“Is that a mass spectrometer?” the archaeologist asked as they reached the site.
He couldn’t help but grin at the surprise on her face. “Didn’t think they’d let us grunts work with such ivory-tower toys?”
“No … it’s just … well …”
He liked watching her stutter. Everybody assumed that if you wore a uniform you had checked your brain at the recruiter’s office. “We just bang on it with rocks, Doc, but it seems to work.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean it like that. And please call me Erin. ‘Doc’ makes me feel like a pediatrician.”
“Good enough.” He aimed for the tent. “Almost there, Erin.”
Two of his men huddled under the meager shelter.
One stood near the computer, sucking hard on a canteen. The other sat in front of the monitor, fiddling with joysticks that guided the team’s remote-operated vehicle. The little robot had been lowered by its tether into the crevasse an hour ago.
As he led her into camp, both men turned. Each gave him a brief nod but took a far longer look at the attractive blond doctor.
Jordan introduced her, emphasizing her title.
The freckled young man returned his attention to his joysticks.
Jordan gestured at him. “Dr. Granger, that’s our computer jockey, Corporal Sanderson, and the man over there drinking all our water is Specialist Cooper.”
The husky black man snapped on a pair of latex gloves. A dozen bloodstained pairs filled the nearby garbage can.
“I’d stay and chat, but I gotta get back to cleanup duty.” Cooper looked to Jordan. “Where you hiding the extra batteries? McKay’s camera is almost dead, and we have to get everyone photographed before we bag ’em.”
Erin winced. She went pale again. Being in-country for so long, Jordan realized how easy it was to forget the sheer horror of what surrounded him every day.
Not much he could do for her right now. Or the bodies outside. “Blue pack, right pocket.”
Cooper dug a lithium ion battery from the zipper compartment.
“Damn it!” Sanderson swore, drawing their attention.
“What’s wrong?” Jordan asked.
“The rover is stuck again.”
Cooper rolled his eyes and left the tent.
The corporal frowned at the image on the color monitor like it was a video game he was about to lose.
Erin leaned over his shoulder and stared at the four monitors, each displaying footage from one of the ROV’s cameras. “Is that from inside the crevasse?”
“Yeah, but the robot’s jammed up tight.”
The screen displayed the reason for Sanderson’s frustration. The rover had wedged into a crack. Fallen grit and pebbles obscured two cameras. Sanderson pressed the sticks and the tank treads spun ineffectively, kicking up more debris. “Army piece of crap!”
The equipment wasn’t the problem. The ROV was state-of-the-art, packed with enough sensing and radar instruments to detect a mouse farting in a warehouse. The problem was that Sanderson hadn’t yet mastered the art of manipulating the dual joysticks. Jordan couldn’t run them either.
Erin glanced at him, eyes curious. “Is that an ST-20? I’ve logged hundreds of hours on one. Could I give it a shot?”
Might as well give her something to do. Sanderson didn’t look like he’d get the robot out. Plus Jordan respected anyone who was willing to jump in and help. “Sure.”
Sanderson lifted his hands in obvious disgust and rolled his chair out of the way. “Be my guest. The only thing I haven’t tried doing is crawling down that hole and kicking it.”
Erin stood where Sanderson’s chair had just been and took both joysticks like she knew what she was doing. She alternated between the front and rear controls, inching the ROV forward and backward much like she was trying to parallel-park.
“I tried that,” Sanderson said. “It’s not going to—”
The ROV abruptly pulled out of the crack. Jordan saw Erin smother a quick smile of victory, and respected her all the more for trying to spare Sanderson’s feelings.
Sanderson stood and put his hands on his hips. “Dude! You’re making me look bad in front of my CO.”
Then he smiled and pushed his chair behind her like it was a throne. Once she got settled, she looked up at Jordan. “What are we looking for?”
“Our team’s been commissioned to find the source of the gas.”
“Let me guess,” she said with a true smile. “I’m here to assure the Israeli government that you don’t destroy any millennia-old artifacts in the process?”
Jordan matched her smile. “Something along those lines.”
He didn’t take it any further than that, but her presence here was at the request of Israeli intelligence, not the antiquities department. He wasn’t sure why yet. And he hated unsolved mysteries.
All eyes were on the monitors as she steered the ROV over a pile of rocks.
“What are you doing in Israel anyway?” Sanderson asked her.
“I have a team digging in Caesarea,” she said. “Routine stuff.”
Jordan suspected by the tone of her voice that it wasn’t routine. Interesting.
The rover slid down a rocky outcropping, then entered what appeared to be a straight passageway.
“Look at the walls.” She rotated the rover’s cameras. “Sharp-edged chipping.”
“So?” Jordan prompted.
“This tunnel is man-made. Dug out by hand and chisel.”
“Way down there? At the heart of the mountain?” He stepped closer to her. “Who do you think dug it out? The Jewish rebels who died here?”
“Maybe.” She leaned away from him. Personal space issues. He moved back a fraction. “Or the Byzantine monks who lived on the mountain centuries later. Without more evidence, it’s impossible to say. I’m guessing this little guy might be the first one down this passage in a very long time.”
The ROV climbed over a pile of rubble, halogen headlamps painting the pitch-black crevasse sickly white.
“Damn,” Erin said.
“What is it?” Jordan asked.
She turned the rover fully to the right to show a pile of broken stones.
“And?” To Jordan, it didn’t look that different from any other pile of rocks.
“Look at the top.” She traced the image on the monitor with her finger. “That was a tunnel, but it’s collapsed.”
“So has a lot of stuff,” Sanderson put in. “Why is that a big deal?”
“Look at the sides,” she said. “Those are fairly modern drill marks.”
Jordan leaned forward excitedly. “Which means?”
“It means that someone cut their way into this tunnel sometime in the last hundred years or so.” Erin sighed. “And probably stole anything of value.”
“Maybe they left the gas.” Jordan wasn’t sure why he felt relieved that it might be a modern nerve gas and not an ancient one, but he did.
She turned the rover forward again, and it rolled down the path, eventually reaching an open area.
“Stop there,” Jordan said. “What’s this place?”
“Looks like an underground storage chamber.” Erin turned the rover around to get a look at the empty room. No broken canisters yet.
Focusing on his corporal, Jordan asked, “How are the readings?”
Sanderson hunched over a neighboring monitor. He might have trouble piloting the ROV, but the kid knew his instrumentation. “Plenty of secondary breakdown products. No active agent. Still, these are by far the hottest spikes I’ve seen here. I’d say that chamber is the source of the gas.”
A camera angled up to display an arched ceiling.
“That looks like a church,” Sanderson said.
Erin shook her head. “More likely a subterranean temple or tomb. The building style is ancient.” She touched the screen, as if that would help her feel the stone.
“What is that box?” Jordan asked.
“I think it’s a sarcophagus, but I can’t be certain until I get closer. The light doesn’t go that far.”
She sent the ROV forward, but it stopped. She pushed on both joysticks, then let go with an impatient sigh.
“Stuck again?” Jordan asked. They were so close.
“End of the line,” she said. “Literally. That’s as far as the ROV’s tether can reach.”
She left the camera pointed at the sarcophagus. “Definitely appears to be a burial container. If so, somebody important must be interred there.”
“Important enough to booby-trap the chamber?” That might explain it.
“It’s possible, but Egyptians—not Jews—were notorious for engineering elaborate traps.” She rubbed her lower lip. “It doesn’t make sense.”
“Nothing does here.” Sanderson snorted. “Like cinnamon-scented nerve gas.”
She swiveled her chair around. “What?”
Jordan scowled at Sanderson, then admitted what they’d found. “One of the anomalies about this gas. We’ve detected traces of cinnamon in it.”
“Well, that makes some sense with the tomb.”
“How so?” It didn’t make any sense to Jordan.
“Cinnamon was a rare spice during ancient times,” she lectured. “For the rich, it was burned in funeral rites as a scent favored by God. It’s mentioned multiple times in the Bible. Moses was commanded to use it when preparing an anointing oil.”
“So the cinnamon is probably a contaminant?” Jordan was grateful for the information. All he knew about cinnamon was that he liked it on French toast.
“The concentration is too high in the gas residue to be just a contaminant,” Sanderson piped up.
“What else can you tell me about the ancient uses for cinnamon?” Jordan asked.
“If I’d known there would be a quiz, I’d have studied.” Erin offered a soft smile; its warmth caught him off guard. “Let’s see, they used it as a digestive aid. Stopping colds. As a mosquito repellent.”
“Research it,” Jordan ordered. He strode to stand behind Sanderson, as jazzed as if he’d downed a triple espresso.
Sanderson’s fingers flew across the keyboard. “On it.”
“What?” she asked. “What did I do?”
“Maybe solved part of my problem,” Jordan said. “Most mosquito repellents are around two chemical bonds away from nerve gas. The first nerve gas—”
The ground gave a violent shake. Erin’s chair rolled backward, threatening to topple. Jordan held it steady as the canvas lean-to swayed, and the metal of the scaffolding creaked in protest.
She tensed as if to jump out of her seat, but he pressed her back in place. “Safer if you ride the aftershock out here,” Jordan said.
He didn’t add that there was no safe place on the damaged plateau. It wouldn’t take much shaking to split the entire mesa in half. The shock died away. “All right, the time for window shopping is over.” He turned to Sanderson. “Are you sure there’s no active gas in that chamber?”
Sanderson bent over his console, and after a moment straightened. “None, sir. Not a single molecule.”
“Good. Fetch Cooper and McKay and alert Perlman. We gear up and head down in five.”
The doctor rose as if she expected to go, too. He shook his head. “I’m sorry. You’re going to have to stay topside until we secure the chamber.”
She scowled. “You pulled me away from my site to come here. I’m not going to—”
“I’m responsible for the four soldiers in my unit. That responsibility isn’t one I take lightly, Dr. Granger. There is a probable source of deadly nerve gas down there. I will not have a civilian casualty on my conscience as well.”
“Back to ‘Dr. Granger,’ are we?” Her enunciation was suddenly precise. She reminded him of his mother. “What exactly were your standing orders regarding me, Sergeant Stone?”
“As I told you before, to ensure the integrity of the site.” He kept his tone even and polite. He didn’t have time to deal with an angry academic who wanted to hurl herself into danger.
“How can I ensure that integrity from up here?”
“You already said the only thing in there was a sarcophagus—”
“I said that’s all I could see from up here. But what about what’s inside the sarcophagus, Sergeant Stone?”
Her tone was a couple degrees frostier than a minute before. He rallied. “I don’t much care what’s inside it, Doctor. I—”
“You should care. Because it’s open.”
He stepped back in surprise. “What?”
She tapped the screen with her fingernail, showing a spot on the picture relayed by the ROV. “Right there. That’s the lid. On its side next to the sarcophagus. Someone must have broken the seal and lifted it off.”
He wished she hadn’t seen that. It made his life a lot more complicated.
She lowered her voice. “We have no idea what might be in there. The body of a Jewish king. An intact copy of the Torah. Masada is a treasured historical site to the Jewish people. If anything gets damaged …”
He opened his mouth to protest. Instead he took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She was right. The Israelis would have his head if his team made the slightest mistake. Damn it. “There might be intact canisters of gas down there. If so, they could get broken open by an aftershock at any time. And we end up like the people you saw outside.”
She blanched, then straightened her back. “I understand the consequences, Sergeant.”
He doubted that she did. “Have you rappelled before?”
“Of course,” she said. “More times than I can count.”
He held her gaze. “I’m assuming you can count higher than one?”
She grinned. “I can count higher than that. Maybe even to a hundred.”
He relaxed. At least getting her down there wouldn’t be a problem. “As of now, you are under my command. When I say ‘jump’—”
She put on a serious face. “I ask how high. I got it.”
He touched his earpiece. “Sanderson, get Dr. Granger suited up in a harness. She’s going in with us.”
October 26, 4:42 P.M., IST
Thirty miles from Masada, Israel
Bathory twitched the blackout curtains back into place, concealing the barren desert beyond the airport hangar, wondering if that would be the last she ever saw of the sun.
She took a moment to close her eyes, to center herself. She took a deep breath and pushed back the pain that continually ran through her blood, that dull ache, always there, never forgotten, a reminder of an oath she had taken when she was much younger. The pain marked her as steadfastly as the strangling black palm print tattooed upon her white throat; both had been born at the same time, binding a promise made in blood and sacrifice to serve Him.
Her fingers rose to her throat, to touch the source of pain and promise. It also served one other purpose: for protection. It marked her as one of His chosen, elevating her. None could touch her, and all obeyed her.
She forced her arm back down, knowing she must never show a shred of weakness, especially in front of the others.
She turned to face the cavernous dark hangar, lit dimly by pools of light from overhead fixtures in the steel rafters. Her team had already boarded the helicopter, waiting on her.
One of the flight crew clanged shut the rear cargo hatch. Something bumped hard against that closing door, knocking the man back a step, leaving him visibly shaken before he got the latch closed.
She allowed a small smile, reassured. The black mark on her throat was not her only protection.
Hush, she sent forth to that rear hold, you’ll be free soon enough.
The message was not words, but a casting out of warmth and comfort.
She felt an echo back: satisfaction, hunger, and a deep well of love.
Basking in that glow, she adjusted the Kevlar and leather that hugged her form, secured the holstered Sig Sauer in its shoulder harness, and headed across the wide hangar to join her team aboard the helicopter. The chopper’s engines were already whining up for liftoff, the noise deafening in the enclosed space.
Ducking under the whirling blades, she climbed into the cabin of the specially designed Eurocopter Panther and slammed the door closed behind her. Inside, it was dark and cool, insulated and whisper-quiet. The medium-size craft would carry ten passengers, along with the additional six hundred pounds of payload secured in the rear hold.
But it was no ordinary chopper. Stealth modifications made it run nearly invisibly, and sound-dampened engines made it run quietly. It had also been painted with Israeli colors, camouflaged to fit the region. Except for the cabin windows—which had been painted black, blinding them to the outside.
As she moved to her lone open seat, eyes tracked her. The nine were all seasoned hunters, well-blooded. She read the raw hunger in their eyes, recognizing the ferocity hidden behind their blank stares.
Ignoring them, she sat next to her second in command, Tarek. In the dim cabin, he was merely a darker shadow, and just as cold. She remembered Farid’s heat, the touch of his hot hand on her back. It seemed a distant memory now.
She fitted her headphones in place and radioed the pilot. In the blackened craft, he would be navigating by instruments alone, aided by flight-simulator software.
“What’s our status?” she asked.
His answer came back tersely. “I’ve already radioed the proper Israeli security code for access to the summit. They’re expecting a cargo helicopter. We’ll be skids down there in twenty-two minutes.”
She calculated in her head. Seven minutes after sundown.
The engines sped up with a muffled roar from outside. She pictured the hangar doors sweeping open overhead, blazing with sunlight. She felt the craft lurch up toward the sun and pictured their craft racing across the hot sands, a dark mote against a fiery sea.
“How many?” Tarek growled.
She knew what he was asking: what force could they expect to meet them at Masada? But she also heard the underlying lust in those two words. It cast a flash of excitement across the cabin, like a match dropped into a pool of gasoline.
She answered him, addressing both what was spoken and unspoken.
Tarek’s face remained in shadows, but she sensed his hard smile, raising the small hairs on the back of her neck, an instinctive response to the presence of a hidden predator.
According to her intelligence, only a small force of soldiers still guarded the summit of the mountain. With the nine at her side and the advantage of surprise, she estimated it would take no more than a couple of minutes to secure the area.
After that, the book must be found.
Her hand tried to drift to her throat again, but she clutched her fingers in her lap.
She could not fail Him.
But there remained one unknown element as she remembered the warning that came with His note:
A Knight has been dispatched to retrieve it.
Let nothing stop you.
She told Tarek that, too.
“Be prepared. A Knight of Christ may also be present.”
Tarek stiffened, his shadow becoming a sculpture of black ice. His voice was a quiet hiss, using the ancient name for such a one like a curse.
October 26, 4:44 P.M., IST
Erin looked furtively around the empty tent. Jordan had told her to wait inside until he came back. That gave her a few minutes alone. She drew out her cell and checked her messages.
A text from Nate.
Can’t reach the embassy. They’re swamped because of the quake. U ok?
Worried that Perlman might walk by, she texted back quickly.
I’m fine. It’s legit. News on Heinrich?
The screen stayed dark so long that she feared he was away from his phone.
Can you call me?
The text message blurred, and she blinked. She couldn’t call him. Someone would hear. She had no doubt Perlman would destroy her phone if he caught her using it again.
she texted back.
Tell me. Now.
Another pause, then,
Heinrich didn’t make it.
Erin collapsed into Sanderson’s chair. Heinrich, gone. He had died in a hospital thousands of miles from home because of her. She’d left him alone in the trench to fetch brushes she didn’t need just to spare herself an argument. What would she tell his parents? The smell of blood drifted over from the garbage can full of used gloves. She fought down an urge to retch.
“Doc?” Jordan stuck his blond head around the corner. “We’re ready for you if—”
He stepped into the tent. “Erin, are you okay?”
She raised her head to look at him. His voice sounded like it came from far away.
“Erin? Did something happen?” He crossed the tent in two quick steps.
She shook her head. If she told him about Heinrich’s death, she would break down right here in a tiny canvas tent in the middle of a field of bodies.
He gave her a concerned look.
Not able to match his gaze, she turned to her phone and texted back a response to Nate. She doubted Jordan would care.
Understood. I will call when I can.
Once done, she pocketed the phone. “It’s just my dig,” she said, preparing to believe her lie. “It’s been years of planning, and there was earthquake damage.”
“We’ll get you back soon.”
“I know.” He’d probably think she was crazy for being upset about some old bones buried in dirt. Still, she felt calmer being able to release even a tiny bit of the anguish about Heinrich. Either that or Jordan had a calming effect on her. How else would she have been able to walk through the death she had seen outside the tent? She took one last deep breath.
“I’m ready,” she said, standing up.
“Then step this way. We’ll get that harness on you.”
She followed him to the edge of the fissure, where he handed her a complicated mess of knots and straps. Military issue, it was nothing like what she was used to. She stared at it blankly.
He turned it around. “Step one leg in here. The other there.”
He stood behind her and helped her into the harness. His sure hands moved around her body, straightening straps and fastening clips. The harness was on, and her body temperature had risen by what felt like ten degrees. She quickly fastened the clips across her chest.
A helicopter lifted off. She glanced around the plateau. The teenager had gone, along with most of the crew and the body bags. It looked like only a dozen people worked in the lengthening shadows.
Jordan came around to her front. He reached down and tightened straps around her upper thighs in a way both by-the-book formal and incredibly personal. The webbing cinched against her, pulling her toward him. She looked up into his blue eyes, which were darkening as the sun set.
“If there’s anything I need to know before we go down there,” he said, “now is the time to tell me.”
“Nothing.” She wanted to stay up here alone among all the bodies even less than she wanted to go down into the hole. “Bad day.”
“Sanderson’s got a chair warmed up for you.” He studied her face. “With the ROV in place, you could monitor our progress from up here.”
Summoning up courage she thought she’d lost, she forced a smile. “And let you have all the fun?”
He gave her one more worried look before returning to his men.
On either side, men tossed ropes over the edge. Blue blankets laid along the fissure’s lip cushioned the ropes and lessened friction between the rope lines and sharp, broken stone. They seemed to know what they were doing. She double-checked the ropes anyway.
Sanderson stepped up behind her. He wasn’t going down, only helping the others gear up. He passed her something the length and width of a pen.
“Sarge told me to give you an atropine dart,” he said. “Best to stick it in your sock.”
“What does it do?”
“If you’re exposed to the mystery gas, pop the cap and jab yourself in the thigh.”
Fear fluttered in her chest at the idea of that. “I thought there was no active gas down there.”
“It’s just a precaution, but be careful. Stuff’s strong. Don’t use it unless you know you’re exposed. Atropine jacks your heart rate through the roof. Strong enough to blow up your ticker if you’re not poisoned. Quick, too.”
“Shouldn’t we be wearing biocontainment suits?”
“Too bulky to rappel in. And the straps would tear the fabric. Don’t worry, at the first sign of symptoms—nausea, bleeding—just use the needle. You should live long enough for us to pull you out.”
She scrutinized his freckled face to see if he was joking, trying to scare her.
He squeezed her shoulder. “You’ll be fine.”
She didn’t feel fine. Breathing a bit faster, she lifted her pant leg and wedged the dart deep into her sock.
Lieutenant Perlman, along with two other soldiers—a young Israeli and an older American—walked up to the fissure. The American had bushy brown hair and carried a satchel over one shoulder. She read the name stenciled on his fatigues: McKay.
On his bag were three prominent letters: EOD.
He caught her looking. “Explosive Ordnance Disposal. I blow stuff up.”
They must be planning on detonating any intact canisters they found down there. She should be more worried, but the shock of Heinrich’s death had left her too numb to panic.
McKay held out a hand. She shook it. He was a large man, a few cheeseburgers away from having a gut, and a decade older than the others. She guessed he was in his early forties. He smiled broadly while shaking her hand.
“Best-looking climbing partner I’ve had in ages.” He winked, and she tried to smile back.
He moved to the edge of the fissure as if stepping up to a curb. She stepped next to him and looked down. Shadows obscured the bottom. The fissure was broad enough to rappel down without worry, but she still shivered. The jagged, ugly thing didn’t belong on this mountain.
McKay and Cooper secured their rappelling gear to a pair of ropes.
She stepped to a free line and did the same, pulling it tight twice to check.
Another of Jordan’s team—a woman named Tyson—knelt beside the crevasse. She had fed a long hose down into the hole. Next to her camouflaged knee rested a gas chromatograph.
“What’s the reading, Tyson?” Jordan called.
“Spikes of nitrogen, oxygen, argon.” She kept her eyes on her screen. “A trace of everything you’d expect. No bad gases, Sarge.”
“Keep monitoring, Corporal.” Jordan faced them. “And everyone keep your atropine at the ready.”
“What’re we waiting for, Sergeant?” Cooper hung over the abyss. His line looked too thin to support his bulk, but his eyes danced with adrenaline. A born climber.
Jordan circled his arm in the air. “Rangers lead the way!”
With a whoop from Cooper and a tired sigh from McKay, the pair walked backward down the cliff face, as easily as if they were on horizontal ground.
The Israelis clipped on next and dropped over the edge.
Tyson fiddled with her monitoring equipment. She wasn’t harnessed up, so she must be staying up here, too.
That left Erin and Jordan. He came forward with a large weapon slung over his back, then secured himself on the rope next to her. Once set, he leaned over and tugged on her line. “Good tie-on.”
Jordan flashed a quick grin, leaned back, and took a big step down. He stared up, face serious, words firm. “Anytime now. I’ll be right next to you.”
She leaned out, felt her hands open and close, letting rope slide through her gloved fingers as she backed up—and next thing she knew she was standing next to Jordan on the cliff face.
4:54 P.M.—Three minutes before sunset
When his boots hit the ground, Jordan did an automatic inventory of his weapons. He patted the holstered sidearm on his hip, a Colt 1911, then checked the KA-BAR dagger strapped to his ankle. But his primary weapon—a Heckler & Koch MP7—hung on a strap over his right shoulder. The machine pistol fired hardened steel rounds to the beat of 950 per minute, capable of turning Kevlar armor into Swiss cheese.
He quickly checked the weapon’s safety, clip, and optics, ensuring he didn’t bump it against anything on the way down. He caught Erin staring.
“You need that much firepower down here?” Erin folded her gloves in half and crammed them in her back pocket.
He shrugged. “It’s standard carry for my team.”
Before he could explain more, Sanderson’s voice crackled over the radio in his earpiece. “Sarge, we’ve got an Israeli cargo chopper coming in. I’m guessing they’ve come for the rest of the bodies.”
The evacuation chopper was early, but just as well. Jordan wanted everyone off this bloody mountain as soon as possible. He touched his earpiece. “Got it.”
He and Erin joined the rest of the team gathered at a thin seam in the cliff face. The ROV cable trailed down it and vanished into the darkness.
He glanced over at Erin. What the hell had happened to her in the lean-to? At first he’d thought maybe she was scared of heights and worried about the rappel, but she’d handled that without blinking an eye. He suspected she did have more than a hundred climbs behind her. So she must have seen or heard something during the few minutes she was alone that knocked her down. He didn’t think she’d told him the whole truth about it. She seemed better now, but he hoped whatever it was wouldn’t affect the mission.
Cooper pulled his head out of the two-foot-wide crack the ROV had run through and tossed a glowstick, lighting the way ahead. “That man-made tunnel opens just past this seam.”
Hands on his hips, McKay eyed the small opening.
Jordan clapped him on the shoulder. “Tight fit, but you should make it.”
McKay shook his head. “Spoken by a skinny guy who can barely bench-press his weight.”
Jordan wasn’t skinny, and he could certainly bench much more than his weight. But he’d fit through. For McKay in full gear, it would be a tight squeeze.
Cooper smiled an overly broad grin. “You can always strip to your skivvies and rub yourself in grease.”
“And give you a free show? Not likely.”
Lieutenant Perlman stood with his arms crossed, frowning. The other Israeli soldier shifted from foot to foot.
Jordan saw no reason to delay. The sun was setting, and he wanted to get done here soon. He adjusted his shoulder lamp.
Kneeling, Erin watched the others file into the crack. She drew in a cautious breath. She expected a chemical odor, even though Tyson and Sanderson had given the air a thumbs-up. Instead, it smelled musty, mingled with a staleness that came from places unoccupied for a long time. The familiar and oddly comforting scent of an old tomb.
She patted the dart in her sock and stood to follow Jordan into the narrow opening. Rough stone walls pressed against both shoulders, and she turned sideways, hoping that McKay would make it through without losing too much skin.
The air felt much cooler than on the mountaintop. Underfoot, her sneakers sank in the sand. The glowstick cast an eerie yellow pall along the tunnel. When she reached the stick, she resisted the urge to pick it up and shove it in her pocket. They were littering an archaeological site. She made a note to get it on the way back. She kept one hand running along the top of the crack, making sure that her head wouldn’t bump into the fissure’s roof as she forged on, anxious to get to the tomb and start exploring.
Ahead McKay let loose with a string of curses as he cleared the seam, mostly involving the tightness of the squeeze. Cooper laughed gleefully.
Erin found herself smiling. She frequently worked with soldiers, often at sites located in areas of conflict. In the past, she had regarded the military as a necessary evil, but she already felt an odd bond with this group, forged by horror and bloodshed above and by tension below.
At last, she and Jordan reached the end of the narrow seam. He stepped out into a man-made tunnel, then helped her to climb free. Out in the passageway, he held up a hand, indicating she should stand pat.
“We wait for the all clear from the team.”
He was in charge down here, for now. She stopped and touched the tunnel wall, feeling sharp-edged gouges, picturing chisels and hammers and sweating men. She dropped to a knee and touched the path, pinching up dirt and letting it run through her fingers.
Someone had dug this out thousands of years ago. Who had walked through here? And why?
A few feet away, chunks of rocks closed up the modern tunnel she’d seen on the rover’s cameras. The tunnel must have collapsed. She touched the drill marks on the edges. Twentieth century. But when?
She spotted what looked like the elastic straps and the plastic faceplate of a modern-era gas mask crushed under a boulder. She walked toward it, drawing Jordan with her. If this had been an official expedition, she would have known about it. If it was unofficial, how had they concealed that large of an undertaking at such a famous site? There would have to have been a lot going on at the time.
Like a war.
Before they could examine anything further, Jordan’s radio buzzed. It was loud enough that she heard Cooper’s tinny voice say, “Chamber is secure, Sarge. You might want to get your asses in here. Some fucked-up shit went down.”
“Heading over.” Jordan waved for her to continue with him. “Stick to my side, Doc.”
She followed, making a mental checklist of things to do: use a metal detector to search for tools, scrape soot from the ceiling to judge the type of torches employed by the workers, apply a plaster cast to the wall to discern what tools were used to dig here.
The kinds of things Heinrich had been good at. She stumbled a step, and Jordan caught her arm, his hand warm and reassuring, his eyes concerned. “Doc?”
She shook her head and waved him on.
After another ten yards, they arrived at the entrance to the underground chamber she had just seen through the ROV’s cameras. An ancient and well-made doorway.
The doorway was too narrow for two people to enter at once. She hung back and let Jordan duck through first. She estimated the entryway at a hair over six feet tall and reached one hand up to lightly touch the arch, then stepped over the threshold behind him.
Goose bumps rose on her arms. The air was even cooler here. The muted light of three yellow glowsticks that had been tossed randomly inside revealed a well-made limestone floor, tall, soot-streaked ceilings, close-fitted stone blocks on the walls. She would have loved to be able to take pictures of the dust on the floor, maybe see the footprints of the grave robbers who had opened the sarcophagus. But Jordan and his men had already tramped through and overlaid ancient footprints with their own.
The others gathered across the room, huddled on the far side of the sarcophagus, facing the wall. There must be something very interesting there. As soon as she got a better sense of the overall site, she’d let herself join them.
“Please touch nothing,” she called, fully expecting them to ignore her.
She entered, stepping past the ROV, and crossed to the stone sarcophagus. As she expected, it was carved from a single stone, the sides finely wrought, each corner perfectly angled, each side perfectly flat. She marveled anew at the workmanship of those ancient craftsmen. Their tools might be considered primitive, but the results certainly weren’t. She glanced at the polished top where it lay in one piece on the floor beside the grave it had covered for so long. Odd to see it intact, as grave robbers usually broke the lids of sarcophagi when they pulled them off.
She searched for the pulleys or rope that must have been used, but the plunderers had taken their tools back out with them. Also unusual.
She stepped forward—but a hand stopped her.
“What did I say about sticking close to me?” Jordan asked.
Together, she and Jordan neared the sarcophagus. When she was finally close enough to take some pictures, she dug out the only tool still in her possession: her cell phone. She took multiple shots of the sarcophagus’s side and the piles of ashes at the corners, wishing she had her Nikon, but it was back in Caesarea.
She risked a peek inside the coffin. Nothing. Just bare stone, stained deep burgundy. What would make a stain like that? Blood dried brown. Most resins ended up black.
She also took a few pictures of the empty clay jugs around the sarcophagus. They must have carried liquid down here. Usually they were used for wine, but why fill a sarcophagus with wine?
As she straightened, Jordan turned from the far wall. Even in the dim light, she could tell he was upset. “Doc, you want to explain this one?”
She looked over as the men parted to either side.
A macabre sculpture hung on the wall, like a blasphemous crucifixion. She moved past the corner of the sarcophagus. With each step, a growing horror rose in her.
It wasn’t a sculpture.
On the wall hung the desiccated corpse of a small girl, maybe eight years old, dressed in a tattered, stained robe. A handful of blackened arrows pinned her in place, a good yard off the floor. They pierced her chest, neck, shoulder, and thigh.
“Crossbow bolts,” Jordan said. “Looks like they’re made of silver.”
She stood before the child, struck by one anachronism after another. The girl’s burgundy robes looked ancient, both in style and in the degree of decay. The ornamentation and pattern of weave dated from the same period as the fall of Masada. Probably made in Samaria, maybe Judea, but at least two thousand years old.
Long dark hair framed the sunken face. Her eyes closed peacefully, her chin hung to her thin chest, lips parted ever so slightly as if she had died in mid-sigh. Even her tiny eyelashes were intact. Judging by the amount of soft tissue still clinging to her bones, the girl had been dead only a few decades.
Decades. How could that be?
An object lay crumpled under the girl’s toes. Erin dropped to a knee next to it.
A doll …
Her heart ached. The tiny dried toy was crafted from hardened lumps of leather stitched with scraps of cloth and stained the same burgundy as the robes. The child’s slack arm seemed to be reaching for her plaything, forever unable to claim it.
The abandoned doll struck Erin deeply as she remembered another like it, handmade, too. She had buried it with her baby sister. She swallowed hard, fighting back tears, feeling foolish for it. Heinrich’s death continued to throw her off balance, and right now she had to pull herself together in front of the soldiers.
Still on her knees, she glanced up to the child’s other hand, half hidden behind her body, and saw a glint from between the curled fingers.
She leaned one palm against the wall, feeling hard mortar extruding between the bricks. Though the body was the result of a recent murder, not an ancient one, she still treated the remains with respect. This child was once someone’s little girl.
She reached for that hand. The girl’s arm trembled, then jerked. The entire mummified body shook against the wall as if the child still lived.
Erin fell back with a gasp.
A hand gripped her shoulder, steadying her.
“Another aftershock,” Jordan said.
Fine dust sifted from the stone roof. Behind Erin, a brick thudded to the floor. She held her breath until the quake ceased.
“They’re getting worse,” Jordan said. “Nothing here for us. Time to go.”
She resisted the pull of his arm. This was her site now, and there were still things here for her to explore. She shifted closer to the wall and reached again for the girl’s hand.
Jordan noted her attention and dropped beside her. “What is it?”
“Looks like the child grabbed something before she died.”
Archaeological protocol dictated that nothing be touched before it had been photographed, but this girl had not been murdered that long ago, so Erin would forgo protocol just this once.
Reaching out, she nudged the girl’s fingers open. She had expected them to be brittle but found them eerily pliable. Surprised at the state of the body, she missed catching the object as it fell free. It dropped in the dust.
She didn’t need a doctorate in archaeology to recognize this artifact.
Jordan swore under his breath.
She stared dumbfounded at the medal, at the iron cross, at the swastika.
From World War II.
Here was the identity of the grave robbers, the ones who had drilled down here with modern tools. But why was this medal clutched in the mummified fingers of a girl inside an ancient Jewish tomb?
Jordan clenched a fist. “The Nazis must have got here first. Raided and emptied this place out.”
His words clarified little. Hitler was obsessed with the occult, but what had he hoped to find in Masada?
She scrutinized the girl’s clothes. Why would the Nazis take so much care to dress a child in replicas of the first millennium, only to crossbolt her to the wall?
She pictured the girl ripping the medal off her tormentor’s uniform, hiding it, stealing proof of who killed her. Again an upwelling of sympathy for this child—and for the courage of this final act—swept through her. Tears again rose in her eyes.
“Are you okay?” Jordan’s face was close enough for her to see a fine scar on his chin.
To hide her tears, she lifted her phone and took several pictures of the medal. The girl had gone to great lengths to secure a clue to the identity of her murderer. Erin would record her proof.
Once she lowered her phone, Jordan reached to the dust, picked up the medal, and flipped it over. “Maybe we can find out who did this. SS officers often carved their names on the reverse side of their medals. Whoever this bastard was, I want his name. And if he’s somehow still alive …”
At that moment she liked Jordan more than ever. Shoulder to shoulder, they studied the small metal disk. No name covered the reverse side, only a strange symbol.
She took a snapshot of it in Jordan’s palm, then read aloud the words along its border. “Deutsches Ahnenerbe.”
“That makes sense,” Jordan said sourly.
She shot him a quizzical glance. Recent German history was not her specialty. “How so?”
He tilted the medal from side to side. “My grandfather fought in World War Two. Told me stories. It’s one of the reasons I joined up. And I’m a bit of a history buff. The Deutsches Ahnenerbe were a secret sect of Nazi scientists with an interest in the occult who went around the world seeking lost treasures and proof of an ancient Aryan race. Himmler’s band of grave robbers.”
And they got here first. She felt a sinking sense of defeat. She was used to studying graves that had already been robbed, but those thefts usually happened in antiquity. It rankled her that this tomb had been despoiled mere decades ago.
He touched the center of the symbol. “That’s not their usual symbol. Normally, the Ahnenerbe are represented by a sword wrapped in a ribbon. This is something new.”
Curious, she touched the central symbol. “Looks like a Norse rune. From Elder Futhark. Maybe an Odal rune.”
She drew it in the dust on the floor with a finger.
“The rune represents the letter O.” She turned to Jordan. “Could that be the medal owner’s initial?”
Before she could contemplate it further, McKay barked, “Freeze! Hands in the air!”
Startled, she spun around.
Jordan shouldered his Heckler & Koch machine pistol and twisted toward the tomb’s entrance. Again the ground shook, rock dust shivered—and from out of the shadows, a dark shape stepped into the room.
October 26, 5:04 P.M., IST
“Hold your fire!” Jordan yelled, lifting up his left arm. “It’s the padre.”
He lowered the muzzle of his submachine gun and strode over to the clergyman. It was strange enough that the priest had come down here, but he noticed something even more disturbing.
He’s not wearing any rappelling gear.
Jordan stepped in front of him as the aftershock faded. “What are you doing down here, Father?”
From under the cowl of his hood, the priest regarded him. Jordan did the same, sizing the other up. Father Korza stood two inches taller than Jordan, but under his long open jacket, he was leaner, muscular, a whip of a man. The hard planes of his face were clearly Slavic, softened only by full lips. He wore his black hair down to his collar—a bit too long for a holy man.
But it was those eyes, studious and dark—very dark—that set Jordan’s heart to pounding. His fingers involuntarily tightened on his weapon.
He’s only a priest, he reminded himself.
Father Korza stared a moment longer at Jordan, then his gaze flicked away, sweeping the room in a single glance.
“Did you hear me, padre? I asked you a question.”
The priest’s words were whispered, breathless, oddly formal. “The Church has prior claim to what lies within this crypt.”
Father Korza started to step past him. Jordan grabbed his arm—but only caught air. Somehow the priest smoothly shrugged out of his way and stalked toward the open sarcophagus.
Jordan followed, noting the priest’s eyes fix to the child staked to the wall, his face unreadable. Reaching the tomb, the man glanced inside the empty sarcophagus and visibly tensed, going statue-still.
Erin approached him from the far wall. She held aloft her cell phone, plainly searching for a signal, hoping to get her photographs uploaded somewhere safe, always thinking like a researcher.
As she reached the sarcophagus, Jordan kept between her and Father Korza. For some reason, he didn’t want her near the strange priest.
“This is a restricted area,” Jordan warned.
Perlman backed him up, resting a palm on his sidearm. “You should not be here, Father Korza. The Israeli government set strict guidelines on your visit here.”
The clergyman ignored them both. He focused on Erin. “Have you found a book? Or a block of stone of such size?” He held out his arms.
Erin shook her head. “We found nothing like that, just the girl. It looks like the Germans cleared this tomb during the war.”
His only reaction was a slight narrowing of his eyes.
Who is this guy?
Jordan placed his hand on the butt of his machine pistol, waiting to see what the holy man would do next. Brusque and taciturn, the priest had obvious issues with authority, but so far he’d shown no outward signs of threat.
Peripherally, Jordan watched McKay slip a hand to his own dagger.
“Easy, Corporal,” he ordered. “Stand down.”
The priest ignored McKay, but he suddenly tensed, freezing in midturn, his ear cocked to the side. He made eye contact with Jordan, but his words were for all of them.
“You must all leave. Now.”
The last word bristled with warning.
What is he talking about?
The answer came from Jordan’s earpiece: a scream burst forth, full of blood and pain, sharp enough to stab deep into his head.
From up top.
The scream cut off into a burst of static.
He touched the throat mike. “Sanderson! Respond!”
“Corporal, come in!”
The priest moved swiftly to the entrance. Cooper and the young Israeli soldier blocked him from leaving. Weapons were raised all around.
At the threshold to the tomb, the priest lifted his face toward the roof, his whole body going rigid, like a big cat before an attack. His next words were chilling for their calmness.
“Back against the walls.” He turned and locked eyes with Jordan. “Do as I say or you will all die.”
Jordan raised his weapon. “Are you threatening us, padre?”
“Not I. The ones who come.”
Erin struggled to comprehend what was happening. The priest’s gaze met hers. For a moment a flicker of fear broke through the pale contours of the priest’s face, long enough to drive her heart into her throat. She sensed that he worried for their safety, not his own. A terrible sadness haunted his eyes as he looked away, as if he already mourned them.
She swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry.
But Jordan was clearly not giving up so easily. “What’s going on? I’ve got men topside. As does Lieutenant Perlman.”
Again that mournful look. “By now, they are dead. As you shall be if you do not—”
A gasp rose from Cooper, who stood by the door. Everyone turned. He opened his mouth, but only blood flowed out. He collapsed to his knees, then his face. The black hilt of a dagger jutted from the base of his skull.
Erin cried his name. The soldiers raised their guns as one. She stepped behind them, out of the line of fire.
Beyond Cooper’s body crouched a dark shape, a figure sculpted from shadows. Jordan fired multiple volleys, blasts deafening in the closed space. The shadow shivered back into darkness—
—but not before snagging the young Israeli soldier who was still hovering near the threshold. Erin caught a glint of steel, then he was gone, yanked off his feet and into the black tunnel.
Jordan stopped firing, plainly fearing he’d hit the soldier.
A scream, full of terror and blood, echoed—then silence.
Lieutenant Perlman lurched forward, weapon up. “Margolis!”
The priest’s black-clad arm shoved the Israeli back.
“Stay here,” Father Korza warned, then defied his own words.
With a turn of his wrist, a blade appeared in his fingers as if out of thin air. He bared the edge: a sickle of silver, a hooked dagger, like some prehistoric claw.
With a sweep of his jacket, he dove across the threshold and vanished.
Immediately a savage wailing keened out of the darkness.
The sound sang to fears buried in her bones and bound her in place.
Even the hardened soldiers seemed to sense it. Jordan drew her farther from the entrance. McKay and Perlman flanked them, weapons pointed at the door. Retreating, regrouping, they took cover behind the sarcophagus.
A single piercing scream ripped from the tunnel.
Jordan lifted Erin as effortlessly as if her bones were hollow, her flesh immaterial. She felt that way already, as if she could float away.
He rolled her into the open sarcophagus. “Stay down, stay hidden.”
The steel in his voice and iron in his eyes grounded her back in her own skin—not that she wanted to be there. He pressed her lower. “Do you understand?”
“Yes.” She wanted to duck away, cover her head, shut out the horror, but when she did, sightlessness scared her more. Her fingers clung to the lip of the box. Like everyone else, she watched the pitch-dark mouth of the tunnel.
To the left, a sharp strike and flash drew her eye. McKay held a flaming flare.
“Toss it!” Jordan pointed to the dark exit.
McKay swung his arm and tossed the flare through the doorway. It tumbled end over end, leaving a trail of fire, and plunged into the well of darkness. Brightness forced back shadows, along with darker shapes. Erin lost count at four.
That left a lone figure in the center, standing in a shredded cassock, lit from the back. He held an arm over his eyes, blinded by the sudden flare. His other hand held up a curved dagger, blade dripping black blood, shimmering with reflected fire.
“Father!” Jordan yelled, raising his weapon. “Get down!”
The warning came too late.
Like rabid dogs, shadowed shapes leaped at the priest. They slammed him down. He landed hard atop the flare, quenching it with his body. Erin winced. Darkness again swallowed the scene—but not before a figure bounded over the priest and leaped headlong into the chamber.
It flew far, hit the stone floor, then shot straight at them, moving impossibly fast. A wolf? No. A man in wrinkled brown leather, arms wide, a butcher’s hook held aloft by one muscular arm.
Jordan dropped to one knee and fired up, striking the man square in the chest. The hail of rounds knocked him into the bricked roof. He dropped to the stone floor, hitting hard and going dead-still.
At the door, a mass of shadows rolled into the room. The priest wrestled with two black-suited figures. A third leaped past.
The attacker sped low and fast into Lieutenant Perlman. They hit the wall beside the crucified girl and dropped out of view. The Israeli’s rifle barked, blasting upward, rounds sparking off rock. Erin flattened herself in the stone box.
A shadow materialized above her. She caught a flash of teeth—too many teeth—and wished that she had a gun or a knife. She crossed both arms in front of her face and waited to feel the teeth in her skin.
Instead, bullets ripped through the torso above, and the bulk dropped atop her. She struggled out from under the body, her jeans wet with blood. Gritting her teeth, she searched the body for a weapon. No gun, but he carried an Egyptian khopesh with a long curved blade. She had seen similar swords in hieroglyphs and paintings, but such weapons hadn’t been used in battle for seven hundred years.
McKay peered over the edge of the sarcophagus. “You okay?”
Before she could answer, he vanished, hit broadside. She rose up on her knees, clutching the sword.
McKay sailed across the room and slammed into the wall, cracking his head. He fell to the floor, leaving a streak of blood on the wall behind him.
A dark figure leaped atop McKay and lunged at his throat.
Jordan was pinned under an attacker who was stronger than anyone he had ever fought. He’d already lost his gun. The guy was also ridiculously fast.
Jordan twisted and grabbed for his ankle—and the KA-BAR dagger sheathed there. He freed it as bony hands lashed down. One clamped to his throat, the other held his arm pinned against the stone.
Nails dug deep, tearing flesh.
Wrenching his free arm around, he drove the KA-BAR blade deep into the assailant’s throat, to the hilt, until he hit bone, then ripped outward.
Blood washed down his arm.
The man went limp. Jordan threw off the deadweight and rolled to a crouch. His attention fixed on Erin, standing in the sarcophagus with a short, curved sword in one hand. She looked ready to climb out to help McKay, who lay on the other side of the room, but McKay was beyond anyone’s help now. Like Perlman, who was on the floor nearby, his throat had been torn away.
Jordan shot McKay’s attacker full in the chest, knocking him off his teammate’s body. Movement turned his head back to Erin.
A shadow loomed behind her.
He leaped toward her, but a hand shoved him aside. It felt like being clipped by a speeding truck. He lost his footing and crashed into the wall.
Dazed, he watched the priest barrel past him, knock Erin down, and tackle her attacker. He struck the bloody man with his shoulder and drove him backward, slamming him into the mummified girl on the wall. Dried bone exploded under their weight.
Korza rebounded back a step.
His opponent remained in place, hanging off the ground, impaled and writhing. The butt end of the crossbow bolts that penetrated his flesh held him aloft. One bolt poked out the man’s throat. Fingers scrabbled at it. Blood bubbled out of the wound, as if it were boiling.
Then Korza lashed out, severing the man’s throat with an explosive stroke.
Jordan regained his own shaky feet, crouched, searching all around. The priest stood before the wall, shoulders hunched under shredded garments. Dark blood dripped from his blade, from his fingertips. Jordan didn’t know how much of it came from the priest’s own wounds.
He kept his gun up as he stumbled to Erin. He saw no reason to check on his other teammates. He knew death when he faced it. As far as he could tell, the only ones still alive in this room were the priest, Erin, and him.
He kept a cautious eye on the priest, leery of his allegiances.
With a flare of his long jacket, Korza dropped to a knee, head bowed as if in prayer—but that was not his intent. He snatched something from the floor. It vanished into his black robes as he stood again.
The child’s small doll was gone.
Instead of checking on Erin, he’d gone to pick up a doll? Jordan gave up trying to figure the man out.
“Erin?” he said as he reached her side.
She whirled toward him, her sword held high.
“Just me,” he said, and shifted his gun to the side, both hands up, palms out.
Her wide eyes came into focus, and she lowered the blade. He pried it out of her fingers and dropped it. Her face white, her eyes lost, she slumped in the corner of the sarcophagus. He lifted her out and sat with his back against the cold stone with her in his lap. He ran his hands over her, searching for wounds. She seemed unharmed.
The priest joined them. Jordan’s hand inched toward his pistol, a protective arm encircling Erin. What were his intentions?
“There are no more,” Korza whispered as if in prayer. “But we are still not safe.”
Jordan glanced over at the battered man.
“They will seal us in,” he said with such certainty that Jordan believed him.
“How do you know …?”
“Because it is what I would do.” He strode toward the door.
Jordan noted where he headed. The ROV sat on the floor, one camera aimed at them, a green light shining above it. The priest stamped on the lens. Metal and glass shattered under his heel and skittered across stone.
Jordan understood, remembering Sanderson’s scream.
They’ve been watching us.
October 26, 5:11 P.M., IST
As the last screams echoed across the summit, Bathory crouched before the now-dark monitor, frozen in shock, trapped between the past and the present.
She had witnessed the battle in the tomb, followed by the slaughter of the forces she had sent below. The fighting had been swift, dimly lit, much of it occurring out of camera view.
But she had also spied the few moments before the chaotic fighting.
She had watched a helmeted soldier confront a black-garbed figure, his back to the camera. But she had caught the flash of a white Roman collar as he cast a single glance to encompass the room.
Her pained blood went cold at this fleeting glimpse of the enemy.
Here was that Knight of Christ mentioned in the texted message.
The two men faced off like rams during rutting season. Maybe the soldier would solve her problem for her, but the knight stepped past the soldier and stopped, staring at the far wall—what did he see?
She wished the camera’s range extended to the back of the room.
Out of those shadows, a woman in civilian clothes appeared, another surprise. She came waving her phone in the familiar pantomime of someone searching for a signal.
The knight turned to the woman and held out his hands to indicate an object the size and shape of a book.
Bathory’s breathing had quickened.
The woman shook her head.
The knight performed a slow circuit of the room. The tomb seemed empty, except for the sarcophagus. No likely hiding places. When the knight’s shoulders slumped, she let out her breath.
So they had not found the book.
Either it had never been there, or it had been plundered.
Then the knight grew wise to the presence of Bathory’s team, requiring a swift response. He should have been defeated, but she had underestimated his skill, also the support by the soldiers. He had taken out half of her forces in seconds.
From his performance, she knew the knight below was not new to the cloth, but someone much older, as well blooded as her own forces.
Then, as that knight crossed to crush the ROV camera, she got a full look at his face: his cleft chin, his broad Slavic cheekbones, his intense dark eyes. The shock of recognition immobilized her and left her hollowed out.
But life was not a vacuum.
Into that void, a molten, fiery hatred flowed, filling her anew, forging her into something else, a weapon of fury and vengeance.
She finally moved, clenching her hand into a fist and gouging her ancient ruby ring down the darkened monitor. Like so much that she possessed, the precious ring had been connected to her family for a long time.
As had the knight.
That name had scarred her as surely as the black palm on her neck—and caused her as much pain. All her life, she had been raised on tales of how Korza’s failure had cast her once-proud family into generations of poverty and disgrace. She fingered the edge of her tattoo, a source of constant agony, another debt of blood that she owed that knight.
She flashed to that long-ago ceremony, kneeling before Him to whom she had pledged herself, His hand around her throat, burning in that mark in the shape of His palm and fingers, binding her to Him in servitude.
All because of that knight.
She had seen him in a thousand dreams and had always hoped she might someday find him alive, to make him pay for the deeds that had doomed generations of women in her family to sacrifice, to years of living with torment—enslaved by blood, fated to train, to serve, to wait.
This knowledge came with another truth, a pained realization.
She again felt His strangled hold on her throat, burning away her old life.
Her master must have known that Rhun Korza was the knight sent to Masada to retrieve the book. Yet that secret had been kept from her. He had sent her to face Korza without warning her first.
Was this to satisfy His own cruel amusements—or was there some greater purpose in all of this?
If she had known that Korza lurked in that tomb, she would never have sent anyone down. She would have waited for the knight to come up with the book, or empty-handed in failure, and shot him off the fissure like a fly off a wall.
The slaughter below told her that Korza was too dangerous to confront in close combat, even if she sent her remaining forces down after him.
But there was another way, a more fitting way.
The anger inside her hardened to a newer purpose.
Before the image went dark, she had spotted the body of one of her team near the tomb’s door, carrying a satchel over one shoulder. An identical pack waited near the top of the fissure.
She turned to the two hunters still in attendance.
Tarek had shaved his head like many of the others and riddled his skin with black tattoos, in his case Bible verses written in Latin. Leather, stitched with human sinew, clad his muscular six-foot frame. Steel piercings cut through lips and nostrils. His black eyes had narrowed to slits, furious at the casualties inflicted by those in the tomb. He wanted revenge. Dealt by his own hands.
“The knight is too dangerous,” she warned. “Especially when backed into a corner. We are down too many to risk sending more.”
Tarek could not argue. They had both witnessed the slaughter on the screen. But there was another option. Not as satisfying, but the end would be the same.
“Blow the fissure.” She motioned to the pack on top and pictured the satchel below. “Kill them all.”
She intended to entomb the knight and his companions, to rebury the secrets here under tons of rock. And if Korza survived the blast, then a slow death trapped beneath all of that stone would be his fate.
For a moment it seemed that Tarek would disobey her order. Fury ruled him, stoked by all the blood. Then his gaze flicked to her neck. To the tattoo. He knew its significance better than any.
To defy her was to defy Him.
Tarek bowed his head once, like bending iron—then turned and folded into the night.
She closed her eyes, centering herself, but a low moan caught her attention, reminding her that she still had work to do.
The freckle-faced corporal named Sanderson knelt in the dust, the lone survivor of the massacre on the summit. He’d been stripped to the waist, his head yanked back by nails dug deep into his scalp by the remaining hunter at her side. This one—Rafik, brother to Tarek—was lean, all bone and malice, a useful tool in trying times.
She shifted closer, the soldier’s eyes tracking her.
“I have questions,” she said gently.
He only stared, trembling and sweating, doe-eyed with terror, looking so very young. She once had a brother very much like this one, how he had loved roses and chilled wine, but she had been forbidden from any contact with him after taking His mark. She had to cut away all earthly attachments to her past, binding herself only to Him.
Another loss she placed upon Korza’s shoulders.
She ran the back of her hand down the corporal’s velvety cheek. He was not yet old enough to grow a proper beard. Yet, despite his terror, she read an ember of defiance in his eyes.
As if he had any hope of resisting.
She leaned back and lifted an arm, casting out her desire.
The pair—she named them Hunor and Magor, after two Hungarian mythic heroes—were never far from her side, forever bonded to her. Without looking, she felt them push out of the darkness behind her, where they had been feeding, and pad forward. She held out a palm and was met by a warm tongue, a furry muzzle, and a low rumble like thunder beyond the horizon.
She dropped her hand, now damp and weeping with blood.
“They’re still hungry,” she commented, knowing it to be true, feeling an echo of that desire inside her.
The soldier’s eyes widened, straining against the unimaginable. Horror at what stood behind her quashed any further defiance.
She leaned very close. She felt his hot breath, almost tasting his anguish. She moved to his ear and whispered.
“Tell me,” she said, starting with a simple question, “who was that woman down there?”
Before he could answer, the night exploded behind her. Light, sound, and heat erupted from Masada’s summit, shaking the ground, turning darkness to day. Flames blasted out of the chasm, swirling into a cataclysm of smoke and dirt—closing what God had opened only hours ago. She intended to bring this entire mountain down to cover her tracks.
With the detonation, peace again settled over her.
She stared down at the corporal.
She still needed answers.
October 26, 5:14 P.M., IST
Heat scorched Rhun’s back, as hot as the breath of any dragon. He pictured the wall of flames rolling over the top of the sealed dark sarcophagus. But it was the sound that hurt the worst. He feared the concussive blast might crack his skull, fountain blood from his ears, and defile this once-sacred space.
Beyond their tomb, stone rained down near the entrance. Unlike the first explosion that had sealed the fissure above, this second one sought to destroy this very chamber.
Thus trapping them.
As fire and fury died down to a rumbling groan, he braced hard against the limestone sides of the tomb. It was fitting that he die in a sarcophagus—trapped as surely as he’d once sealed another behind stone. Indeed, he almost welcomed it. But the woman and soldier had not earned this fate.
He had hurled them both inside the coffin after the first explosion. Knowing this ancient crypt offered the only shelter, he had drawn the stone lid over them, using all of his strength, assisted only slightly by the soldier. If they survived, he did not know how he would explain such strength of limb. The code he lived by demanded that he let them die rather than allow those questions to be asked.
But he could not let them die.
So they crowded together in pitch darkness. He tried to pray, but his senses continued to overwhelm him. He smelled the wine that had once filled this box, the metallic odor of blood that saturated the remains of his clothing, and the burnt paper-and-chalk smell of spent explosives.
None of it masked the simple lavender scent of her hair.
Her heartbeat, swift as a woodlark’s, raced against his chest. The warmth of her trembling body spread along his stomach and legs. He had not been this close to a woman since Elisabeta. It was a small mercy that Erin was turned away from him, her face buried in the soldier’s chest.
He counted her heartbeats, and in that rhythm, he found the peace to pray—until at last silence finally returned to his mind and to the world beyond their small tomb.
She stirred under him, but he touched her shoulder to tell her to be still. He wanted them to wait longer, to be certain that the room had stopped collapsing before he attempted to shift the tomb’s lid. Only then would he know if they were entombed by more rock than even he could lift.
Her breathing slowed, her heart stilled. The soldier, too, calmed.
Finally, Rhun braced his knees against the bottom of the stone box and pushed up with his shoulders. The lid scraped against the sides. He heaved again. The massive weight moved a handsbreadth, then two.
Finally, it tilted and smashed to the floor. They were free, although he feared that they had only traded the small cell for a larger one. But at least the temple held. The men who had dug out this secret chamber had reinforced its walls to hold the tempestuous mountain at bay.
He stood and helped Erin and Jordan out of the sarcophagus. One glowstick had survived the blast and cast a dim glow into the room. He squinted through scorching dust to the tomb’s entrance.
It was an entrance no more.
Earth and rock sealed it from floor to ceiling.
The other two coughed, holding cloths to their faces, filtering the fouled air. They would not last long.
The soldier clicked on a flashlight and shone it toward the doorway. He met Rhun’s eyes and stepped back from him, his face dark with suspicion and wariness.
The woman cast the beam of a second flashlight around the ruined chamber. A layer of dust covered everything, transforming the dead bodies to powdered statues, blunting the horror of the slaughter.
But nothing hid the broken pieces of the sarcophagus’s heavy stone lid. Her light lingered there. Motes of dust drifting through the beam did not obscure the truth of his impossible act in lifting and pushing that stone free.
The soldier did not seem to notice. He faced the blasted doorway as if it were an unsolvable mystery.
Closer at hand, the woman’s light settled on Rhun, as did her soft brown eyes. “Thank you, Father.”
He heard an awkward catch in her voice when she said the word father. He found it discomfiting, sensing that she had no faith.
“My name is Rhun,” he whispered. “Rhun Korza.”
He had not shared the intimacy of his full name with another in a long time, but if they were to die here together, he wanted them to know it.
“I’m Erin, and this is Jordan. How—”
The soldier cut her off; cold fury underlay his tone. “Who were they?”
That single question hid another. He recognized it in the man’s voice, read it in his face.
What were they?
He considered the hidden question. The Church forbade revealing the truth, its most guarded secret. Much could be lost.
But the man was a warrior, like himself. He had stood his ground, faced darkness, and he had paid in blood for a proper answer.
Rhun would honor that sacrifice. He stared the other full in the eye and offered the truth, naming their attackers. “They are strigoi.”
His words hung in the air, like the swirling dust, obscuring more than they revealed. Clearly confused, the man cocked his head to the side. The woman, too, studied him, more in curiosity than in anger. Unlike the soldier, she did not seem to blame him for the deaths here.
“What does that mean?” The soldier would not be pacified until he understood, and doubtless not afterward either.
Rhun lifted a stone off one of the dead men and brushed sand from his face. The woman kept her light on his hands as he angled the dusty head toward them. With one gloved hand, he peeled back cold lips, exposing an ancient secret.
Long white fangs glinted in the beam of light.
The soldier’s hand moved to the butt of his gun. The woman drew in a sharp breath. Her hand rose to her throat. An animal’s instinct to protect itself. But instead of remaining frozen in horror, she lowered her hand and came to kneel beside Rhun. The man stayed put, alert and ready to do battle.
Rhun expected that, but the woman surprised him, when so little else did. Her fingers—trembling at first, then steadying—reached to touch the long, sharp tooth, like Saint Thomas placing his hand in Christ’s wound, needing proof. She plainly feared the truth, but she would not shun it.
She faced Rhun, skeptical as only a modern-day scientist could be. And waited.
He said nothing. She had asked for the truth. He had given it to her. But he could not give her the will to believe it.
She waved a hand over the corpse. “These may be caps, put on to lengthen his teeth …”
Even now, she refused to believe, sought comforting rationalizations, like so many others before her. But unlike them, she leaned closer, not waiting for confirmation or consolation. She lifted the upper lip higher.
As she probed, he expected her eyes to widen with horror. Instead, her brows knit together in studious interest.
Surprised yet again, he eyed her with equal fascination.
Kneeling by the body, Erin sought to make sense of what lay before her. She needed to understand, to put meaning to all the blood and death.
She desperately ran through a mental list of cultures where people sharpened their teeth. In the Sudan desert, young men whittled their incisors to razor points in a rite of passage. Amid the ancient Maya, filed teeth had been a sign of nobility. In Bali, tooth filing was still a coming-of-age ritual that marked the transition from animal to human. Every continent had similar practices. Every single one.
But this was different.
As much as she wanted it to be true, no tools had sharpened these teeth.
“Doc, talk to me.” Jordan hovered over her shoulder, his tense voice loud in the small space. “Tell me what you’re thinking.”
She fought to keep her tone clinical, both for her sake and for his. If she lost her composure, she might never get it back. “These canine teeth are firmly rooted in the maxilla. Feel how the bony sockets at the base of the fangs are thickened.”
Jordan stepped over a pile of rubble to stand between her and the priest. He rested one hand on his gun. “I’ll take your word for it.”
She flashed him what she hoped was a reassuring smile. It didn’t seem to work, because his face stayed stern when he asked, “What does it mean?”
She leaned back on her haunches, eager to put space between herself and the tooth she had just touched. “Such root density is a common trait in predators.”
Father Korza stepped away. Jordan’s barrel twitched toward him.
“Jordan?” She stood next to him.
“Keep talking.” He eyed the priest, as if he expected him to interrupt, but the man stood still. “It’s interesting stuff, isn’t it, padre?”
She scrutinized the dusty brown face in the rubble. It looked as human as she did. “A lion’s jaw exerts six hundred pounds of pressure per square inch. To support such power, the tooth sockets harden and thicken around the fangs, as these have done.”
“So what you are saying,” Jordan said, clearing his throat, “is that these fangs aren’t just a weird fashion statement. That they’re natural?”
She sighed. “I can’t come up with another explanation that fits.”
In the dim light of her flashlight, she read the shock on Jordan’s face and the fear in his eyes. She felt it, too, and she would not let her feelings overwhelm her. Instead, she turned to the silent priest for answers. “You called them strigoi?”
His face had closed into an unreadable mask of shadows and secrets. “Their curse bears many names. Vrykolakas. Asema. Dhakhanavar. They are a scourge once known in all corners of the world. Today you call them vampires.”
Erin sat back. Did a memory of this horror lie at the root of ritualistic tooth filing, a macabre mimicry of a real terror forgotten in the modern age? Forgotten, but not gone. An icy finger traced up her back.
“And you fight them?” Jordan’s skepticism filled the tomb.
“I do.” The priest’s soft voice sounded calm.
“So what does that make you, padre?” Jordan stepped into a wider stance, as if expecting a fight. “Some kind of Vatican commando?”
“I would not use such words.” Father Korza folded gloved hands in front of him. “I am but a priest, a humble servant of God. But to serve the Holy See, I and certain other brethren of the cloth have been trained to fight this plague, yes.”
Erin had a thousand questions she wanted to ask, but she had a most pressing one, one that had troubled her since the priest stepped into the tomb and said his first words.
The Church has prior claim to what lies within this crypt.
Suddenly glad to have a soldier between them, Erin watched the bloody figure over Jordan’s shoulder. “Earlier, you asked about a book that might be hidden here. Is that why we were attacked? Why we’re trapped down here?”
The priest’s face closed. He craned his neck toward the brick roof as if seeking guidance from above. “The mountain is still moving.”
“What—” A great groaning of stone, accompanied by explosive booms of crushed rock, interrupted Jordan’s question. The ground shook—at first mildly, then more violently.
Erin stumbled into Jordan’s back before finding her footing. “Another aftershock?”
“Or the concussive charges weakened the mountain’s infrastructure.” Jordan looked at the ceiling. “Either way, it’s coming down. And soon.”
“We must first find the way out,” Father Korza said. “Before we discuss other matters.”
Jordan moved toward the collapsed entrance.
“We will gain no passage that way.” Father Korza slowly turned in a full circle. “But it is said that those who came to hide the book during the fall of Masada used a path known only to a few. A path they sealed behind them as they left.”
Jordan scanned the solid walls. “Where?”
The priest’s eyes were vacant. “That secret was lost.”
“You’re not holding out on us, are you?” Jordan asked.
Father Korza fingered rosary beads on his belt. “The path is beyond the knowledge of the Church. No one knows it.”
“Not true.” Erin ran both hands along the wall closest to her, digging a nail into the mortar between two stones.
All eyes turned to her.
She smiled. “I know the way out.”
Jordan hoped that Erin knew what she was talking about. “Show me.”
She hurried to the rear of the chamber, dancing her fingertips along rough stone as if reading a book written in Braille.
He followed, patting the stone with one hand, the other still on his submachine gun. He didn’t trust Korza. If the priest had warned them from the start, Jordan’s men might still be alive. Jordan wasn’t going to turn his back on him anytime soon.
“Feel how clean the masonry is along this wall?” Erin asked. “The blocks fit so perfectly that little mortar was even needed. I suspect they only cemented it as an extra measure to secure the vault against quakes.”
“So it’s probably the only reason we’re still alive,” he said. “Let’s hear it for overbuilding.”
A distracted smile played across her lips. He hoped to see that smile again out in the sunlight, somewhere safe.
At the back wall, she dropped to a knee beside the impaled bodies. Her shoulders tensed, and her eyes fixed on the wall, averted from the dead. But she kept going. He admired that. She placed a palm against the ancient bricks and stroked it downward.
“I noticed this earlier.” The ground jolted, and her next words rushed out. “Before the attack. When we were examining the girl.” She took his hand and placed it beside hers on the stones. “Feel the ridges of mortar pushing out between the bricks.”
He touched the cold unyielding stone.
“This section is unlike the other walls,” she rattled on eagerly. “Skilled masons, such as those who built this vault, would skim the excess mortar away, to create a clean look and to protect the mortar from being knocked out if anyone brushed against the wall.”
“Are you saying that they got sloppy here?”
“Far from it. Whoever built this section of wall was working from the other side. That’s why the mortar is bulging out toward us here.”
“A sealed doorway.” He whistled. “Nice going, Doc.”
He studied it. The mortared section formed a rough archway. She might be right. He pounded the wall with the flat of his fist. It didn’t give. “Feels damned solid to me.”
To dig this out would take hours, maybe days. And he suspected they had only minutes. Erin had done a good job, but it wouldn’t be enough to save them.
A section of roof near the entrance broke away and fell with a deafening crash. Erin flinched, and he moved toward her protectively. They’d end up buried down here with the corpses of monsters and men.
His men, with Cooper and McKay.
“McKay,” he said aloud.
The holy man frowned, but Erin glanced at McKay’s twisted body. Her eyes brightened with hope and understanding.
“Do you have enough time?” she asked.
“When I’m this motivated? Damned straight.”
He headed across the rubble and knelt beside McKay’s body.
I’m sorry, buddy.
He gently rolled his lifeless body to the side. He kept his eyes off the ruin of his friend’s throat, resting a hand on his shoulder. He held back memories of his friend’s barking laugh, his habit of peeling labels off of beer bottles, his hangdog look when confronted by a beautiful woman.
But never forgotten, my friend.
He freed the backpack and returned to the wall where Erin waited. He didn’t want her to be alone with the priest. He didn’t know what the man might do. The holy man was full of secrets, secrets that had cost his men their lives. What would Korza do to keep those secrets if they escaped this prison?
No matter what was planned, the mountain would probably crush them first. Jordan hurriedly unzipped the backpack. As the team’s demolitions expert, McKay carried explosives, originally brought along to blow up canisters and neutralize any residual threat. Back when they thought they were dealing with something simple, like terrorists.
He worked fast, fingers inserting blasting caps into blocks of C-4. McKay could have done this faster, but Jordan shied away from that well of pain, unable to face the loss. That would come later. If there was a later.
He shaped and wired charges, doing fast calculations in his head while keeping an eye on Erin as she talked to the priest.
“The girl,” she said, waving an arm toward the child on the wall. “You’re telling me that she was two thousand years old when she died?”
Korza’s voice was so low that Jordan had to strain to hear his answer. “She was strigoi. Sealed in here to protect the book. A mission she performed until those silver bolts ended her life.”
As he worked, Jordan pictured those grisly events unfolding: the Nazis opened the sarcophagus, found the little girl still alive in the damn coffin, then staked her to the wall with a hail of silver crossbow bolts. He remembered the crushed gas mask spotted near the tomb’s entrance. The Nazis must have known what they would find here. They had come expecting both the girl and that toxic gas.
Erin pressed, clearly seeking some way to understand all of this, to insert it into a scientific equation that made sense. “So the Church used this poor girl. Forced her to be its guard dog for two thousand years?”
“She was no girl, and she was asleep, preserved in the holy wine that bathed her.” Korza’s words fell to a pained whisper. “Still, you are correct. Not all agreed with such a cruel decision. Nor even the choice of this accursed place. It is said the apostle Peter picked this mountain, that tragic time, to bind the blood sacrifice of the Jewish martyrs to this tomb, to use that black pall to protect the treasure.”
“Wait,” Erin scoffed. “The apostle Peter … Saint Peter? Are you saying he ordered someone to bring the book here during the siege of Masada?”
“No. Peter carried the book here himself.” The priest’s hands fiddled with his rosary. “Accompanied only by those he trusted best.”
Jordan suspected he wasn’t supposed to be telling them any of this.
“That can’t be,” Erin argued. “They crucified Peter during the reign of Nero. Roughly three years before Masada fell.”
Korza turned away, his voice quiet. “History is not always recorded with precision.”
On that cryptic note, Jordan finished his preparations. He stood and lifted the wireless detonator. Erin looked a question at him.
He wished he had more comforting words.
“Either this will work … or I’m going to kill us all.”
October 26, 6:01 P.M., IST
Undisclosed location, Israel
Sitting in his hospital bed, Tommy fingered the IV port sticking out of his chest. He did this numbly, not out of curiosity. He knew why the nurse had inserted it there. He’d had one before. After so many blood draws, they were afraid of collapsing a vein.
His doctor—a thin woman with sharp cheekbones, olive-green scrubs, and a grim expression—had not bothered to tell him her name, which was weird. Usually doctors kept introducing themselves and expected you to remember them. This one acted as if she wanted to be forgotten.
He hiked up the thin flannel blanket and looked around. It seemed like any other hospital room: motorized bed, intravenous lines pumping who knew what into his blood, a table with an olive-green plastic pitcher and cup.
He did miss that there was no television stuck up on the wall, not that he would have understood anything on the Israeli channels. But after his months in the hospital before, he knew there was comfort in the familiar movement on the flickering screen.
With nothing else to do, he got out of bed and pulled his IV pole along with him toward the window, the linoleum tiles cold against his bare feet. The view outside was only moonlit desert, an endless expanse of rocks and shrubs. Beyond the parking lot, not a man-made light could be seen. The Israelis had dragged him out to the middle of nowhere.
Hospitals were in cities, places with people, lights, and cars. But he had seen none of those things when the helicopter landed in that parking lot, just a cluster of mostly dark buildings.
In the chopper, he had been strapped in the middle seat, between two Israeli commandos. Both had leaned as far away from him as they could, as if they were scared to touch him. He could guess why. Earlier, he had overheard one of the American soldiers mention that he had chemical breakdown elements of that toxic gas still on his clothes and hair. No one dared touch him until he was decontaminated.
Back at Masada, he had been stripped naked inside the contamination tent, his clothes taken. And once he got here, they forced him into a series of chemical showers, seeming to scrub every dead cell off of his skin. Even that dirty water had been collected into sealed tubs.
He bet that was why he was here in the middle of nowhere: to be a guinea pig so they could figure out why he had survived that gas when everyone else died.
After all of that, he was glad he never mentioned anything about the melanoma lesion vanishing from his wrist. One finger absently rubbed that spot, still trying to fathom what that meant. His secret was an easy one to keep. Hardly anyone spoke to him—they spoke around him, about him, but seldom to him.
Only one person looked him in the eye.
He remembered that dark gaze framed in a gentle face. His words had been kind, asking as much about his mother and father as about the horrors of the day. Tommy wasn’t Catholic, but he still appreciated the Father’s kindness.
As he thought again of his parents, tears threatened—but he put them in the box. He’d invented the box to deal with his cancer treatments. When things hurt too much, he boxed them up for later. With his declining health and terminal diagnosis, he’d never imagined he would live long enough to ever have to open it.
He stared down at his bare wrist.
Now, it seemed, he would.
October 26, 6:03 P.M., IST
Erin crouched behind the sarcophagus, her hands clamped over her ears. She flinched as Jordan triggered the C-4 planted against the wall. The blast hit her gut like a blow. Rock dust rolled across the chamber. Sand sifted down from the roof, brushing her exposed skin like the whispery crawl of a thousand spiders.
Then Jordan yanked her up, hard. “Move it!”
She didn’t understand his urgency—until the echo of the blast in her ears continued to grow louder. She stared up as the ground jostled under her.
The priest took her other arm and pulled her toward the smoking wall. A small hole had been knocked out of it. But it was too small.
“Help me!” Jordan called out.
Working together, the three of them yanked out loosened bricks along the edges. Beyond the hole loomed a dark passageway, chiseled out of the rock. Long ago, men had dug it to take them somewhere—and right now anywhere was better than here.
The quaking grew worse. The treacherous ground shifted under her and slammed her into the wall.
“No more time!” Jordan hollered and yanked out one last brick, creating a tight squeeze. “Everybody out!”
Before they could act, a resounding boom threw them all to the floor.
Overhead, a crack split the arched roof.
Jordan jumped up, grabbed Erin, and shoved her into the stone opening. Skin ripped off her elbows as she scrambled through. She regained her feet in the passageway and shone her light back at Jordan.
“You next, padre,” Jordan called. “You’re smaller than me.”
With a nod, the priest dove headlong through the narrow hole and rolled into a ready crouch beside Erin. He took a quick look around the passageway. What did he expect to see?
Erin turned back to Jordan. He gave her a quick grin. Behind his back, the entire roof dropped in one large piece, crushing the sarcophagus.
Jordan leaped at the opening. He got one shoulder through the hole, then stuck fast. His face reddened with effort. The tomb continued to collapse behind him, imploding under the mountain’s weight. His blue eyes met hers. She read his expression. He wouldn’t make it. He motioned his head toward the dark passageway, indicating that she should leave him.
Then Father Korza was there. Impossibly strong fingers snagged Jordan’s free arm and yanked with such force that bricks broke away as his body popped free. Jordan fell atop the priest, gasping, his face contorted between agony and relief.
Father Korza lifted and helped him up.
“Thanks, padre.” Jordan cradled his arm. “Good thing I don’t need that shoulder.”
The priest gestured down the dark passageway. It dropped steeply, carved with crude stairs. As the entire mountain shook, it was clear they were not yet out of danger.
“Go!” he said.
Erin wasn’t about to argue.
She fled down the tunnel, leaping steps, her tiny flashlight all she had to lead the way. The path zigzagged. The mountain shifted. She lost track of right and left. Up and down. Only forward mattered.
A misstep twisted her right ankle. Before she could fall, the priest scooped her up and hauled her in a fireman’s carry. The arm locked around her was iron; his muscular movement as he ran reminded her of the flow of molten rock.
After a precarious flight down a steep section of the passageway, he abruptly stopped and set her down.
She caught her breath and tried her ankle. Sore but not bad. She swept her tiny beam ahead. Light splashed against a wall of limestone that blocked their way.
Jordan groaned as he joined them. “Dead end.”
Rhun ran his hands across the flat wall of rock that blocked their way, examining its surface for any clues. A flicker of warmth spread to his hand. Though night had fallen, the stone still held some of the sun’s heat.
He closed his eyes, picturing a massive stone, pushed into place to seal the outer entrance to the tunnel. He’d already felt the gaps along the bottom corner.
Next, he laid his ear against the rough surface, listening, concentrating on the world beyond the stone. As he strained, he heard life outside: the soft pad of paws on sand, the faint heartbeat of a jackal—
“Do we go back, padre?” Jordan asked, his voice boomingly loud. “Look for another passage?”
But the American knew there was no other passage.
“We are nearly free,” Rhun declared, straightening and turning. “This is the last obstacle.”
But time was running short, flowing like sand through an hourglass.
In this case, literally.
Overhead, the mountain continued to shake. Sand now poured down the passageway’s steep steps, sifting through fissures and cracks far above and accumulating in this lowest section of the tunnel. It would not take long to completely fill the tiny space.
Jordan joined Rhun and placed a palm on the rock. “So then we push?”
There was no other choice.
Erin joined them, tucking soft blond hair behind her ears.
Rhun threw his weight against the stone next to theirs. He recognized the futility after the first attempt, but he labored with them until their heartbeats betrayed their exhaustion, and he smelled blood on their palms where rock had torn their skin. The shared efforts had not been nearly enough.
All the while Masada shook.
Sand had climbed midway to his calves.
Side by side, the other two rested their backs against the immovable rock.
“How about that grenade on your belt?” The woman pointed. “Could it blow through the stone?”
The soldier sagged. “It’s not enough to destroy it. And the blast would deflect right back at us. Even if I hadn’t used up the C-4 in McKay’s demolition pack, I doubt we could blow that rock without turning us into hamburger.”
A strong jolt rocked the mountain. The woman’s face whitened. The soldier stared at the rock as if he were vowing to move it by sheer force of will. Desperation etched his features, the raw desire to live another hour, another day.
The soldier slipped an arm around the woman and pulled her close. She softened against him, burying her face in his shoulder. The man gently kissed the top of her head, possibly so softly she never felt it. How effortlessly they had moved into an embrace. The priest stared at the simple comfort of contact, of touch, the solace found only in companionship.
An ache cut into him, a longing to be like them.
But that was not his role. He turned and faced the boulder, determined to serve them.
Sand rained on his brow and lashes. With his face still upturned, he closed his eyes in prayer.
Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.
Bits of scripture flowed through his head, both a search for answers and a focus for his mind. He opened himself to God’s will, letting go.
As sand slowly climbed his legs, he waited—but no answer came.
So be it.
He would find his end here.
As he touched his cross, a line of scripture suddenly glowed gold before his mind’s eye: And Joseph bought fine linen, and took him down, and wrapped him in the linen, and laid him in a sepulcher which was hewn out of a rock …
His eyes flew open, and he studied the immutable stone. He touched its flat surface, picturing an equally flat surface on the other side. He remembered the gaps along the bottom, how he had found that the stone’s edges had been curved. He imagined that curve extending fully around the stone, forming a circle.
In his mind, he saw it.
A flat disk of rock.
His lips moved in a silent prayer of thanks, then he crossed to the others.
The woman stood up to meet him. “What is it?”
She must have noticed something in his face. That alone illustrated Rhun’s own desperation, that another could read him so easily. Hope flared in her eyes.
As the soldier joined them, Rhun unclipped the grenade from his belt.
“That won’t work,” the man said. “I was just explaining—”
“Trust me.” Rhun waded through the pool of sand back to the boulder and dug down near the corner, where the rock met the wall. He dug swiftly, but the sand fought him, filling as fast as he could scoop it out.
He couldn’t do this alone.
The others flanked him.
“Dig to the floor,” he ordered.
They worked together until the sand was clear along the bottom edge, exposing a small curved gap between the stone disk and tunnel floor. Rhun reached down and jammed the grenade deep into that crack, wedging it under the disk’s edge.
He then placed a finger in the pin’s ring and spoke over his shoulder. “Get back as far up the tunnel as you can reach.”
“What about you?” the soldier asked.
With no one digging, sand poured back into the hole, burying his wrist, then his forearm. “I will follow you.”
The soldier hesitated, but he finally nodded and pulled the woman with him.
Erin called to him, “How do you know it will work?”
Rhun didn’t. He had to trust in God—and in a certain line from the Bible, one concerning boulders sealing tombs.
He whispered it now, both as answer and as prayer.
“And Joseph bought fine linen, and took him down, and wrapped him in the linen, and laid him in a sepulcher which was hewn out of a rock—and rolled a stone unto the door of the sepulcher.”
With those words, he yanked the pin on the grenade, pulled his arm free, and fought against the cataract of flowing sand.
He made it in just three steps.
The grenade coughed behind him, a giant, barking wheeze that blew a dusty fireball across his back. His head clipped the edge of a wall as he fell to the floor.
Dazed, vision swimming, he flopped over to his back.
Feet pounded down the steps toward him.
He lay flat, unmoving.
The air tasted of sand and smoke—then a breeze suffused the passageway. A sweet, clean waft of desert air.
“I’ve got him.” The soldier hooked Rhun under the armpits and dragged him across the sand-strewn floor.
The woman ran ahead. “Look! The force of the grenade blast rolled the stone two feet to the side. Why didn’t I think of that? They’d sealed this place just like Christ’s tomb.”
“… rolled a stone unto the door of the sepulcher,” he mumbled, fading in and out.
Of course she recognized what he’d done.
He felt himself dragged past the blackened stone and out into the open air. He looked up. The stars were bright, razor-sharp, eternal. Those stars had watched Masada being built, and now they bore witness to its destruction.
A great crescendo of grating stone and booming rock sounded as the mountain collapsed, utterly.
Then at long last, silence.
Still, Erin and Jordan continued to haul the priest far out into the desert, not taking any chances. But finally they stopped.
A warm hand squeezed Rhun’s shoulder. He caught a glimpse of amber eyes. “Thank you, Father, for saving our lives.”
Such simple words. Words he rarely heard. As a soldier of God, he often went for days without speaking to another soul. That earlier ache—as he watched the pair embrace on the stairs—returned, only slicing deeper now, almost too painful to bear. He stared into those eyes.
Would I feel this way if she weren’t so lovely?
As darkness drowned him, she leaned closer. “Father Korza, what book were you looking for here?”
She and the soldier had fought, killed, and had friends die because of the book. Had they not earned an answer? For that reason alone, he told her.
“It is the Gospel. Written in the blood of its maker.”
Behind her, stars framed her face. “What do you mean? Are you talking about some lost apocryphal text?”
He heard the hunger in her voice, the desire for knowledge, but she did not seem to understand. He turned his heavy head to meet her eyes directly. She had to see his sincerity.
“It is the Gospel,” he repeated as darkness took away the world. “Written by Christ’s own hand. In his own blood.”
Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book.
October 26, 6:48 P.M., IST
Airborne over Masada, Israel
The Eurocopter spiraled over the smoking caldera that was Masada. The pilot fought thermals rising from the desert as the dark sands slowly released the sun’s heat. The blades churned the rock dust, engines whining as they sucked the fouled air.
The helicopter suddenly bumped and banked hard left, coming close to throwing Bathory out the open bay door. She held tight to a railing and stared below. A fire still raged atop the blasted summit. She could feel the heat on her face, as if she were staring into the sun. She closed her eyes, and for a moment imagined a youthful summer day at her country estate along the Drava River in her rural Hungary, sitting in the garden, watching her younger brother, Istvan, play, chasing butterflies with his tiny net.
A groan drew her attention back into the cabin, the interruption piquing her irritation. She turned to the young corporal lying on the floor, whose pale face and pinprick pupils spoke of his deep shock.
Tarek knelt on his shoulders while his brother, Rafik, carved into the man’s chest with the point of a dagger, idly, as if bored. Afterward, he absently licked the blade, as if wetting the tip of a pen, ready to continue his writing.
“Don’t,” she warned.
Tarek glanced hard at her, one corner of his lip curling in anger, showing teeth. Rafik lowered his dagger. His ferret eyes darted between his brother and Bathory, his face lighting with the delight of what might happen.
“I have one last question for him,” she said, staring Tarek down.
She met the animal’s gaze. To her, that was all Tarek and Rafik were—animals.
Tarek finally backed down and waved his brother away.
She took Rafik’s place. She placed a palm on the soldier’s cheek. He looked so much like Istvan. It was why she forbade them from marring his face. He stared up at her, piteous, nearly blind with pain, barely in this world.
“I made you a promise,” she said, leaning close as if to kiss his lips. “One last question and you’ll be free.”
His eyes met hers.
“Erin Granger, the archaeologist.”
She let that name sink through his stupor. He’d already talked, spilling forth most everything he knew as they escaped the crumbling, fiery summit of Masada. She would have left him there to die with his brothers-in-arm, but she needed to squeeze everything she could out of this man, no matter the cruelty. She had learned long ago the practicality of cruelty.
“You said Dr. Granger worked with some students.”
She remembered the woman she’d viewed via the ROV’s camera. The archaeologist had been waving her cell phone, clearly attempting to reach the outside world. But for what? Had she been taking pictures? Discovered some clue?
Likely not, but before Bathory left the region, she must be absolutely certain.
The corporal’s pupils fixed to her, agonized, knowing what she intended.
“Where are they?” she asked. “Where was Dr. Granger’s dig?”
A tear flowed, touching her palm where it rested against his cheek.
For a moment—just a fleeting breath—she hoped he wouldn’t say.
But he did. His lips moved. She leaned an ear to hear the single word.
She straightened, already beginning to plan in her head. Rafik stared intently at her, desire ripe in his eyes. He liked pretty things. His fingers tightened on his dagger.
She ignored him and stroked hair back from the corporal’s white forehead.
So like Istvan …
She leaned down, kissed his cheek, and slipped her own blade across his throat. Dark blood spurted. A small gasp brushed her ear.
When she straightened, she found his eyes already dull.
Free at last.
“None will touch his body,” she warned the others as she stood.
Rafik and Tarek stared at her, not comprehending such a waste.
Ignoring them, she took a seat and leaned her head back. She did not need to explain herself to the likes of them. With her back against the rear cargo hold, she sensed a stirring back there, a heavy shifting. She reached up and placed a palm on the bulkhead.
Calm yourself, she thought, casting out her will, bathed in reassurance. Everything is fine.
He settled, but she still felt his agitation, mirroring her own. He must have sensed the distress in her heart a moment ago.
Or maybe it was because his twin was missing.
She stared out the window, down at the desert.
The twin had been sent out to hunt.
She had to be sure.
Sanguinists were hard to kill.
October 26, 7:11 P.M., IST
Desert beyond Masada, Israel
Deep in thought, Erin cradled the head of the unconscious priest in her lap. Starlight twinkled above, a sickle moon scraped at the horizon, and a soft evening breeze whispered sand down the faces of dunes.
She studied the man’s face, his head resting on her knees.
Is it possible?
The priest claimed that Christ had written a Gospel. Surely he must have been raving. He had a goose egg on the right side of his head, near the temple.
She touched his icy brow. “Jordan!”
The soldier stood a few steps away, scanning the desert, standing guard against any pursuers—or maybe he needed time to think, too. Or mourn.
He turned to her.
“I think he’s going into shock,” she said. “He’s gone so cold and pale.”
Jordan came and crouched next to her. Unlike the priest, warmth radiated from his body.
“Guy was already pale,” he said. “Probably lives in a library and works out at night.”
She took in Jordan’s appearance. Even covered in soot and grime, he was an attractive man. She tried not to remember how safe she had felt in his arms back in the tunnel, how natural it was to fold against him, how the musky smell of him had enveloped her as warmly as his body. She could not forget the soft kiss atop her head. She had pretended not to notice, while secretly wanting more. But that moment, born of desperation and the fear of certain death, was over.
The priest’s head moved in her lap. She looked down at him again.
Jordan reached out and gently parted the bloody shreds of his shirt, examining the wounds beneath. The white of the priest’s well-muscled chest looked like marble against Jordan’s tanned skin. A silver pectoral cross, about the size of her palm, hung from a black silk cord and rested over the priest’s heart atop a scrap of shirt that had not been shredded.
Inscribed on the cross were the words Munire digneris me.
She translated the beginning of the prayer: Deign to fortify me.
“Guy took a beating,” Jordan diagnosed.
With his skin bared, the severity of his wounds became clear. Lacerations crisscrossed his flesh, gently weeping.
“How much blood did he lose?” she asked.
“Not too much. Most of his wounds look superficial.”
“Painful,” he admitted. “But not life-threatening.”
Still, a shiver shook through her—but not from worry. It was already much colder as the desert quickly lost its heat.
Jordan dug a small first-aid kit from his pocket and went to work on the priest’s head. She smelled alcohol as he pulled out a wipe.
He raised a bigger health concern regarding the priest. “I’m more worried about that knock he took when the grenade exploded. He could have a concussion or a fractured skull.”
Jordan stripped off his camouflage jacket and spread it over the priest’s limp body. “He seemed pretty coherent a minute ago when you two were talking. Still, we need to get him some real medical care soon.”
Erin stared down at Father Korza.
Rhun, she reminded herself.
His first name suited him better. It was softer, and hinted at darker mysteries. Atop the shreds of his shirt he wore a Roman clerical collar of white linen, not the plastic worn by most modern priests.
Now that he was unconscious, his face had relaxed from its stern planes. His lips were fuller than she’d first thought, his chiseled features more pronounced. Dark umber hair hung in wavy locks over his brow, down to his round collar. She smoothed them off his face.
Worry burned brighter at the icy feel of his skin.
Would he wake up? Or die like Heinrich?
Jordan coughed. She drew her hand back. Rhun was a priest, and she should not be playing with his hair.
“What about your radio?” she said, rubbing her palms together. She had lost her cell phone. It was now entombed somewhere inside that mountain. Jordan had been fiddling with his handset earlier. “Any luck reaching someone?”
“No.” Jordan’s face tightened with concern. “Its case got cracked. With time, I might get it working.”
Goose bumps ran down Jordan’s bare arms from the cold. Still, he tucked his coat more securely around Rhun.
“What’s the plan, then?” she asked.
He flashed a quick grin. “I thought you made the plans.”
“I thought I was supposed to ask how high and then jump. Weren’t those your orders?”
He looked back at the collapsed mountain, and a shadow passed across his face. “Those under my orders didn’t fare so well.”
She kept her voice low. “I don’t see what you could have done differently.”
“Maybe if this one,” he said, jerking a thumb toward the unconscious priest, “had told us what we were dealing with, we might have stood a better chance.”
“He came down to warn us.”
Jordan grimaced. “He came down to find that book. He had plenty of time to warn us before we went down, or to warn the men topside that those monsters were coming. But he didn’t.”
She found herself defending the priest, since the man couldn’t do it himself. “Still, he did fight to get us out of there. And he got us into that sarcophagus during the explosion.”
“Maybe he just needed our help to get the hell out of there.”
“Maybe.” She gestured across the wide expanse of sand. “But what do we do next?”
His face was stony. “For now, I think it’s best if he’s not moved. It’s about all we can do for him: keep him warm and quiet. After that explosion, rescue teams must be coming here from all directions. We should stay put. They’ll find us soon enough.”
He moved aside the coat and felt across Rhun’s body.
“What are you doing?”
“Looking for identification. I want to know who this guy really is. He’s certainly no ordinary priest.”
Erin felt bad at mugging the priest while he was unconscious, but she had to admit that she was just as curious.
Jordan didn’t discover any driver’s license or passport, but he did draw Rhun’s knife from a wrist sheath. He also discovered a leather water flask buttoned in a thigh pocket.
He unscrewed the cap and took a swig.
Thirsty, too, Erin held out her hand, wanting a drink.
Jordan twisted up his face and sniffed at the opening of the flask. “That’s not water.”
She took the flask and sipped. He was right.
“This guy gets stranger and stranger,” Jordan said. “I mean look at this.”
He lifted Rhun’s knife, the curved blade shaped like a crescent. It shone silver in the moonlight.
And maybe it was silver, like the bolts that had nailed the girl to the wall.
“The weapon’s called a karambit,” Jordan said.
He hooked a finger in a ring at the base of the hilt and demonstrated with fast flicks of his wrist how the weapon could be deployed in several different positions.
She looked away, flashing back to the battle, blood flying from that blade.
“Strange weapon for a priest,” he said.
To her, it was the least strange part of the night.
But Jordan wasn’t done. “Not only because most holy men don’t normally carry knives, but because of its origin. The weapon is from Indonesia. The style goes back more than eight hundred years. The ancient Sudanese copied the blade’s shape from the claws of a tiger.”
She looked at Rhun, remembering his skill.
Like his name, the weapon fit him.
“But here’s the oddest detail.” He held the knife where she could see it. “From the patina, I’d say this blade is at least a hundred years old.”
They both stared at the priest.
“Maybe far older.” Jordan’s voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. “What if he’s one of them?”
“One of whom?”
He raised one blond eyebrow.
She understood what he was implying. “A strigoi?”
“You saw how he lifted that crypt’s lid?” His voice held a challenge.
She accepted it. “He could’ve been riding a surge of adrenaline. Like women lifting cars off babies. I don’t know, but I rode from Caesarea with him. In broad daylight. You met him on Masada’s summit while the sun was still up.”
“Maybe these strigoi can go out in sunlight. Hell, we don’t know anything about them.” Fury and loss marked his face. “All I know for sure is that I don’t trust him. If Korza had warned us in time, more than three of us would be standing here.”
She put a hand on Jordan’s warm forearm, but he shrugged it off and stood.
She stared down at the man in her lap, remembering his last revelation.
It is the Gospel. Written by Christ’s own hand. In his own blood.
If this was true, what did it imply?
Questions burned through her: What revelations could be hidden within the pages of this lost Gospel? Why did the strigoi want it so badly? And more important, why did the Church hide it here?
Jordan must have read her train of thought.
“And that book,” he said. “The one that got so many good men killed. I’m pretty sure there are only four Gospels in the Bible. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.”
Erin shook her head, happy to return to a subject she knew something about. “Actually, there are many more Gospels. The Dead Sea Scrolls alone contain bits of a dozen different ones. From various sources. From Mary, Thomas, Peter, even Judas. Only four made it into the Bible. But none of those hint at Christ writing His own book.”
“Then maybe the Church purged them. Wiped away any references.” He set his chin. “We now know how good the Church is at keeping secrets.”
It made a certain sense.
With no references, no hints of its existence, no one would search for it.
She glanced up at Jordan, surprised again at his sharpness, even when he was overwhelmed by emotion.
“Which makes me wonder,” he continued. “If I was the Church and I had an ancient document written by Jesus Christ, I’d be waving that thing around for all to see. So why did Saint Peter bury it here? What was he hiding?”
Besides the existence of strigoi? She didn’t bother voicing that question. It was only one among so many.
Jordan turned to the priest. He held the blade threateningly. “There’s one person who has the answers.”
Rhun jerked, sitting straight up. His eyes took in them both.
Had he overheard them?
The priest turned, staring hard into the darkness. His nostrils flared, as if he were testing the air.
He spoke again with that dreadful calmness. “Something is near. Something terrible.”
Her heart jolted into her throat, choking her silent.
Jordan voiced her terror. “More strigoi?”
“There are worse things than strigoi.”
October 26, 7:43 P.M., IST
Desert beyond Masada, Israel
Rhun held out his hand toward the soldier. “My knife.”
Without hesitating, Jordan slapped it into his open palm. Rhun collected the remains of his tattered cassock around himself, knowing he’d need every bit of protection.
“What’s coming?” The soldier drew his pistol. Rhun respected that he’d had foresight to scavenge extra ammunition clips from his dead team members back in the tomb.
It would help, but little.
An acrid odor cut through the scents of cooling sand and desert flowers, and Rhun shook his head to clear it. He whispered a quick prayer.
“Rhun?” The woman’s brow knit.
“It is a blasphemare,” he said.
The soldier checked his weapon. “What the hell is that?”
Rhun wiped his blade along his dirty pants. “A corrupted beast. A creature whose strength and senses are heightened by tainted strigoi blood.”
The soldier kept his gun up. “What sort of corrupted beast, exactly?”
The howling answer pierced the darkness, echoing all around, followed by the crashing sounds of animals fleeing. Nothing wanted to be near the creature that made that sound.
Rhun gave it a name. “A grimwolf.” He pointed his blade to a nest of boulders and offered them one thin chance to survive. “Hide.”
The man snapped around, a skilled enough soldier to know when to obey. He grasped the woman’s hand and sprinted with her toward the scant cover of the rocks.
Rhun searched the darkness, drawing in his awareness. The howl told him the beast knew it had been discovered. It sought to unnerve them.
And he could not say it had failed.
His fingers tightened on his cold blade, trying to block out the overpowering thump of the wolf’s heartbeat. It was too loud for him to nail it down to one specific spot, so he strove to keep it from overwhelming him, to block it out in order to be open for other sounds.
He sensed the creature, a shift of shadows, circling them.
But where …?
A muted thud on the sand behind him.
He could not turn in time.
The beast shed the night, as if throwing off a cloak, its black fur dark as oil. It charged. Rhun dropped, twisting away from its path.
Powerful jaws snapped shut, catching only cloth. The wolf snagged the edge of his ripped cassock and barreled on. Rhun was yanked off his feet, but the cloth ripped, setting him free.
He rolled, sharp desert stones and thorns slicing his bare back. He used the momentum to push into a crouch, finally facing his adversary.
The grimwolf spun, froth flying. Lips rippled back from yellow fangs. It was massive, the size of bears that roamed the Romanian mountains of his boyhood. The beast’s red-gold eyes shone with a malignancy that had no place under the sun.
Tall ears flattened to its skull, and a low growl rumbled from its chest. Hooked nails, long enough to puncture a man’s heart, scraped the sand. Haunch muscles bunched into iron-hard cords.
Rhun waited. Long ago, when he was fresh to the cross, such a beast nearly ended his life—and then he hadn’t been alone. He’d had two others at his side. Grimwolves were nearly impossible to kill, lithe of mind and muscle, with hides as tough as chain mail and a speed that made them more shadow than flesh.
Few blades could harm them. And Rhun had lost his.
He clenched empty fingers. From the corner of his eye, he caught the glint of silver in the sand, where he’d dropped his blade when he was torn off his feet. He could not recover it in time.
As if the wolf knew this, its lips pulled farther back into a savage snarl.
Then it thundered toward him.
He feinted to the right, but the scarlet eyes tracked him. The wolf would not be fooled again. It leaped straight at him.
A harsh shout exploded out of the desert—followed by a shattering blast. In midleap, the wolf’s hindquarters buckled. The beast’s massive shoulder smashed the sand. Its bulk slid toward him.
Rhun twisted away and scrambled toward his knife.
Beyond the wolf’s hackles, he spotted the soldier running toward him, away from the nest of boulders. Muzzle flashes sparked in the darkness as he emptied his clip.
Stupid, brave, impossible man.
Rhun snatched up his knife.
Already the beast had regained its feet, standing between Rhun and the soldier. The wolf’s head swiveled, taking them both in. Its blood blackened the sand.
But not nearly enough.
The soldier dropped a smoking clip and slapped in another. Even such a weapon could not deter a grimwolf. Its heart thundering in battle, a grimwolf ignored pain and all but the most grievous wounds.
The scarred muzzle wavered between them. A black-ruby cunning gleamed from its eyes.
Suddenly Rhun knew whom the beast would attack.
With a burst of muscle, it leaped away.
Toward the rocks.
Toward the weakest of them.
The monster barreled toward Erin. With her back to a stack of boulders, she had nowhere to hide. If she ran, it would be upon her in heartbeats. She wedged herself farther into the rocks. Held her breath.
Jordan fired. Bullets stitched across the beast’s flank, blasting away spats of fur, but it did not slow. Rhun, too, ran toward her, at incredible speed. Unfortunately, he’d never reach her in time. And he couldn’t stop the creature anyway.
The beast skidded on four massive paws, spraying sand into her eyes. Spittle spattered her cheeks. Hot, fetid breath surrounded her.
She pulled out her only weapon—from her sock.
A claw gouged her thigh, dragging her closer, as its jaws opened monstrously wide.
Erin screamed and punched her arm past those teeth, deep into its maw. She drove the atropine dart’s needle deep into the monster’s blood-rich tongue. Her arm jerked free before the jaws shut.
Startled, the wolf dropped back and spat out the crumpled plastic syringe. Erin remembered Sanderson’s warning: Atropine jacks your heart rate through the roof … strong enough to blow up your ticker if you’re not poisoned.
Corrupted or not, a beast was a beast. She hoped. What if the drug had no effect? Her answer came a heartbeat later.
The wolf shoved back another full step, stretching its neck. A howl ripped from its throat. Its eyes bulged. The atropine had spiked its blood pressure. Oil-black blood gushed from its bullet wounds, pumping onto the sand.
She felt a grim satisfaction as it howled, pictured the freckle-faced young corporal who gave her the dart.
That’s for Sanderson.
But the beast, too, sought revenge. Fury and pain twisted its features into something beyond monstrous. It bared its teeth—and lunged for her face.
Rhun could not fathom what the woman had done, how she had driven the grimwolf back, made it scream so. But it gave him time to reach the beast. Pain and anger blinded the creature, but it still must have sensed his approach.
With a roar, it twisted away from Erin and sprang for his throat.
But Rhun was no longer there. Still running, he arched back and slid on the soles of his shoes, passing under the slavering jaws. A mere handsbreadth from his nose, teeth gnashed together. He dropped on one shoulder and skidded between the front legs and under the beast. Once there, he lashed up with his silver dagger, jabbing deep into the belly, one of its few weak spots. He dragged the blade’s razor edge through muscle and skin, using all his power. He said a silent prayer for the beast, for what was once one of God’s creatures. It did not deserve to have been put to such a cruel use.
Gore poured down on him, soaking his arms, his chest, his face.
He rolled free and crouched to wipe his eyes.
To the side, the soldier ran up, firing point-blank at the beast.
Its muzzle reached for the night sky, wailing—a wail that faded until, at last, it crashed to the sand.
The dark ruby glow faded from its eyes, leaving behind a rich gold. The wolf whimpered once, a flicker of its true nature returning—but only at that last moment.
A final spasm, and it lay still.
Rhun raised two fingers and made the sign of the cross over the animal’s body. He had set it free from its eternal bondage.
Dominus vobiscum, he said silently. The Lord be with you.
The woman climbed out of the rocks, fragrant blood streaming from a cut on her thigh. The soldier held her back. He kept his weapon pointed at the grimwolf’s body.
“Is it really dead, Korza?”
The beast’s blood steamed off of Rhun’s body. He tasted iron on his lips. It heated his throat, bloomed in his chest. It overwhelmed his senses. In his time doing God’s work, he had faced countless temptations and had faltered only one dreadful time. Yet, even steadfast determination could not prevent his body from reacting to the blood.
He turned away.
Behind him, the twin heartbeats of the soldier and the woman thundered for his attention.
He refused it.
He reached back, pulled his cassock’s hood low over his eyes, and faced the silent desert—hoping they hadn’t seen his fangs begin to lengthen.
October 26, 7:49 P.M., IST
Airborne to Caesarea, Israel
Dying along with Hunor, Bathory writhed in pain, curled over her stomach, straining against the helicopter’s straps. Her fingers clutched hard to her belly, trying to stanch the flow of blood, the tumult of gore through rent flesh.
She felt her blooded bond mate’s life escape. She longed to follow it, to gather that spirit to her bosom and comfort it in its journey.
Hunor … my sweet one …
But he was already gone, his pain fading from inside her. She stared down at her pale palms. She was whole—but not unwounded. Hunor’s last whispery howl of release had left her hollowed out as surely as if she, too, had been gutted.
That last cry was answered by another.
Magor mourned loudly in the cargo hold behind the cabin, calling out for his twin, the anguished mewling of one littermate for another. The two pups had been cut from the belly of a dying she-wolf. They were a gift from Him, blood-bonded to her during a dark rite, becoming as much a part of her as the black tattoo on her throat.
She twisted in her seat and placed her palm against the wall that kept her from Magor, wanting to go to him, to pull him close, to hold together what they once shared, as if cupping a feeble flame against a stiff wind.
I’m here, she cast out, bathing him in reassurance, but not hiding her own sorrow.
How could she?
Three were now two.
The words from an old Hungarian lullaby crooned through her, bringing with it the promise of security and peaceful slumber. She gave that to Magor.
Tente, baba, tente.
Magor calmed, his love entwining with her own, merging them together.
Two would survive.
For one purpose.
Fortified, she collected herself and stared across the cabin.
The helicopter fled through the deep night, leaving the ruin of Masada far behind. Her remaining men sat subdued and silent in the seats across from her. Although spattered with blood, none of them had been wounded.
Tarek muttered Latin prayers, a reminder that long ago he had been a priest. As his lips moved, his cold eyes stared at her, having witnessed her prostration and grief. He knew what that meant.
Only one creature was capable of slaying a grimwolf in his prime.
Korza was still alive.
Tarek’s gaze flicked to her shoulder. Only then did she note the fear burning there. She touched her fingers to her upper arm—they came back wet.
Lost in Hunor’s agony, she must have ripped herself against a bolt sticking out of the neighboring wall, tearing her shirt and skin.
It was a shallow wound.
Still, Tarek jerked back warily from her bloody fingers.
Scarlet tinged with silver.
Even a drop of her blood was poison to him and all others like him, a curse born out of the mark on her throat. Another of His gifts. The curse in her blood both protected her from the fangs of His armies and was the source of that constant pain in her veins, dull but always there, never abating, never forgotten, flaring with every beat of her heart.
She wiped her fingers and bound her wound one-handed, using her teeth to tighten the knot.
Next to Tarek, his brother, Rafik, bowed his head in clear reverence as Tarek resumed his Latin prayers.
Others simply stared at their bloodstained boots. Their bonds with the fallen soldiers went back decades, or longer. She knew that the men blamed her for those deaths, as would He. She dreaded the punishment He would mete out.
She stared out the window, picturing Korza down there.
Anger burned hotter than the pain in her blood.
Magor responded, growling through the wall.
Soon, she promised him.
But first she had a duty in Caesarea. She pictured the archaeologist waving her cell phone in the tomb. She had recognized that look on the woman’s face: excitement mixed with desperation. The archaeologist knew something.
I’m sure of it.
But what? A clue about the book’s whereabouts? If so, had she been able to transmit that information out before the mountain dropped on her?
The only answer lay in Caesarea.
Where again blood would flow.
This time, with no Sanguinist to stop her.
October 26, 8:01 P.M., IST
Desert beyond Masada, Israel
The soldier’s harsh and impatient voice broke through Rhun’s thoughts as he faced the desert, hidden in the depths of his hooded cassock. He struggled to hear over the wet, beckoning sound of the man’s heart.
“Turn around,” the soldier said, “or I will shoot you where you stand.”
The woman’s heart beat faster now, too. “Jordan! You can’t just shoot him.”
Rhun considered allowing the sergeant to do just that. It would be easier. But when had his path ever been easy?
He faced them, showing them his true nature.
The woman stumbled back.
The soldier kept his gun leveled at Rhun’s chest.
He knew what they must see: his face darkened by blood, his body locked in shadows, his teeth the only brightness in the moonlight.
He felt the beast within him sing, a howl struggling to break free. Soaked in blood, he fought against releasing that beast; fought equally against running into the desert to hide his shame. Instead, he simply lifted his arms straight out from his body at shoulder level. They needed to see that he was weaponless as much as they needed to see the truth.
Transfixed, the woman controlled her initial terror. “Rhun, you are strigoi, too.”
“Never. I am Sanguinist. Not strigoi.”
The soldier scoffed, never letting his weapon waver. “Looks the same from here.”
For them to understand, he knew he must debase himself still further. He hated the mere thought of it, but he saw no other way for them to leave the desert alive.
“Please, bring me my wine,” he asked.
His fingers trembled with longing as his arm stretched for the flask half buried in sand.
The woman bent to pick it up.
“Throw it to him,” the soldier ordered. “Don’t get close.”
She did as she was told, her amber eyes wide. The flask landed an arm’s length away on the sand.
“May I retrieve it?”
“Slowly.” The soldier’s weapon stayed fixed; plainly he would not flinch from his duty.
Nor would Rhun. Keeping his eyes on the soldier, he knelt. As soon as his fingers touched the flask, he felt calmer, the bloodlust waning. The wine might yet save them all.
Rhun stared up at the others. “May I walk into the desert and drink it? Afterward, I will explain all.”
Please, he prayed. Please leave me this last bit of dignity.
It was not to be.
“Stay right there,” the soldier warned. “On your knees.”
“Jordan, why can’t—”
The soldier cut her off. “You are still under my command, Dr. Granger.”
Emotions flickered across her face, ending with resignation. Clearly, she did not trust Rhun either. It surprised him how much that hurt.
Raising the flask to his lips, he emptied it in one long swallow. As always, the wine stung his throat, flaming all the way down. He fastened both hands to the cross around his neck and bowed his head.
The heat of the consecrated wine, of Christ’s blood, burned away the ropes that bound him to this time, to this place. Unmoored and beyond his control, he fell back to his greatest sins, never able to escape until his penance in this world was complete.
Elisabeta swept through her gardens in her crimson gown, laughing, as bright as the morning’s sun, the most brilliant rose among all the blooms.
So beautiful, so full of life.
Though he was a priest, sworn to avoid the touch of flesh, nothing forbid him from looking upon the beauty of God shining forth in the pale glimpse of tender flesh at her ankle as she bent to clip a sprig of lavender, or the curve of her soft cheek when she straightened to stare skyward, her gaze ever on the Heavens.
How she loved the sun—whether it be the warmth of a summer afternoon or merely the cold promise of a bright winter’s day.
She continued across the garden now, gathering lavender and thyme to make a poultice for her mare, all the while instructing him on the uses of each. In the months since he had known her, he had learned much about medicinal plants. He had even begun to write a book on the subject, hoping to share her gifts as a healer with the world.
She brushed his palm with her soft fingertips as she handed him stalks of lavender. A thrill surged through his body. A priest should not feel such a thing, but he did not move away. He stepped closer, admiring the sunlight on her jet-black hair, the sweep of her long white neck down to her creamy shoulders, and the curves of her soft silk gown.
Elisabeta’s maidservant held up the basket for the lavender. The wisp of a girl turned her head to the side to hide the raspberry-colored birthmark that covered half her face.
“Anna, take the basket back to the kitchen and empty it,” Elisabeta instructed, dropping in one more sprig of thyme.
Anna retreated across the field, struggling under the heavy load. Rhun would have helped the small girl carry such a burden, but Elisabeta would never allow it, considering it not his place.
Elisabeta watched her maid leave. Once they were alone, she turned to Rhun, her face now even brighter—if that were possible.
“A moment’s peace!” she exclaimed gladly. “It is so lonely with my servants constantly around me.”
Rhun, who often chose to spend days alone in dark prayer, understood all too well the loneliness of false company.
She smiled at him. “But not you, Father Korza. I never feel lonely in your company.”
He could not hold her gaze. Turning away, he knelt and cut a stalk of lavender.
“Don’t you ever tire of it, Father Korza? Always wearing a mask?” She adjusted her wide-brimmed hat. She always took great pains to keep sunlight from her fair skin. Women of her station must not look as if they needed to work in the sun.
“I wear a mask?” He kept his face impassive. If she knew all that he hid, she would run away screaming.
“Of course. You wear the mask of priest. But I must wear many masks, too many for one face to bear easily. Lady, mother, and wife. And others still.” She turned a heavy gold ring around and around on her finger, a gift from her husband, Ferenc. “But what is under all of those masks, I wonder.”
“Everything else, I suppose.”
“But how much truth … how much of our true nature can we conceal, Father?” Her low voice sent a shiver down his spine. “And from whom?”
He studied the shadow she cast on the field next to him and mumbled as if in prayer, “We conceal what we must.”
Her shadow retreated a pace, perhaps because she was unhappy with his answer—a thought that crushed him as surely as if she ground him under that well-turned heel.
The dark shape of a hawk floated across the field. He listened to its quick heartbeat above and the faint heartbeats of mice below. His service to the Church, the verdant field, the bright sun, the blooming flowers … all were bounteous gifts, given freely by God to one as lowly as himself.
Should that not be enough?
She smoothed her hands down the front of her dress. “You are wise, Father. An aristocrat who lowers his mask does not survive long in these times.”
He stood. “What is it that troubles you so?”
“Perhaps I am simply weary of the intrigues.” Her eyes followed the hawk as it fell. “Surely the Church struggles amidst the same cauldron of ambitions, both great and small?”
He touched his pectoral cross with one fingertip. “Bernard shields me from the worst, I think.”
“Never trust those who would be your shield. They feed on your ignorance and darkness. It is best to look at things directly and be unafraid.”
He offered her some consolation. “Perhaps it is best to trust those who would shield you. If they do it out of love, to protect you.”
“Spoken like a man. And a priest. But I have learned to trust very few.” She tilted her head thoughtfully. “Except I trust you, Father Korza.”
“I am a priest, so you must trust me.” He offered her a shy smile.
“I trust no other priests. Including your precious Bernard. But you are different.” She placed her hand on his arm, and he savored the touch. “You are simply a friend. A friend where I have so very few.”
“I am honored, my lady.” He stepped back and bowed, an exaggerated gesture to lighten the mood.
She smiled indulgently. “As you should be, Father.”
They both laughed at her tone.
“Here comes Anna, returned again. Tell me once more about the time you had a footrace with your brother and how you both ended up in the stream with fish in your boots.”
He told her the story, embellishing it with more details than he had in the last telling to make her laugh.
They had happy times, with much laughter.
Until, one day, she had stopped laughing.
The day that he betrayed her.
The day he betrayed God.
Back in his body, where cold sand pressed against his knees, dry wind chased tears from his cheeks. His silver cross had burned through his glove and left a scarlet welt on his palms. His shoulders bowed under the weight of his sins, his failures. He tightened his grip on the searing metal.
“Rhun?” A woman’s voice spoke his name.
He raised his head, half expecting to see Elisabeta. The soldier watched him with suspicion, but the woman’s eyes held only pity.
He fixed his eyes on the soldier. He found the man’s hard gaze easier to bear.
“Time to start explaining,” the soldier said, training his weapon on Rhun’s heart—as if that had not been destroyed long ago.
“Jordan, look at his teeth … they’re normal again.”
Amazed, Erin stepped forward, wanting to examine the miraculous transformation, to understand what her mind still refused to believe.
Jordan blocked her with a muscled arm.
She didn’t resist.
Despite her curiosity as a scientist, Rhun still scared her.
The priest’s voice came out shaky, his Slavic accent thicker, as if he’d returned from a long distance, from a place where his native tongue was still spoken. “Thank you … for your patience.”
“Don’t expect that patience to last,” Jordan said, not unfriendly, just certain.
Erin pushed Jordan’s arm down, willing to listen, but she didn’t step forward. “You said that you were ‘Sanguinist,’ not strigoi. What does that mean?”
Rhun looked out to the dark desert for that answer. “Strigoi are wild, feral creatures. Born of murder and bloodshed, they serve no one but themselves.”
“And the Sanguinists?”
“All members of the Order of the Sanguines were once strigoi,” Rhun admitted, looking her square in the eye. “But now those in my order serve Christ. It is His blessing that allows us to walk under the light of God’s brightness, to serve as His warriors.”
“So you can walk in daylight?” Jordan asked.
“Yes, but the sun is still painful,” the priest admitted, and touched the hood of his cassock.
She remembered her first sight of Rhun, buried in his cassock, most of his skin covered, wearing dark sunglasses. She wondered if the tradition of Catholic monks wearing hooded robes might not trace back to this Order of the Sanguines, an outward reflection of a deeper secret.
“But without the protection of Christ’s blessing,” Rhun continued, “the touch of the sun will kill a strigoi.”
“And what exactly are these blessings of Christ?” Erin asked, surprised at the mocking edge to her tone, but unable to stop it.
Rhun stared at her for a long moment, as if he were struggling to find the right words to explain a miracle. When he finally spoke, his words were solemn, weighted by a certainty that had been missing from most of her life.
“I follow Christ’s path and have sworn an oath to forsake the drinking of human blood. Such an act is forbidden to us.”
Jordan remained ever practical. “Then what do you feed on, padre?”
Rhun straightened. Pride radiated from him, beating across the desert air toward her. “I am sworn to partake only of His blood.”
His blood …
She heard the emphasis in those last words and knew what that meant.
“You’re talking about the blood of Christ,” she said, surprised now by the absence of mockery in her tone. Raised in a devout sect of Roman Catholicism, she even understood the source of that blood. She flashed to her childhood, kneeling on the dirt floor by the altar, the bitter wine poured on her tongue.
She stared at the water skin in Rhun’s grasp.
But it did not hold water.
Nor did it hold wine—despite what she herself had sipped only moments ago.
She knew what filled Rhun’s flask. “That’s consecrated wine,” she said, pointing to what he held.
He reverentially stroked the wineskin. “More than consecrated.”
She understood that, too. “You mean it’s been transubstantiated.”
She had been taught that word during her earliest catechism and believed it once herself. Transubstantiation was one of the central tenets of Catholicism. That wine consecrated during a Mass became the literal blood of Christ, imbued with His very essence.
Rhun bowed his head in agreement. “True, my blessed vessel holds wine converted into the blood of Christ.”
“Impossible,” she muttered, but the word lacked conviction.
Jordan also wasn’t buying it. “I drank from your flask, padre. It looks like wine, smells like wine, tastes like wine—”
“But it is not,” Rhun broke in. “It is the Blood of Christ.”
The mocking edge returned to Erin’s tone, and it helped to steady her. “So you’re claiming transubstantiation results in a real change, not a metaphorical one?”
Rhun held out his arms. “Am I myself not proof? It is His blood that sustains my order. The act of transubstantiation was both a pact and a promise between Christ and mankind, but even more so for the strigoi whom He sought to save. For a chance to regain our souls, we have sworn off feeding on humans and survive only upon His blessed blood, becoming Knights of Christ, bound by an oath of fealty to serve the Church to the end of our days, when we will be welcomed again to His side. That is our pact with Christ and the Church.”
Erin couldn’t bring herself to believe any of this. Her father would turn over in his grave at the mere thought of Christ’s blood being used in such a way.
Rhun must have read the doubt on her face. “Why do you think the early Christians referred to Communion wine as the ‘medicine of immortality’? Because they knew what has long since been forgotten—but the Church has a much longer memory.”
He turned his wineskin over so that they could see the Vatican seal inscribed on the back: two crossed keys bound with a cord under the triple crown of the triregnum.
His gaze fell upon Erin. “I ask you to believe nothing but what you see with your own eyes and feel with your own heart.”
She sat heavily on a boulder and dropped her head into her hands. She had tasted the wine in his flask. As a scientist, she refused to believe it was anything but wine. Still, she had watched the strigoi feed on blood, watched him drink his wine.
Both had been strengthened.
She struggled to fit the miraculous into a scientific equation.
It was impossible to turn wine into blood, so it must be belief that allowed Rhun to drink wine as if it were blood. It must be some sort of placebo effect.
“You okay, Doc?” Jordan asked.
“Transubstantiation is just a legend.” She tried to explain it to him. “A myth.”
“Like the strigoi?” Rhun interjected. “Those who walk in the night and drink the blood of humans? You could accept them, but you cannot accept that blessed wine is the blood of Christ. Have you no faith at all?”
He sounded more upset by that last detail than by all of her arguments.
“Faith did not serve me well.” She clenched her hands in front of her. “I saw the Church used as a tool of the powerful against the weak, religion used as an obstacle to the truth.”
“Christ is more than the actions of misguided men.” Rhun spoke urgently, as if trying to convert her, as priests so often had. “He lives in our hearts. His miracles sustain us all.”
Jordan cleared his throat. “That’s all well and good, padre. But back to you. How did you become one of these Sanguinists?”
“There is little to tell. Centuries ago, I was bitten by a strigoi, then forced to drink quantities of its blood.” Rhun shuddered. “I was corrupted into one of them, a creature of base desires, a devourer of men.”
“Then what happened?” Jordan asked.
Rhun hurried his words, clearly wanting to be done. “I became strigoi, but instead of turning to their ways, I was offered another path. I was recruited that very night—before I ever tasted human blood—and ordained into the Order of the Sanguines. There I chose to follow Christ. I have followed Him ever since.”
“Followed Him how?” Jordan asked, matching her skepticism. “How does something like you serve the Church?”
“The blessing of Christ’s blood allows the Sanguinists many boons. Like walking under the sun. It also allows us to partake of all that is holy and sacred. Though, like the sun, such holiness still burns our flesh.”
He peeled off one glove. A red blistering marked his palm in the shape of a cross. Erin remembered him clutching his pectoral crucifix a moment before, and imagined it searing into his skin.
Rhun must have read her distress. “The pain reminds us of Christ’s suffering on the cross and serves as a constant remembrance of the oath we took. It is a small price to pay to live under His grace.”
She watched him gently tuck his cross back under the shreds of his cassock. Did the crucifix burn over his heart? Is that why Catholic priests had taken to wearing such prominent crosses, another symbol of a hidden secret? Like the hooded cassock, did such accoutrements allow the Sanguinists to hide in plain sight among their human brothers of the cloth?
She had a thousand other questions.
Jordan had only one. “Then, as a warrior of the Church, who do you fight?”
Again Rhun looked to the desert. “We are called up to battle our feral brothers, the strigoi. We hunt them down and offer them a chance to join the fold of Christ. If they do not, we kill them.”
“And where do we humans fall on your hit list?” Jordan asked.
Rhun’s eyes returned to them. “I have sworn never to take a human life, unless it is to save another.”
Erin found her voice again. “You say your mission is to kill strigoi. Yet it sounds like these creatures did not choose to become what they are, any more than you did, any more than a dog chooses to become rabid when bitten.”
“The strigoi are lower than animals,” Rhun argued. “They have no souls. They exist only to do evil.”
“So your job is to send them back to Hell,” Jordan said.
Rhun’s gaze wavered. “In truth, soulless as they are, we do not know where they go.”
Jordan shifted next to her, lowering his weapon, but he did not relax his stance.
“If strigoi are feral,” Erin asked, “why do they care about this Gospel of Christ?”
Rhun looked ready to explain, but then froze—which immediately set her heart to pounding. He jerked his head to the side, his gaze on the skies.
“A helicopter comes,” he stated bluntly.
Jordan searched around—but only in darting glances, never taking his eyes fully off of Rhun. “I don’t see anything.”
“I hear it.” Rhun cocked his head. “It is one of ours.”
Erin spotted a light in the sky heading toward them fast. “There.”
“What do you mean by ‘one of ours’?” Jordan asked.
“It is from the Church,” Rhun explained. “Those who come will not harm you.”
As she watched the helicopter’s swift approach, Erin felt a nagging worry.
Over the centuries, how many men have died after hearing similar promises?
October 26, 8:28 P.M., IST
Bathory moved silently through the ruins of the hippodrome, shadowed by Magor, who padded quietly behind her. She shared his senses, becoming as much a hunter as the grimwolf. She tasted the salt of the neighboring Mediterranean, a black mirror to her right. She smelled the dust of centuries from the rubble of the ancient stone seats. She caught a distant whiff of horse manure and sweat.
She gave the stables a wide berth, careful to stay downwind so as not to spook the horses. She had left Tarek and the others with the helicopter, glad to put some distance between herself and them. It felt good to be alone, Magor by her side, dark sky above, and her quarry close.
Slowly she and the wolf crossed the sands toward the cluster of tents, aiming for the only one that still glowed with light. She did not need Magor’s sharp senses to hear the voices from inside, reaching her across the quiet of the night. She spotted two silhouettes moving, two people. From the timbre of their voices, they were a man and a woman, both young.
The archaeologist’s students.
Under the cover of their conversation, she reached the rear of the tent, where a small mesh window had been tied open to the night’s breezes. She stood there, spying upon the two, a silent sentinel in the night, with Magor at her hip.
A young man in cowboy boots and jeans paced the length of the tent while a young woman sat before a laptop and sipped a Diet Coke. On the computer’s screen, a silent CNN report of the earthquake played. The woman did not take her eyes from the screen; the palm of her hand held an earbud in place, listening.
She spoke without turning away. “Try the embassy again, Nate.”
The young man paced up to the small mesh window, staring out but not really seeing. Bathory remained standing, knowing she was still concealed by the shadows. She loved these moments of the hunt, when the quarry was so close, yet still blind to the blood and horror poised to leap at its throat.
Next to her, Magor stayed as still as the night sky. Once again, she was thankful that Tarek and the others were not here. They did not appreciate the beauty of the hunt—only the slaughter that followed.
Nate turned away, stepped over to the table, and dumped his cell phone beside the laptop. “What’s the use? I tried calling them over and over. Still busy. Even tried the local police. Can’t get any word on where Dr. Granger was taken.”
Amy pointed to the ongoing report on the screen. “What if she was flown to Masada? Reports are saying aftershocks brought the whole mountain down.”
“Quit thinking the worst. Dr. Granger could be anywhere. You’d think if the professor had time to send us those weird pics, she could’ve at least texted us, told us where she was.”
“Maybe she wasn’t allowed to. That Israeli soldier had her on a short leash. But from that photo of the open sarcophagus, it definitely looked like she was exploring some ransacked tomb.”
In the darkness, Bathory smiled, picturing the archaeologist desperately waving her cell phone. So she had been transmitting photos, something she had considered important, possibly some clue to the whereabouts of the book.
In the dark, Bathory stroked the bandage on her arm, reminding herself that Hunor had died in pursuit of the secret that those pictures might reveal. Cold anger sharpened her senses, focused her mind, drove back the deep ache in her blood.
“I’m going back to my tent,” Nate said. “Going to try to take a nap for a couple hours, then I’ll see if I can reach anyone after all this quake hubbub dies down. You should, too. Something tells me it’s going to be a long night.”
“I don’t want to be alone.” Amy looked up from her computer at him. “First Heinrich, now no word from the professor … I’ll never sleep.”
Bathory heard the invitation behind her words, but Nate seemed oblivious to it. A pity. It would have made it much easier to steal the laptops and their phones if they were both gone. Such a loss would not be uncommon at this remote camp, dismissed as simple theft.
Instead, she sized the pair up. Nate was tall, well built, handsome enough. She could see why Amy liked having him near.
She herself understood the comfort of a warm male beside you, sharing your bed, picturing poor Farid. Her fingers slipped to her belt and pulled out the Arab’s dagger, stolen after she killed him. Even in this small way, Farid was still useful to her.
She stepped back, considering the best way to flush the pair out—or at least separate them. She glanced around the campsite, heard the distant nickering of horses, and smiled.
A quick whisper in Magor’s ear, and the wolf loped silently toward the stables.
Racked by guilt, Nate paced the tent.
I shouldn’t have let Dr. Granger go off alone.
He owed the professor. She had given him a chance when no one else had. Two years ago, he had been a hard sell as a grad student. At Texas A&M, he’d been raising a younger sister while holding down two jobs. The workload had trashed his GPA, but Dr. Granger took a chance on him. The professor had even helped get his kid sister a full scholarship to Rice, freeing him to travel.
And what did he do to repay her?
He let her step into a helicopter full of armed men all by herself.
As he reached the open flap of the tent, a chorus of frightened whinnies erupted from the stables, echoing eerily across the dark ruins.
He stepped out into the night. Moonlight shone on ancient stone seats and the rectangular trench where his friend Heinrich had received the blow that had killed him.
A cold wind blew sand into his eyes.
Nate blinked away tears. “What’s wrong with the horses?”
“I don’t care,” Amy said, still seated at the laptop. “I hope it’s something awful. Especially for that white one.”
“The stallion was just frightened. It was an accident.” Still he couldn’t blame her for being mad at the horse. Heinrich was dead, just like that. Wrong place, wrong time. It could just as easily have been him.
The neighing grew more shrill.
“I’m going to see,” he said. “Could be a jackal.”
Panic tinged Amy’s voice. “Don’t leave me here by myself.”
He crammed his cowboy hat on his head and rummaged through a wooden crate near the door for Dr. Granger’s pistol. She used it for shooting snakes.
“Let the stable people take care of the horses,” Amy pressed. “You shouldn’t go out there in the dark.”
“I’ll be fine,” he said. “And you’re perfectly safe here.”
Glad to be doing something besides stewing, he headed out of the tent and across the sand. But the night felt different now. Gooseflesh rose up on his arms that had nothing to do with cold.
Just spooked by Amy, he told himself.
Still, he tightened his grip on the pistol and strode faster—until a shadow rushed by on his right.
He stopped and whirled.
Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of something large sweeping past. He didn’t get a good look at it, couldn’t tell what it was, only that it was bigger than any jackal he’d ever seen, the size of a yearling calf, but moving fast and smooth like a predator. It vanished so quickly he wasn’t sure he saw anything.
He looked back at the well-lit tent. It seemed far away now, a single lamp in the darkness.
Behind him, a horse screamed.
Under the cover of the stallion’s cry, Bathory poked the tip of Farid’s dagger through the tent’s fabric and dragged the blade down. Its finely honed edge sliced through the taut material with barely a whisper.
All the while she kept an eye on Amy, who remained seated at the laptop, her focus fully on the tent’s door, her back to the new door opening up behind her.
Bathory pushed sideways through the sliced fabric, slipping silently into the tent. Once inside, she stood behind the frightened young woman, who remained oblivious to her presence. One earbud was still seated in Amy’s ear, the other dangled loosely. Bathory heard the tiny buzz of the CNN report playing on the laptop’s screen.
She was struck by how unconsciously most people moved through their lives, unmindful of the true nature of the world around them, safely ensconced in their cocoon of modernity, where news came 24/7, filtered and diluted, where jolts of caffeine were needed to nudge them blearily through their ordinary lives.
But that was not living.
Deep in her heart, Magor’s hunt stirred inside her, a distant haze of blood, adrenaline, and predatory glee.
That was the true face of the world.
That was living.
Bathory stepped forward, and with a single savage slash under the woman’s chin, she snuffed out that feeble flicker of the young woman’s wasted life. She tipped the body off the camp stool before the spray of blood doused the laptop.
Amy twitched on the floor, too stunned to know she was dead. She managed to squirm a few feet toward the tent’s door before finally slumping in defeat, crimson pooling under her.
Bathory worked quickly. She closed the laptop, slipped it into her backpack, along with the pair of cell phones on the table.
To the side, the tent flap twitched.
She turned to see Nate stepping inside. He took in the scene with a glance, his pistol jerking up to point at her. “What the hell … ?”
Bathory straightened, smiling warmly.
But she was not greeting the young man.
Behind Nate’s shoulder, shadows shifted to reveal a pair of red eyes, shining with bloodlust.
The night’s hunt was not yet over.
She cast her will to her bond mate, a desire summarized by one word.
October 26, 8:37 P.M., IST
Desert beyond Masada, Israel
Jordan scanned the sand and rocks one more time, seeking a place to hide, but there was no true cover, especially from the air.
Overhead, the chopper closed in, its blades cutting through the night. He studied it, recognizing the sleek silver nose and smooth lines. He’d only seen pictures of the EC145 online, advertised as the most luxurious helicopter that eight million dollars could buy. It was basically a Mercedes-Benz with rotors.
Whoever was backing Korza had money.
The priest moved to the side to meet the helicopter.
If Jordan remembered correctly, the aircraft could seat up to eight, including a pilot and a copilot. So he faced a potential of eight opponents with no defensible ground. Recognizing that hard truth, he holstered his pistol. He couldn’t fight and win, so he’d have to hope Korza wasn’t lying and they wouldn’t be harmed.
He turned to Erin. “Can you stand?” he asked quietly. He wanted her on her feet in case they had to move fast.
“I can try.”
When she stood, she winced and shifted her weight to her right leg. A wet patch of blood darkened the left leg of her pants.
“What happened?” he asked, kicking himself for failing to note her injury earlier.
She glanced down, looking as surprised as he was. “The wolf. Scratched me. It’s nothing.”
“Let me see.”
She raised an eyebrow. “I’m not about to take my pants off here.”
He freed his dagger from its ankle sheath. “I can cut your pant leg just above the wound. It’ll ruin your pants, but not your dignity.”
She returned the smile as she sat back down on the boulder. “That sounds like a better plan.”
Jordan sliced through the seams with his dagger, careful to keep the blade away from the soft skin underneath. He tore the fabric, then threaded the pant leg down over her sneaker. It was an intimate gesture. He focused on getting it off without hurting her, and keeping his hands from lingering on her bare leg, which looked fantastic in the moonlight. Not that he noticed.
He turned his attention to her injury. The wound ran down her thigh—not deep but long. He stared suspiciously at it and called over to Korza, yelling to be heard as the helicopter reached them.
“Padre! Erin got scratched by that grimwolf. Anything we need to know about that kind of wound?”
The priest glanced at Erin’s bare leg, then back out at the desert, clearly uncomfortable. It was the most priestlike thing Jordan had seen him do in a while. “Clean it properly, and you need have no concerns.”
Erin wiped at her thigh with the scrap of her pant leg.
Before he had time to dig out his first-aid kit, the sleek helicopter landed. Rotor wash pushed sheets of sand in their faces. Jordan cupped his hand over the wound on Erin’s leg to protect it.
Crouched at her side, he stared back over his shoulder.
Three figures, all dressed in black, jumped out of the chopper’s cabin, exiting before the skids had even settled to the ground. Hoods obscured their faces, and they moved impossibly fast, like Korza did in battle. Jordan wanted to run, but he forced himself to stand still when they swept up and surrounded them.
The trio conversed with Korza, whispering in a language that sounded like Latin. Jordan noted the Roman collars of the priesthood.
Erin stood up, and Jordan stood by her.
One of the priests came forward. Cold hands slid across Jordan’s body, taking away his guns. The man didn’t notice Jordan’s knife, or he didn’t care. Either way, Jordan felt grateful that he left it.
Another figure retreated a few paces into the desert with Korza.
The third crossed to the grimwolf’s body. He splashed liquid across the dead bulk, as if baptizing the beast in death. But it was not holy water. A match flared, got tossed, and the body ignited in a huge swirl of flames.
The smell of charred fur smoked out across the dark sands.
The first priest stayed to guard Jordan and Erin. Not that she seemed capable of putting up much of a fight. The spunk seemed to have drained right out of her. Her shoulders sagged, and she swayed on her good leg. Jordan moved toward her, but the guard raised a palm in warning. Jordan ignored the silent command and slid an arm around Erin.
Out in the desert, Korza and his companion argued fiercely, likely about the fate of the two surviving humans. Jordan kept a close watch on that outcome. Would they abandon Erin and him here in the middle of nowhere, or worse yet, send them to the same fiery end as the grimwolf?
Whatever their specific words, Korza seemed to win the argument.
Jordan didn’t know if that was good or bad.
As if sensing Jordan’s attention, Korza turned and locked gazes with him. He pointed to the helicopter and gestured for him and Erin to board.
Jordan still didn’t know if that was good or bad. He knew the skill with which military black-ops teams could make a man disappear. Were he and Erin about to suffer the same fate?
He ran over various scenarios in his head and figured their best chance of surviving lay in getting into that helicopter. He’d fight if he had to, but this battle wasn’t one he could win.
He helped Erin limp toward the open cabin door, the two ducking under the swirling blades.
He waited for the others to board, gave one last look toward the open desert, and weighed the option of running. But Erin had only one good leg.
Korza remained at his shoulder, as if silently reminding him of the impossibility of escape. He had retrieved Jordan’s jacket from the sand and handed it to him. That simple gesture went a long way toward making Jordan feel less anxious.
“After you,” the priest said politely.
Jordan draped his coat around Erin’s shoulders and helped her into the chopper. She paused, crouched in the hatch.
The inside of the helicopter’s cabin was as opulent as he expected. Soothing blue light fell on polished dark wood. The smell of expensive leather filled his nostrils. Smooth lines shouted luxury. It was far from the utilitarian crafts he usually flew in. He wished he were in one of them now.
“There are only two open seats left,” she said.
Jordan peeked around and saw she was right. “So, Korza, which one of us is riding in cargo?”
“I apologize. They had expected to retrieve only me, and perhaps the boy. It will be tight quarters, but the flight is not long.”
Erin glanced back, looking to Jordan for guidance.
“We can double-buckle,” Jordan said, and pointed to one of the large luxurious seats in back.
She nodded, squeezed past the others’ knees, and took the seat, scooting over to make room for him.
He followed her and pulled the harness out to its farthest length before he squeezed next to her. “My mom had a lot of kids,” he explained, snapping them in together. “She used to buckle two of us in with the same seat belt. Didn’t yours?”
Her voice was dull with shock. “My mother wasn’t allowed to drive a car. None of the women were.”
He remembered her earlier statement. I saw the Church used as a tool of the powerful against the weak. For now, he filed that all away to ask about later.
Korza climbed in last. The priest was smaller than Jordan, and it would have been less snug if he’d buckled Erin in with Korza, but Jordan sure as hell wasn’t going to let that happen.
The priest took the last open seat, directly across from theirs. Hidden within a hooded cassock, Korza’s neighbor leaned to whisper in his ear. Jordan didn’t understand the words, but he could tell the speaker was a woman. That surprised him. Was she human? Or did the Church recruit female strigoi to the fold of the Sanguinists?
After that, no one spoke.
The others sat still as statues, which Jordan found more disturbing than if they had been racing at double speed.
As the helicopter roared and rose from the desert in a flurry of sand, he tried to think about anything besides Erin’s warm body tucked against his. At first, she had struggled to keep as much space between them as possible, but she soon gave up on that, trapped together by the harness. As the helicopter droned onward through the night, she eventually relaxed into sleep, too exhausted to resist.
Her head came to rest against his shoulder, and he shifted to the side so that it wouldn’t fall forward. It had been far too long since a beautiful woman had fallen asleep on him. Her blond hair had escaped its rubber band and spilled to her shoulders. This close, he noted the lighter strands woven through the richer honey, likely bleached white by her time digging under the sun.
He wanted to trace a finger along one of those strands, as if following a thread in a larger tapestry, trying to understand the warp and weft that made up this woman at his side. Erin had been through a lot in the past few hours. He intended to get her out of this mess and home safely. He had to. He’d failed everyone else under his command.
Better shut down that alley.
Instead, he turned his attention to the wound on her tanned thigh. Though it was not deep, the puckered edges were a nasty red and dusted with sand. Moving slowly so as not to wake her, he pulled out his tiny first-aid kit.
Freeing an antiseptic wipe, he gently cleaned the wound, keeping his touch soft, moving slowly. Still, she moaned in her sleep.
Every Sanguinist looked in her direction.
With a chill, Jordan moved his free hand toward his dagger and rested his palm there.
“Do not fear us,” Korza whispered, his face hidden again inside his hood. “You are quite safe.”
Jordan didn’t bother to answer.
And he didn’t move his hand.
Erin’s head jolted forward, snapping her awake. Deafened by the roar of the helicopter, she found herself looking into an amazing pair of eyes, light blue with a darker ring around the edge of the iris. The eyes smiled at her. She smiled back before she realized that they belonged to Jordan.
She had fallen asleep on his shoulder and woken up smiling at him.
A married man.
In a helicopter full of priests.
With her face burning, she straightened in her seat and shifted in the harness to create an inch of space between them. She could almost hear her mother’s disappointed sigh and feel the back of her father’s hand.
She turned to the window, the only safe place to look while her cheeks lost their embarrassed blush. Beyond the window, the lights of a city blazed ahead, drowning out the stars. A golden dome shone brightly amid the urban sprawl.
“Looks like we’re coming into Jerusalem,” she said.
“How can you tell?” he asked, probably trying to rescue her from her embarrassment.
She accepted his offer. “That dark mountain to the east is the Mount of Olives. An important historical site to all three major religions: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. And it’s said that’s where Jesus supposedly ascended to Heaven.”
A few of the Sanguinists stirred at the word supposedly, clearly offended, but she kept going.
“The Book of Zechariah says that during the Apocalypse it will split in two.”
“Great, let’s hope that doesn’t happen anytime soon. I’ve had enough mountains splitting in two for one day.” Jordan pointed toward that glowing golden dome she’d noted earlier. “What’s that one?”
“That’s the Dome of the Rock. It sits atop the Temple Mount.” She shifted to give Jordan a better view out the window. “Around it you can see the wall of the Old City. It’s like a ribbon of light, see? To the north is the Muslim quarter. South and west is the Jewish quarter with the famous Western Wall.”
“The Wailing Wall?”
He leaned forward, and his body slid along hers.
She glanced across at the priests, their expressions invisible behind their hoods. Except for Rhun, whose face reflected the city’s shine as the helicopter banked into a turn. His impassive dark eyes watched her.
A blush rose again on her face, and she turned back to the view. What must Rhun think of her? What must he think of the view? She tried to picture the sight through the prism of eyes that had been open for centuries. Had Rhun been on the Temple Mount when Mahmud II restored it in 1817? She shivered at the thought—fearful, but also with a touch of awe.
“Are you cold?” Jordan reached over and adjusted his jacket across her other shoulder.
“I’m f-fine,” she stuttered breathlessly. She was actually too warm. Her proximity to Jordan did unpredictable things to her body temperature. For the past decade, she had kept too busy to allow herself to be attracted to a man. It was just her luck that she was now strapped to one who was both damnably attractive—and married.
“Thank you for the jacket.”
“We will land soon.” Rhun’s quiet voice claimed their attention.
“Where?” Jordan leaned a tiny bit away from her, and she missed the warmth of his body against hers. She glanced down at the strip of white skin on his ring finger.
Evidence. Always take into consideration the evidence before reacting.
Now if only she could convince her body to do the same.
“We must blindfold you both,” Rhun warned, his expression never changing.
Jordan sat straighter. The harness tugged against her shoulder. “What? So we’re your prisoners now?”
“Guests,” Rhun answered.
“I don’t blindfold my guests.” Jordan folded his arms. “Seems downright inhospitable.”
“Nevertheless …” Rhun unclipped his harness.
The priest next to him passed over two strips of black cloth.
Jordan’s leg went rock-hard next to hers. His feet pressed solidly against the floor. He seemed ready to take on the Sanguinists with nothing but his fists and his indignation.
She touched his hand. “This isn’t the time, Jordan.”
He looked at her, as if suddenly remembering that she was there. He studied her for a long moment before nodding.
Rhun stood, balancing nimbly in the moving aircraft. He tied on Jordan’s blindfold first, then wrapped black cloth over her eyes. His cold fingers tied the knot behind Erin’s head, working gently with her hair. After he finished, he left his palm flat against the back of her head for a second longer than necessary, as if to comfort her.
She then heard him retreat and the snap as he buckled back into his seat.
A hand found hers and gripped it tightly. Jordan’s palm burned warmly in hers as he, too, sought to reassure her. His message here was plain.
Whatever was to come, they were in this together.
October 26, 9:13 P.M., IST
Rhun helped the soldier and the woman out of the aircraft, passing under the whirling blades. He herded them off the helipad atop a building, down a series of stairs, and out onto a narrow street. All the while, the soldier kept a firm clasp on the woman’s hand.
Despite their brave faces, Rhun heard the frightened flutter of their hearts, smelled the salt of their fear, and noted the sheen of their skin. He did his best to shelter them from the others, to leave enough space for both. He refused to entrust them to any of his brethren—not that he feared that anyone would harm them. He simply felt protective of them, responsible for them.
He watched them lean closer together on the streets.
Erin and Jordan.
At some point, they went from being an archaeologist and a soldier in his mind’s eye to being simply Erin and Jordan. He didn’t like that growing familiarity. It created bonds when there should be none. He had learned that hard truth centuries ago.
He turned away.
Out on the street and moving again, Rhun breathed the nighttime scents of the old city—soot, cold rock, and fouling garbage from the bazaar. The other Sanguinists surrounded the trio. Rhun hoped that their presence would keep the blindfolded humans hidden from curious eyes.
So far, nothing had stirred on the dark avenue, the shops remained shuttered, the lights dark. He listened for nearby heartbeats in the cramped alleyways and cross streets that made up the maze of this quarter of the city. He found nothing amiss, but he still pressed them to move faster. He worried that they could be seen at any time.
After a few minutes, the group reached a rough-hewn stone wall where a robed man waited, tapping his leather shoe on the sidewalk, both impatient and nervous. The figure was as short as he was round. His face had a reddish cast, as did his bald pate.
Like a vulture.
Rhun knew the man—Father Ambrose—and cared little to find him here, guarding the gateway.
Ambrose stepped forward both to greet them, and to block them. His eyes ignored Rhun and the other Sanguinists and fixed a steely gaze upon Erin and Jordan. His words were terse enough to be considered rude.
“You may share nothing concerning what you see beyond this gate. Not with your family, not with your superiors in the military.”
Still blindfolded, Jordan dug in his heels and stopped, pulling Erin to a halt beside him. “I’m not taking orders from someone I can’t see.”
Rhun understood the man’s consternation and whipped off the two blindfolds before Ambrose could protest. The pair had already seen and been told too much. Adding the knowledge of this location seemed trivial in comparison. Besides, they must get indoors.
Jordan held out his hand to Ambrose. “Sergeant Stone, Ninth Ranger Battalion, and this is Dr. Granger.”
“Father Ambrose, assistant to His Eminence, Cardinal Bernard.” He wiped his palm on his fine cassock after shaking Jordan’s hand. “You have been summoned to meet with His Eminence. But I must once again stress that everything from this moment forward must be held in strictest confidence.”
“Or what?” Jordan loomed over Ambrose, and Rhun liked him all the more for it.
Ambrose stepped back. “Or we shall know of it.”
“Enough,” Rhun declared, and brushed roughly past Ambrose.
He stepped forward and placed a hand against the limestone blocks of the wall, moving his fingers stone by stone in the sequence of the cross. The limestone felt rough and warm under his hands.
“Take and drink you all of this,” he whispered, and pushed the centermost stone inward, revealing a tiny basin carved in a block, like the vessel that holds holy water at the entrance to a church.
Only this basin was not meant to hold water.
Rhun slipped free his curved blade and poked the center of his palm, in the spot where the nails had been driven into the palms of Christ. He squeezed his fist and let a few drops of blood splatter into the stone cup, its inner surface long darkened by the passage of countless Sanguinists who had entered this place before him.
“For this is the Chalice of My Blood, of the new and everlasting Testament.”
Erin gasped behind him as cracks appeared in the wall, revealing the outline of a gate so narrow that a man must turn sideways to pass.
“Mysterium fidei,” Rhun finished, and shoved the door open with his shoulder—then stepped back.
The other Sanguinists glided through ahead of him, followed by Ambrose. Erin and Jordan remained on the street with Rhun.
The woman remained fixed in place, staring up and down the city wall. “I’ve studied all the gates into the Old City, sealed and open,” she said. “There is no record of this one.”
“It has gone by many names over the centuries,” Rhun said, anxious to get them all off the street before they were discovered. “I assure you that you will find safe shelter inside. This gateway has been sanctified. The strigoi cannot cross its threshold.”
“They’re not the only ones who worry me.” Jordan stepped into a wider stance. “If Erin won’t go in, I won’t either.”
The woman finally stepped forward, placing her hand on the rough stone lintel. He heard her heart skip faster at the touch. From the hungry shine in her eyes, the sharper beat was not born of fear, but of a raw, aching desire.
“Here is living history.” Erin glanced back to Jordan. “How can I not go inside?”
Jordan followed Erin across that dark threshold, squeezing sideways to enter. He wasn’t happy about it, but he suspected the choice of entering or not was not ultimately theirs anyway. He remembered Father Ambrose’s words: You have been summoned to meet with His Eminence.
It was clearly less an invitation than a demand.
Korza entered last and drew the gate shut behind him. A suffocating and complete blackness closed over the group. Breathing harder as he stood in the darkness, Jordan reached out and found Erin’s hand again.
She squeezed his fingers in return, tightly, gratefully.
A familiar rasping sound preceded a tiny pop of flame, flickering brilliantly in the darkness. A Zippo lighter shone in the fingers of a cowled Sanguinist ahead of Jordan. The sight of the familiar, modern-day object cheered him, made everything feel a bit more real.
The Sanguinist picked up a candle from a small wooden stand by the door and handed it to Erin. She held the wick up to the lighter’s golden flame. In turn, Jordan received and lit his own candle. The smell of smoke and beeswax pushed back the dry dust of the air, but the fragile light did not reach far.
Without a word and apparently needing no light of their own, the other Sanguinists turned and headed down the steep tunnel. Jordan was not thrilled to be going underground again, but Erin set off after them, and he followed.
Even with the candle, Jordan could barely see where he was going. He swept the flame low in front of him. Smooth stone surrounded him. He hung back, wanting to keep everyone where he could see them, not that there was a hell of a lot he could do if things went bad.
Korza seemed to understand his hesitancy and squeezed past him.
Erin, already a few paces ahead, sheltered her candle’s flame with one cupped hand. Her head swiveled around so fast he thought it might come right off. To her, this must be like slipping out of present time and into history.
To Jordan, it was simply a minefield, where any misstep could kill them both.
He tried his best to keep track of their path. The passageway seemed to be angling downward, heading to the northeast, but he couldn’t be sure. And without knowledge of the city’s layout, he had no idea where they might be going. With no other recourse, he fell back on his military training and counted his steps, trying his best to keep track of the crisscrossing passageways, building a three-dimensional map in his head. At the very least, it might help them find their way back.
At last, the tunnel evened out and stopped in front of a thick wooden door with heavy iron hinges. At least this door didn’t require the blood of a Sanguinist to open—only a large ornate key, which was wielded by Father Ambrose.
“Is this where we meet the Cardinal?” Erin asked.
Father Ambrose glanced up and down her body, his lips pursed with distaste, settling on her wounded leg, on her torn pants. “It would be unseemly to greet His Eminence in your present condition.”
Jordan rolled his eyes. So far, the only thing this new priest had going for him was that he was human. When they’d shaken hands outside, Jordan had felt the heat of real blood in his veins.
Still, Jordan looked down at his own filthy blood-soaked clothes. Erin looked little better, and Korza was a disaster.
“We had a bad night,” Jordan admitted.
A laugh burst out of Erin’s throat, sounding slightly hysterical at the edges, but she stifled it quickly.
“I cannot imagine,” Ambrose said, ignoring her.
The priest turned back to the door and unlocked it with an iron key as long as his hand. He pulled the door open, bathing them in the light from the hallway beyond.
The group filed past Ambrose. Jordan went last, stepping into a long stone passageway softened by a Persian carpet runner on the floor and tapestries on the walls. Electric lights shone from wall sconces. Rows of wooden doors, all closed, dotted both sides of the hall.
Jordan blew out his candle but kept hold of it, in case he needed to light his way to freedom again.
Father Ambrose relocked the door and pocketed the key, then gestured to the right. “That is your room, Dr. Granger. On the left is yours, Sergeant Stone. You may clean up inside.”
Jordan took Erin’s elbow. “We’d prefer to stick together.”
Father Ambrose’s voice went frosty. “While you bathe?”
A blush rose on Erin’s cheeks.
Jordan liked watching it.
“It is safe here,” Korza assured them. “You have my promise on that.”
Erin caught Jordan’s eye, passing on a silent message. She wanted to talk, once they were alone—which meant cooperating until the priests left.
He would go along with that.
At least for now.
Rhun watched the pair disappear inside their respective rooms before he followed Ambrose. The man led the way up a rising passageway and to another door that had to be unlocked. The Church had many locks, and many secrets to hide behind them, but this doorway merely led to a winding stone staircase hewn out of the rock more than a thousand years ago.
Very familiar with it, Rhun moved to enter on his own, but Ambrose blocked the way with an arm.
“Wait,” the man warned. The thin mask of civility that he had presented for the newcomers fell away, revealing his raw disgust. “I will not present you to His Eminence with the cursed blood of a grimwolf upon you. Even I can smell that foul stench.”
Rhun glowered, letting Ambrose see his anger. “Bernard has seen me far worse.”
Ambrose could not face that fury for more than a breath. His arm fell, and he shrank back, his thick heartbeat tripping over itself in fear. Rhun felt a flicker of guilt—but only a flicker. He knew Ambrose. The priest was driven by human desires, possessive of his rank, full of pride, and protective of his role as Cardinal Bernard’s assistant. But Rhun also knew how loyal the man was. He guarded Bernard’s position in the Church hierarchy as devotedly as any watchdog—and in his own bitter manner, he served the Cardinal well, making sure no one insulted or slighted his superior.
But Rhun did not have time for such civilities. He swept past Ambrose and swiftly climbed the stairs, leaving the priest far behind. On his own, he threaded through dark passageways until he reached the mahogany door of Cardinal Bernard’s study.
“Rhun?” Bernard called from inside, his Italian accent rolling on the hard R, softening it with a warmth of friendship that spanned centuries. “Enter, my son.”
Rhun stepped into a chamber lit by a single white candle in an ornate gold candlestick. He needed little light to see the jeweled globe next to the massive desk, the ancient wooden crucifix attached to the wall, and the rows of leather-bound volumes lining one side. He breathed in the familiar smells of old parchment, leather, and beeswax. This room had not changed in a century.
Bernard rose to meet him. He wore full cardinal attire, the crimson cloth shining in the candlelight. He greeted Rhun with a warm embrace, not flinching from the stench of grimwolf blood. A Sanguinist himself, Bernard had fought many battles in the past and did not shy away from the vulgar aftermath of combat.
Bernard led him to a chair and drew it back for him. “Sit, Rhun.”
Not protesting, he settled to the seat, truly feeling his wounds for the first time.
Bernard returned to his own chair and slid a golden chalice of consecrated wine across the desktop. “You have suffered much these past few hours. Drink and we will talk.”
Rhun reached for the cup’s stem. The scent of wine drifted up: bitter, with a hint of oak. He craved it, but he hesitated to drink it. He did not want the pain of penance to distract him during this conversation. But his wounds also throbbed, reminding him that they, too, could distract him.
Resigned, he took the cup and drained it—then bowed his head so that Bernard would not see his expression, and waited. Would another vision of Elisabeta haunt him again tonight, reminding him of his sin? But that was not to be—for he had committed a greater sin, one that damned him for eternity.
Rhun’s knees pressed against cold, damp earth as he prayed at the gravestone of his younger sister. A moonless night cloaked him in darkness, blacker than the sober seminary robe he wore. Even the stars of Heaven hid behind clouds.
Would no light ever shine again in his heart?
He stared at the dates carved into the gravestone.
Less than a month before childbirth, death had claimed his sister and her infant son. Without the absolution of baptism, the infant could not be buried with his mother. She lay here on consecrated ground; her child could not.
Rhun would visit his tiny unmarked grave later.
Every night since her burial, he had left the quiet of the monastery after everyone slept and had come to pray for her, for her child, and to allay the sorrow in his own heart.
Soft footsteps sounded behind him.
Still on his knees, he turned.
A shadow-cloaked figure stepped close. Rhun could not make out its features in the darkness, but the stranger was not a priest.
“The pious one,” the newcomer whispered, his accent foreign, the voice unfamiliar.
Rhun’s heart quickened; his fingers sought his cross, but he forced his hands to remain clasped, tightening his fingers.
What did he have to fear from this stranger who showed no threat?
Rhun bowed his head respectfully to the man. “You are in the Lord’s cemetery late, my friend.”
“I come to pay my respects to the dead,” he answered, and waved long pale fingers toward the grave. “As do you.”
Icy wind blew through the field of stone crosses and carved angels, rustling the last leaves of autumn and bringing with it the odor of death and decay.
“Then I leave you to your peace,” Rhun said, turning back to his sister’s resting place.
Oddly, the man knelt next to Rhun. He wore fine breeches and a studded leather tunic. Mud besmirched costly boots. In spite of his coarse accent, his finery betrayed his origin as a nobleman.
Growing irritated, Rhun turned to him, noting the long dark hair that fell back from a pale brow. The stranger’s full lips curved up in amusement, although Rhun could not fathom why.
Enough … it is late.
Rhun gathered his rough-spun robes together to stand.
Before he could rise, the man wrapped an arm around his shoulder and pulled him to the wet ground, as if he were taking a lover. Rhun opened his mouth to yell, but the stranger pressed one cold hand on his face. Rhun tried to push the man away, but the other caught both of his wrists in one hand and held them as easily as if he were a small child.
Rhun struggled against him, but the man held him fast, leaning down. He used his rough cheek to tilt Rhun’s head to the side, exposing his neck.
Rhun suddenly understood, his heart galloping. He had heard legends of such monsters, but he had never believed them.
Sharp fangs punctured his throat, taking away his innocence, leaving only pain. He screamed, but no sound escaped him. Slowly, the pain turned into something else, something darker: bliss.
Rhun’s blood pulsed out of him and into the stranger’s hungry mouth, those cold lips growing warmer with his hot blood.
He continued to struggle, but weakly now—for, in truth, he did not want the man to stop. His hand rose on its own and pulled that face tighter to his throat. He knew it was sinful to give in to such bliss, but he no longer cared. Sin had no meaning; only the aching desire for the probe of tongue into wound, the gnaw of sharp teeth into tender flesh, mattered now.
There was no room in him for holiness, only an ecstasy that promised release.
The man drew back at last.
Rhun lay there, spent, dying.
Strong fingers stroked his hair. “It is not yet time to sleep, pious one.”
A sliced wrist was pressed against Rhun’s opened lips. Hot silken blood burst on his tongue, filled his mouth. He swallowed, drew in more. A deep moan rose in his throat, drowned itself in the blood.
Soon his entire existence glowed with one word, one wish.
Then that precious font was ripped from him, leaving an unfathomable well of hunger inside him, demanding to be filled with blood—any blood.
Above him, the stranger was struggling with four priests.
A blade flashed silver in the moonlight.
“No,” Rhun screamed.
Rough hands pulled him to his feet and dragged him stumbling back to the silent monastery, where the gift of eternity soon became his curse.
Rhun shed his penance with a shudder. Even now, he missed that man who had killed him, who destroyed his old life. In quiet moments, he still longed for that first taste of his blood. It was a sin he had repented many times, but it never went away.
Across the desk, Bernard watched him, his face as full of sorrow as it had been the night that Rhun was brought before him, covered in blood, weeping and trying to escape the monks and flee into the night. Bernard had saved him then, shown him how he could serve God in his new form, kept him from ever feeding on innocent human blood.
Rhun shook his head to clear it of the past.
He faced Bernard, both friend and mentor, remembering the events at Masada and in the desert. Here was the man who had set much of it in motion, a man who kept too many secrets.
“You have gone too far,” Rhun said hoarsely, still feeling his torn throat, the wash of hot blood from the stranger’s wrist.
“Have I?” The Cardinal ran a robust hand through his white hair. “How so?”
Rhun knew the man was testing him. He gripped his pectoral cross, using the pain to control his anger. “You sent that archaeologist into danger. You sent me to face the enemy alone—strigoi of the Belial sect.”
His friend leaned back and steepled his fingers. His eyebrows knitted with concern. “You believe your attackers were Belial? Why?”
Rhun related his experiences on and under the mountain, then explained. “The strigoi who came were not mere scavengers drawn to the tragedy. They came with plain purpose. And used concussive charges.”
“Employing the weapons of man.” Bernard lowered his hands. He sat straighter, his warm brown eyes pained. “I did not know that they would come for it.”
The Belial were a sect of the strigoi who were in league with humans, combining the worst of both worlds—merging human cunning to feral ferocity, uniting modern weaponry with ancient evil. They were a scourge whose numbers had swollen over the past century, posing an ever greater threat to their order and to the Church. Even after decades of fighting them, hunting them down, much was still unknown about the Belial, such as who truly ruled them: was it man or monster?
Rhun’s anger calmed. “The Belial must have caught wind of the strange deaths surrounding the earthquake and guessed what it meant as well as we did.”
The Cardinal remained statue still. “Then they seek the Gospel—like we do—and are desperate enough to reveal themselves for it.”
“But the book was gone, the crypt empty,” Rhun said. “They did not find it either.”
“No matter.” The familiar face looked softer in the candlelight, relieved and reassured. “If the prophecies are correct, they cannot open it. Only the three may bring it back to this world.”
Rhun’s chair creaked when he leaned forward, an old fury kindling back to life. He knew all too well what Bernard meant by evoking the three mentioned in the prophecies surrounding the Gospel, the three figures who were destined to find and open the book.
The Woman of Learning.
The Warrior of Man.
The Knight of Christ.
Even now he saw the glimmer of hope in Bernard’s eyes, knew what the Cardinal suspected.
He pictured Erin’s face, bright with curiosity—a Woman of astounding Learning.
And Jordan’s heroic attack on the grimwolf—a Warrior of Man.
He gripped his own cross—marking him as a Knight of Christ.
He forced his fingers to let go of the silver, hoping his friend could do the same with his foolish hope. “Bernard, you place too much trust in those old prophecies. Such conviction in the past cost much misery and bloodshed.”
The Cardinal sighed. “I do not need to be reminded of my past mistakes. I carry that burden as heavily as you do, my son. I attempted to force God’s hand in Hungary all those centuries ago. It was hubris of the highest order. I thought the portents pointed to Elisabeta, that she was meant to join you. But I was mistaken. I admitted it then, and I do not recant that foolishness now.” He reached over and placed a cold palm atop Rhun’s hand. “But do you not see what happened today? You stumbled out of that rubble with a Woman of Learning to your left and a Warrior of Man to your right. It must mean something.”
Rather than dimming, the glimmer in his friend’s eyes grew brighter.
Rhun drew his hand away. “But you put the woman there.”
That realization stabbed Rhun with misgiving. Was his friend still trying to force the hand of prophecy? Even after the tragic consequences of his past attempt? When another woman suffered as a consequence of his mistake?
Bernard dismissed this all with a wave of his fingers. “Yes, I used my influence to send a woman of learning to Masada. But, Rhun, it was not I who knocked down the mountain of Masada. It was not I who saved the woman and the warrior and led them out of the tomb, the last resting place of the Book. Against all commandments, you saved them both.”
“I could not leave them there to die.” Rhun looked down at his shredded garments, smelled again the blood on his skin.
“Don’t you see? The prophecy is a living force now.” Bernard lifted the silver cross that hung around his neck and kissed it, his lips reddening from the heat of silver and holiness. “We each have our role to play. We must each humbly bow to our own destinies. And whether I’m right or wrong, you know we must keep the Gospel from the hands of the Belial at all costs.”
“Why?” Bitterness tinged Rhun’s next words. “A moment ago, you were certain that the Belial could not open it. Yet now you seem to doubt that part of the prophecy.”
“I do not presume to understand God’s will, merely to interpret it as best I can.”
Rhun thought of Elisabeta’s silvery-gray eyes and Erin’s amber ones.
Never again will I fall so low.
“And if I refuse this destiny?” Rhun asked.
“Now who presumes to know God’s heart better than He?”
The words stung, as they were meant to.
Rhun bowed his head and prayed for guidance. Could this truly be a challenge that God had placed before him? A chance for absolution? What greater task could God ask of him than to protect His son’s final Gospel? Rhun still did not trust Bernard’s deeper motives, but perhaps the Cardinal was correct to see the hand of God in today’s actions.
He considered all that had come to pass.
The final resting place of the book had been sundered open, heralded by quakes, bloodshed, and the survival of one boy, an innocent child spared.
But with the lavender scent of Erin’s hair fresh in his nostrils, Rhun resisted that path. He would surely fail her—as he had failed another long ago.
“Even if I were to consent to aid in your search for the Gospel—” Rhun stopped at the smile on Bernard’s face. “Even so, we cannot force the two here to go after it, not with the Belial in play.”
“That is true. We can force no one. The two must enter the search of their own free will. And to do so, they must give up their worldly attachments. Do you think that they are ready for such a sacrifice?”
Rhun pictured the pair that Bernard believed to be the Woman and the Warrior. When he first met the two, he considered them, much as the Cardinal had done, to be little more than what was revealed by their roles: an archaeologist and a soldier.
But now he knew that was no longer true.
Such labels were pale reflections of the two who had bled and fought at his side.
There were truer ways to describe them, and one was by their given names.
Erin and Jordan.
The Cardinal’s last question plagued him. Do you think they are ready …?
Rhun hoped, for their sakes, that the answer was no.
October 26, 9:33 P.M., IST
Hallelujah for small miracles.
Jordan discovered several gifts waiting for him on the bed of his small, monastic cell. A set of clean clothes had been folded atop the pillow—and on the blanket rested his weapons, returned to him.
He crossed quickly and examined his Heckler & Koch machine pistol and his Colt 1911. They were loaded—which both relieved him and disturbed him. His hosts either trusted him or were plainly not worried about any threat he might pose.
But that trust was a one-way street.
Standing in place, he gave the small room a once-over. It had been dug out from solid rock. The space contained a single bed that had been jammed against one wall to make room for a wide washstand topped with a copper basin full of steaming water.
He did a fast and thorough search for surveillance equipment. Considering the spartan accommodations, there weren’t many places to hide a listening device. He searched the mattress, felt along the edges of the raw wood bed frame, and examined the washstand.
He even stepped to the crucifix on the wall, took it down, and checked behind it, feeling vaguely blasphemous for doing so.
But still nothing.
So, they apparently weren’t listening in—at least not with modern technology. He eyeballed the door. How sharp was the hearing of a Sanguinist?
Considering his level of paranoia, he wondered how wise it had been to come here after all. Should he and Erin have waited in the desert and taken their chances with the jackals? Or maybe another grimwolf?
That didn’t sound any better.
And at least by coming here, they were still alive. Others had not been so lucky. He pictured his teammates’ broken bodies, buried now under tons of stone.
He thought of the calls and visits he would have to make once this ordeal was all over: to the parents, to the widows, to the children.
He sank to the bed in defeat and grief.
What in the hell could he tell them?
Cramped was a generous description for Erin’s room.
She kept hitting her elbow on the wall as she tried to scrub herself clean at the washbasin. She had stripped down to a bra and panties, and once clean, she faced the clothes that had been laid out for her.
It was no problem to slip into the white cotton shirt she found on her bed—but what to do about that long black skirt? It was just like the ones she’d worn as a girl, the ones that always tripped her up, kept her from climbing trees, made it almost impossible to ride horses. In her former world, women wore skirts, while men enjoyed the freedom of pants.
She had worn a skirt or dress throughout her childhood and balked at returning to one. But with her jeans cut to shreds and covered in blood, sweat, and sand, she’d have to wear the dress—unless she wanted to run around in front of Jordan and the priests in her underwear.
That settled it.
She transferred the contents of her jeans to her skirt pocket: the Nazi medallion from the tomb, her wallet, and a faded scrap cut from a quilt many years before, no bigger than a playing card.
Her fingertips lingered over the last item, drawing both strength and anger from it. She always carried the scrap with her, along with the anger and guilt it represented. She pictured the baby’s quilt from which it had been cut, how she’d stolen it before it was buried with her infant sister. She shut down that memory before it overwhelmed her and stuffed it away, shoving the piece of cloth deep into the skirt’s pocket.
That done, she wiggled into the garment, hating how it felt against her legs. The sandals she left by the bed. Her sneakers were staying with her.
Once dressed, she returned to the door, found it unlocked, and peeked out into the hallway. She found it empty and stepped out of the room. As she turned to shut her door—something scraped across stone, sounding like nails clawing out of a grave.
Spooked, already on edge, she bolted across the hall. She didn’t want to be caught outside of her room, especially by whatever made that scraping noise. She pictured the slavering jaws of the grimwolf.
Without knocking, she burst through Jordan’s door.
She found him wearing only a towel and a surprised expression. In his right hand he jerked up a pistol—but then lowered it immediately.
“Oh, God, I’m sorry.” She blushed. “I shouldn’t have … I didn’t mean to …”
“It’s all right,” he said, smiling at her fluster, which only drew more heat to her cheeks. “I’m glad you came over. I wanted to talk to you alone anyway. Away from the others.”
She nodded. That was why she had headed over here, too, but she had expected that conversation to be one during which they were both clothed.
She stepped against the door, trying not to look at Jordan’s muscular chest, at the thin line of hair that split his washboard abs, or at the length of his tan legs.
She wanted to turn away, but her eyes caught on an unusual tattoo that spanned his left shoulder and ran partway down his arm and across a corner of his chest and back. It looked like the branching roots of a tree, all rising from a single dark spot on his upper chest. There was a certain flowery beauty to it, especially etched on such a masculine physique.
He must have noted the object of her attention. He drew a finger down one of those branching lines. “I got this when I was eighteen.”
“What is it?”
“It’s called a Lichtenberg figure. It’s a fractal pattern that forms after something gets struck by a lightning bolt. In this case that something was me.”
“What?” She stepped toward him, both intrigued by and glad for the distraction.
“I was playing football in the rain. Got hit near the goalpost after catching a touchdown.”
She stared up at his blue eyes, half smiling, trying to judge if he was making fun of her.
He lifted three fingers. “Scout’s honor.”
Of course he was a Boy Scout.
“I was pronounced dead for three minutes.”
He nodded. “Uh-huh.”
“What was it like being dead?”
“I didn’t have that whole dark-tunnel, bright-light thing, but I came back different.”
“Different how?” He seemed pretty grounded, but was he going to tell her that he’d seen God or been touched by an angel?
“It’s like my number was up.” He flattened his palm over his heart. “And everything after that moment was a bonus.”
She stared at the design on his chest. That’s how close he’d gotten to death. He went through and came out the other side, like the Sanguinists.
He grinned and traced down one of the lines. “These patterns are sometimes called lightning flowers. They’re caused by the rupture of small capillaries under the skin due to the passage of electric current following the discharge of a lightning strike. I got hit here.” He touched the center of the branching on his chest. “The pattern spread outward. It was bright red for a while, but it faded and left a little scar.”
“I had the original pattern tattooed to remind me that this life is a bonus.” He laughed. “Drove my parents crazy.”
She lifted a finger, wanting to examine the design, to touch it—like she did all things she found incredible, then realized what she was about to do and stopped, leaving her finger hovering over the black mark on his chest.
He reached up and drew her hand closer. “It’s raised up a bit where the original scar was.”
She wanted to resist but couldn’t. As her fingertip touched his skin, a jolt shook her, as if some of the lightning’s energy were still trapped in his scar—but she knew it was something more than electrical discharge.
He must have felt it, too. His skin tightened where she made contact, the thick muscle hardening underneath her finger. His breath drew in deeper.
He still held her hand. She looked up into those blue eyes, those lips—the upper lip with a divot at the top like a bow.
His eyes darkened, and he leaned down toward her, as if wanting to assert that he was alive now.
She held her breath and let him, wanting the same after the long day of horrors.
His kiss started gentle and featherlight, lips barely brushing hers.
Heat flashed through her, as electric as it was warm.
She rose up on her toes and deepened the kiss, needing to explore it further, to explore him further. She wrapped her hands around his bare shoulders and pulled him closer, wanting more of him, more connection, more warmth. She dissolved into the kiss, letting it fill her and blot out the horrible events in the tomb.
Then she flashed on the pale ring of skin around his tanned finger.
It was a kind of tattoo that marked him as readily as the lightning scar.
He was a married man.
She leaned back, bumping into the washstand. “I’m sorry.”
His voice was hoarse. “I’m not.”
She turned her head away, angry at herself, at him. She needed to catch her breath and get her head on straight. “I think we need to step back from this.”
Jordan took a careful step backward. “Far enough?”
That wasn’t exactly what she meant, but it would do. “Maybe another step.”
Jordan gave her a quick, embarrassed smile, then retreated another step and sat down on the bed.
She sat on the other end, her arms crossed over her chest, needing to change the subject. Her voice came out too high. “How’s your other shoulder?”
He had hurt it while being yanked through the hole as they escaped the collapsing tomb.
Jordan swiveled his arm around and winced. “Hurts, but I don’t think it’s serious. Less serious than being pancaked in the mountain.”
“Being pancaked in the mountain might have been easier.”
“Who says the easy path is the right one?”
She blushed, still feeling the heat, the pressure, of his kiss. She looked down at her hands. She spoke after the silence stretched for too long, glancing toward the door. “What do you think they want with us?”
He followed her gaze. “Don’t know. Maybe to debrief us. Swear us to secrecy. Maybe give us a million dollars.”
“Why a million dollars?”
He shrugged. “Why not? I’m just saying … let’s be optimistic.”
She looked at the dirty toes of her sneakers. That was hard to do, to be optimistic, especially with Jordan sitting half naked next to her. The heat of his bare skin reached across the distance between them. How long had it been since she’d been in a room with a naked man? Let alone one who looked as good as Jordan, or who could kiss half as well?
Silence again stretched out between them. Jordan’s gaze went far away; likely he was thinking of his wife, of the brief betrayal of this moment.
She searched for another topic of conversation. “Do you still have your first-aid kit?” she blurted out too loudly, startling him out of his reverie, causing him to flinch.
“Sorry,” he mumbled. “Guess I’m still a bit on edge.”
“I don’t bite.”
“Everybody else does here,” he said with a grin.
She smiled back, feeling the tension break between them.
He dug his first-aid kit out of the pocket of his discarded pants, still on the bed. “Let’s start with your leg.”
“I’d better do it.”
Right now she’d rather bleed to death than let him mess with her thigh. Once he got started there, who knew where it would lead?
“Maybe you’d better get dressed while I deal with this cut?” she suggested.
He smiled sheepishly and handed her the kit. She turned her back to him as he pulled on clean black pants. She kept her eyes focused on her leg. The wolf scratch wasn’t as bad as it seemed in the desert. She washed her wound carefully, then slathered it with antibacterial ointment and taped on a gauze bandage.
Jordan stood uncomfortably close, but at least he was wearing pants now. “That dressing looks pretty good. Do you have any medical training?”
“In a manner of speaking. I grew up in a compound where outsiders were forbidden from touching us—not even to take care of us when we were sick.”
It was rare for her to share this part of her life with anyone. Shame surrounded her past, shame for being so gullible, for not fighting back sooner. A therapist once told her that was a common emotion for survivors of chronic abuse, and she would probably never fully escape it. So far, the therapist had been right.
Still, bits of her history had somehow spilled out to Jordan.
“That’s nuts,” he said.
She hid a small grin. “That’s a succinct way of summarizing it. But it made sense at the time, as isolated as we were kept.”
“I grew up in Iowa in a cornfield. With a passel of brothers and sisters, we were all about scrapes, skinned knees, the occasional broken bone.”
A twinge in her left arm reminded her that she’d suffered the latter, too. But she doubted that Jordan’s brothers’ and sisters’ breaks were inflicted on purpose, as lessons. She kept silent. She didn’t know Jordan nearly well enough to talk about that.
To the side, Jordan dried off his chest.
She fixed her eyes on the old wooden door, the stone floor, anything but him.
He finally picked up a clean shirt and tugged into it. “How did you get out of that place?”
She busied herself packing up the first-aid kit. “After they tried to force me into an arranged marriage when I was seventeen, I stole a horse and rode into town. I never went back.”
“So you lost contact with your family?” Jordan lowered his eyebrows sympathetically, in the way that only someone with a normal loving family would.
“I did. Mother’s dead now. Father, too. No siblings. So, I’m all there is.”
She didn’t know how to end the conversation and was afraid she would suddenly start babbling about her father and her sister, who had died when she was only two days old—and then who knew what else she’d spill?
She stood and crossed to the door. Maybe waiting in her room was a better idea.
Jordan followed, touched her shoulder. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to pry.”
A voice—Rhun’s—called from the hallway, its tone urgent with worry. “Sergeant, Erin is not in—”
The door opened on its own, and Rhun stopped short, staring inside, surprise etched on his face.
Jordan spoke from behind Erin. “Doesn’t anyone knock around here?”
Rhun quickly collected himself but remained in the hallway. The ruined garments from the desert still hung off his body in tatters, but he had washed most of the blood from his skin. His dark eyes traveled from one to the other, and his spine drew even straighter than usual, which Erin hadn’t thought possible.
Her cheeks burned. At least the priest hadn’t come in a few minutes earlier.
Jordan buttoned his shirt. “Sorry, padre, but Erin and I decided to stick together after all.”
“You are both here. That is all that matters.” Rhun turned on his heel, indicating they should follow, the stiffness never leaving his spine. “The Cardinal awaits his audience with you.”
Jordan felt disapproval rising off the priest’s body in waves. He finished buttoning his shirt and tucked it in while following Erin out into the hall. She walked along with her eyes on the floor.
Korza maintained an icy silence as he led them down the passageway and up a winding staircase. Ambrose met them at the hallway at the top, greeting them with a disapproving look—or maybe that was merely his regular expression. Jordan remembered his mother’s oft-repeated admonishment: Keep making that face and it will stick.
“While the Cardinal keeps his audiences informal,” Father Ambrose said, singling Jordan out with his eyes, “do not misinterpret that for permission to be casual with His Eminence.”
“Got it.” Jordan tossed the guy a left-handed salute.
A trace of a crooked smile crossed Korza’s lips.
Ambrose scowled, led them to a large door, and pushed it open.
Jordan followed Rhun, sheltering Erin behind him, not knowing what to expect.
A fresh breeze blew in his face, catching him by surprise. After a day spent mostly underground, it felt good to be outside again. He took a deep gulp of air, like a swimmer surfacing after a dive.
Ahead, a lush rooftop garden, illuminated by oil lamps made of clay, spread wide, inviting the eye to linger, the feet to stroll. Jordan accepted the invitation and wandered out, leading Erin.
Potted olive trees lined the parapets all around, leaves rustling in the wind.
Erin bent to inhale the spicy fragrance of a night-blooming flower. Grains of golden pollen dusted the stone tiles below.
Jordan watched her for as long as he could without getting caught. But other passions also drove him. His stomach growled as he stared over at a hand-carved wooden table, laid out with bread, grapes, pomegranates, and cheese. He really wanted a burger and a beer, but he would take what he could get.
Erin joined him, looking like a kid on Christmas morning. “This setting—from the lamps, to the plants, to the table—could have come straight out of the Bible.”
Except for the electric streetlights in the distance.
At the far side of the terrace, a figure in crimson stood out against the canopy of green, his white hair in dramatic contrast with the dark sky. That had to be Cardinal Bernard.
Father Ambrose herded them away from the laden table and toward the waiting man—if he was a man. At this point, everything and everyone, in Jordan’s eyes, was suspect.
Reminded of that, he looked beyond the parapet of the garden, trying to get his bearings, to figure out where they were. He spotted the giant golden cupola of a neighboring structure, what Erin had called the Dome of the Rock. She must have a pretty good idea of where they were being kept.
Father Ambrose’s voice drew his attention back to the Cardinal. “May I present to you Dr. Granger and Sergeant Stone?”
The Cardinal held out his hand. The man wore a red skullcap, red leather gloves, and a cassock, like Rhun’s, but his was red.
Jordan saw no ring to kiss—not that he would have—so he extended his arm. But the Cardinal took Erin’s hand first, grasping her fingers between both of his palms. “Dr. Granger. It is an honor.”
“Thank you, Your Eminence.”
“‘Cardinal Bernard’ will be fine, thank you.” His deep voice held a kindly tone. “We are not so formal here.”
He shook Jordan’s hand next. “Sergeant Stone, thank you for your services in returning Father Korza to us in one piece.”
“I think we need to thank Father Korza as much as the other way around, Cardinal Bernard.”
Jordan’s stomach growled, again.
The Cardinal moved toward the table. “Forgive the distractedness of an old man. You need a good meal.”
He led them back to the table and seated them. Only Jordan and Erin had plates.
“That will be all, Father Ambrose,” Bernard said quietly.
The younger priest seemed surprised by his dismissal, but he bowed and left.
Jordan would not miss him. Instead, he happily tucked into the food. Erin helped herself to a healthy portion of cheese and bread. Bernard and Korza consumed nothing.
“While you eat, may I tell you a story?” The Cardinal raised bushy white eyebrows questioningly.
“Please,” Erin answered.
“Since the beginning of recorded history, humans have feared the dark.” He picked up a grape and toyed with it. “As long as anyone can remember, strigoi have walked among us, filling our nights with terror and blood.”
Jordan swallowed the bite of bread and cheese, his throat suddenly dry. He didn’t need a reminder of the danger posed by the strigoi.
The Cardinal continued: “The founders of the Church knew of their existence. It was not hidden in those days as it is now. The Church created a devoted sect to keep their numbers in check, not only because of the ferocity of their attacks, but also because when a human makes the transformation to strigoi, it destroys his soul.”
Korza’s dark eyes were unreadable. What must it be like to be a priest without a soul?
“How do you know that?” Erin asked.
The Cardinal smiled in a way that reminded Jordan of his kindly grandfather. “There are ways, perhaps too esoteric for this table, that it was determined.”
“Maybe if you use little words,” Jordan said.
Erin folded her arms. “I think you should try us.”
“I meant no disrespect, only that we are pressed for time. I believe it is more important that I make certain you know that which is essential to the current situation, but I can explain about the soul of a strigoi after.”
Erin’s brown eyes looked skeptical. Jordan loved how she stood right up to the Cardinal. Not much seemed to intimidate her.
“The Sanguinists are an order of priests who draw their strength from the blood of Christ.” The Cardinal touched his cross. “They are immortal in nature, but are often killed in holy battle. If killed in such a manner, their souls are restored to them.”
Jordan’s eyes were drawn again to Korza. So his fate was to battle evil until it destroyed him, however long that took. An eternal tour of duty.
The Cardinal’s gaze settled fully upon Erin. “Many of the strigoi massacres are recorded falsely by history.”
Erin’s brow crinkled—then her eyes widened. “Herod’s massacre,” she said. “My dig site. It wasn’t about Herod destroying a future King of the Jews, was it?”
“Most perceptive. Herod did not kill those babies. The strigoi killed them.”
“But they weren’t just feeding on the blood of those children. I found gnaw marks on the bones. It was a savage attack, as if done purposefully.”
The Cardinal put his gloved hand atop Erin’s. “I am sorry to say that is the truth. Strigoi sought to kill the Christ child because they knew that He would help to destroy them. As indeed it came to pass: for it was the miracle of His blood that led to the founding of the Sanguinists and started their battle against the strigoi.”
“Sounds like the Sanguinists got a bum deal out of it all.” Jordan ate a handful of grapes.
“Not at all. While it is not an easy path that we tread, our work serves humanity and opens our only path to salvation.” Cardinal Bernard rolled the grape between his fingers. “For centuries, we kept the number of strigoi in balance, but in the last few decades, strigoi and some humans have formed an alliance called the Belial.”
Erin pulled her arms in close, clearly recognizing that name. “Belial. The leader of the Sons of Darkness. An old legend.”
Jordan stopped eating. “Great.”
“We have never known why they formed.” The Cardinal looked over their heads at the night sky. “But perhaps after today, we do.”
Korza’s eyebrows drew down. “We don’t know that for certain. Even now. Don’t let Bernard’s love of the dramatic influence you.”
“Influence us how?” Jordan asked.
“Why were the Belial formed?” Erin talked over him.
“As I believe Rhun told you, the tomb of Masada contained the most holy book ever written. It is Christ’s own story of how He unleashed His divinity, written in His own blood. It is called the Blood Gospel.”
“What do you mean by ‘unleashed his divinity’?” Jordan asked, pushing aside his plate, the last of his appetite dying away.
The Cardinal nodded to him. “A fascinating question. As you may know, in the Bible, Christ performs no miracles early in his life. Only later does he begin to perform a whole series of wondrous acts. His first divine miracle was recorded in the Book of John, the turning of water into wine.”
Erin shifted and quoted scripture. “The first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed at Cana in Galilee. He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.”
Bernard nodded. “Thereafter, a slew of other wonders: the multiplication of the fishes, the healing of the sick, the raising of the dead.”
“But what does all of that have to do with the Blood Gospel?” Erin asked.
The Cardinal explained. “This mystery of Christ’s miracles has confounded many biblical scholars. Why this sudden manifestation of the miraculous? What caused His divinity to shine forth so suddenly from His earthly flesh?” Bernard stared around the table. “Those questions are answered in Christ’s Gospel.”
Erin stared at him, rapt.
“Sounds like good stuff,” Jordan said. “But why do the Belial care about any of this?”
“Because the book may give anyone the ability to touch and manifest their own divinity. Can you imagine if the strigoi learned this? It might help them free themselves of their weaknesses. Perhaps they could walk in daylight, like we do, multiplying their strengths. Imagine the consequences for mankind.”
Korza cut him off. “But we know none of this for certain. It is merely Bernard’s speculation.” He stared hard at Erin, then Jordan. “You must remember that.”
“Why?” Erin’s eyes narrowed.
The Cardinal’s face had gone stone-hard, stern. He plainly did not appreciate Korza’s interruption. His next words were equally firm.
“Because you have a role to play—both of you—in what comes next. If you refuse, the world will sink into darkness. So it has been foretold.”
October 26, 10:32 P.M., IST
Erin tried not to scoff but failed. “The fate of the world depends on us? On Jordan? On me?”
Jordan muttered next to her: “You don’t have to sound so surprised when saying my name.”
Erin ignored him, hearing the sarcasm in his voice. He wasn’t buying any of it either. She summarized all her questions with one word. “Why?”
The Cardinal returned the dusky grape to the empty bowl. “I cannot reveal that to you, Doctor, not at this time, not until you make your choice. After that, I will tell you all, and you may again refuse with no consequences.”
“You were the one who sent the helicopter for me in Caesarea, weren’t you?” she asked, picturing the whirling blades and the frightened stallion, flashing to poor Heinrich sprawled and bloody in the dig site’s trench.
“I did,” the Cardinal said. “I used my contacts in Israeli intelligence to have you taken to Masada, in case the Gospel was there.”
“Why me?” She would keep repeating this until she got an answer that she liked.
“I have followed your work, Dr. Granger. You are skeptical of religion, but steeped in biblical knowledge. As a result, you see things that nonreligious scholars could miss. Likewise, you question things that religious scholars might not. It was that rare combination that made you perfectly suited to bring the Gospel back to the world. And I believe it continues to be true.”
Either that, she thought skeptically, or I was the closest archaeologist you could find. It was late in the year, and most archaeologists were back teaching the fall semester. But what good would it do to point that out? So she held her tongue.
“What about me?” Jordan asked, his voice still ringing with sarcasm. “I’m guessing I’m just a random wild card, since there’s nothing special about me.”
Erin would have argued against that assessment, picturing his tattoo, his story of being dead for three minutes.
Could there be something to all of this?
The Cardinal favored Jordan with a small smile. “I do not know why the prophecy chose you all, my son. But you are the ones who emerged living from the tomb.”
“So what are we supposed to be doing next?” Jordan shifted on his wooden chair.
Erin suspected he was accustomed to being kept in the dark for many of his missions—but she wasn’t. She wanted full disclosure.
The Cardinal continued: “The two of you, along with Rhun, must find and retrieve the Gospel and bring it to the Vatican. According to prophecy, the book can only be opened in Rome.” He rested his elbows on the table. “That is where our scholars will unlock its mysteries.”
“And what then?” she asked. “Do you intend to hide it away?”
If the Blood Gospel existed and contained what he said, it was too powerful to leave in the hands of the Church alone.
“The words of God have always been free to all.” The old man’s brown eyes smiled at her.
“Like when the Church burned books during the Inquisition? Often along with the men who wrote them?”
“The Church has made mistakes,” the Cardinal admitted. “But not this time. If we can share it, we shall share the light of this Gospel with all of mankind.”
He seemed sincere enough, but Erin knew better. “I have dedicated my life to revealing the truth, even if that goes against biblical teachings.”
The Cardinal’s lips twitched up. “I would say especially when it goes against biblical teachings.”
“Maybe.” She took a deep breath. “But can you swear that you will share this book—as much as is safe—with secular scholars? Even if it contradicts Church teachings?”
The Cardinal touched his cross. “I swear it.”
She was surprised by the gesture. That was something. She wasn’t confident that he would keep his word, especially if the contents were antithetical to Church teachings, but it wasn’t like she would get a better offer either. And if this Gospel existed, she wanted to find it. Such a discovery could in some small way pay back the debt of blood—both Heinrich’s back at the camp and all those who died at Masada.
She made her decision with a nod. “Then I am—”
“Wait,” Rhun said, cutting her off. “Before you pledge yourself, you must understand that you may lose your life in the search.” His hand strayed to his pectoral cross. “Or something even more precious.”
She remembered the earlier discussion about the souls—or the lack thereof—of the strigoi. It wasn’t just their lives—Rhun’s, Jordan’s, and her own—that were at risk on the journey ahead.
A deep well of sadness shone in Rhun’s eyes, something from his past.
Was he mourning his own soul or another’s?
Erin silently listed logical reasons why she should not do this, why she should go back to Caesarea, meet with Heinrich’s parents, and continue her dig. But this decision required more than logic.
“Dr. Granger?” the Cardinal asked. “What is your wish?”
She studied the table, spread as it had been for millennia, and Rhun, whose very existence offered possible proof of the miracle of transubstantiation. If he could be real, maybe so could Christ’s Gospel.
“Erin?” Jordan asked.
She took a deep breath. “How could I pass up this opportunity?”
Jordan cocked his head. “Are you sure it’s your fight?”
If it wasn’t her fight, whose was it? She pictured the small child’s skeleton in the trench, curled up lovingly by a parent. She imagined the slaughter that brought that baby to an untimely grave. If there was any truth to the stories told this night, she could not let the Belial get hold of that book or such massacres could become commonplace.
Jordan met her gaze, his blue eyes questioning.
Rhun bowed his head and seemed to be praying.
Erin nodded, her decision firm. “I have to.”
Jordan eyed her a moment longer—then shrugged. “If she’s in, I’m in.”
The Cardinal bowed his head in thanks, but he wasn’t done. “There is one more condition.”
“Isn’t there always?” Jordan mumbled.
Bernard explained: “If you enter into league with the Sanguinists, you must know you will be declared dead, listed as one of the victims atop Masada. Your family will grieve for you.”
“Hold on a minute.” Jordan sat back.
Erin understood. Jordan’s family would miss him, would suffer for his decision. He couldn’t go. Erin almost envied him. She had friends, even close friends, and colleagues, but there was no one who would be devastated if she didn’t return from Israel. She didn’t have family.
“There is no other way.” The Cardinal held out his gloved hands palms up. “If the Belial know you live, that you seek the Gospel, they may strive to influence you through your family … I believe you know what that will entail?”
Erin nodded. She had seen the ferocity of the Belial firsthand in the tomb at Masada.
“To protect you, to protect those who love you, we must take you under the cloak of the Sanguinists. You must disappear from the larger world.”
Jordan stroked his empty ring finger thoughtfully.
“You shouldn’t come, Jordan. You have too much to lose.”
The Cardinal’s voice took on a kinder tone. “It is for their safety, my son. Once the threat is over, you will resume your former lives, and your friends and families will know you did this out of love.”
“And it has to be us, nobody else can do this?” Jordan’s eyes stayed on his fingers.
“I believe that the three of you together must perform this task.”
Jordan glanced over to Rhun, whose dark eyes gave little away—then to Erin.
He finally stood up and paced to the rooftop’s edge, his shoulders stiff. His decision was a difficult one, Erin knew. Unlike her, he was no orphaned archaeologist. He had a big family in Iowa, a wife, maybe children.
She had no one.
She was used to being alone.
So why was she staring at Jordan’s back, anxious to hear his answer?
October 26, 10:54 P.M., IST
Beneath the Israeli desert
Bathory stirred from a nap, not knowing when she’d fallen asleep, seduced by exhaustion and the cool quiet of the subterranean bunker. It took her a moment to remember where she was. A shadowy sense of loss hung over her like cobwebs.
Then she remembered all.
As time fell back over her shoulders, an edge of panic sliced through her weariness. She sat up, rolling her legs from the reclining sofa. She found Magor curled nearby, always protecting her. He raised his large head, his eyes glowing.
She waved him to rest, but he lumbered up and padded over to her.
At her side, he slumped down again, leaving his head on her lap. He sensed her distress, as she felt the simple warmth of his affection and concern.
“I’ll be fine,” she assured him aloud.
But he felt what was unspoken, her fear and worry.
As she scratched his ears, she searched for the words to tell Him of her failure—if such words existed. She had lost most of the strigoi under her command, let a Knight of Christ escape her snare. And worst of all, what did she have to show for it?
Certainly not the book—but that was not her fault.
Someone else had stolen it long before Masada crumbled to ruin.
She even had proof of the theft: grainy photos recovered from a cell phone.
But even to her, any explanation of the night’s events felt like excuses.
No longer able to sit, she gently shifted Magor’s muzzle and stood. Her bare feet crossed a Persian rug that had once graced the stone floor of her ancestral castle, once warmed feet now long dead.
She reached a concrete wall. It was covered in Chinese red silk to soften the stark confines of the bunker that was her home in the desert, a home buried twenty feet under the sands. Against the wall, artfully arranged shelves displayed an antique lancet with an ebony handle and a gold bleeding bowl with rings inside to indicate how much blood had been released.
She lifted the bowl. How much of her cursed blood might He take as punishment?
Magor nuzzled her hip, and she put down the bowl and knelt, burying her face in his fur. He smelled like wolf and blood and comfort. With Hunor gone, he was her last true companion.
What if He took Magor away?
That fear drew her face up. Her gaze fell on her most prized possession—an original Rembrandt portrait of a young boy. A version of Titus hung in an American gallery. The boy’s blond hair curled outward from an angelic face. Serious blue-gray eyes met hers, red lips curved in a tentative smile. In the American version, a gray smudge rested atop his shoulder. Art historians speculated that it was a pet parrot or monkey that had died during the weeks it took to complete the painting. To spare the boy, the lost pet had been painted over after the work’s completion. Her painting revealed it was neither of those animals. A tawny owl stared back from the boy’s shoulder.
But the nocturnal predator did not hold her gaze. The boy did. He looked like her brother Istvan, piquing the vague sense of loss into something more substantial.
First she’d lost Istvan.
And now Hunor.
She could not lose Magor.
The wolf rested his massive muzzle on her shoulder. She crooned him a lullaby and tried to make plans. Perhaps she should flee into the desert, disappear with Magor. She had enough money and jewels in her closet to keep them comfortable for years. Maybe she could escape at last from the silver cage that had held her for so long.
As if someone had read her thoughts, a heavy hand rapped on her door.
Magor growled, his hackles rising like a ridge along his back.
Without waiting for an answer, the thick metal door of her room swung open. Dark boots entered.
Tarek stopped just past the threshold, shadowed by his brother, Rafik. It was a daring move on his part.
She stood, lifting her chin, baring her throat and His mark.
Magor crossed in front of her, another line of defense.
“How dare you enter without my permission?” she said.
Tarek smiled, his lips stretched wide to reveal his extended fangs. “I dare because He knows of your failure.”
Rafik hovered at his brother’s shoulder, malicious madness dancing in his eyes.
Tarek made clear the reason for his bold intrusion, smelling a possible shift in power, declaring his intent by crossing her threshold, like a dog marking a tree. “I have received instructions from Him on how to kill you the next time that you fail.”
From the glee in Rafik’s eyes, she imagined such a death would be neither quick nor painless.
She kept her face impassive and met Tarek’s gaze. The monsters at her door might be stronger than she was, but she was far more cunning. She let this confidence show and stared Tarek’s gaze down—until she finally drove him back out the door.
Rather than making her fearful, such threats only fortified her, steeled her resolve.
As He knew they would.
She touched Magor’s shoulder.
“Time we hunt again.”
October 26, 10:57 P.M., IST
From the rooftop garden, Jordan stared down at the Wailing Wall, at those praying in front of it. A young mother held up her baby, the girl’s frilly pink dress shifting when her tiny hand stroked down the stone. She looked like his niece Abigail had at that age. For three years his youngest sister had dressed her little tomboy in nothing but pink. After that, Abigail picked out her own clothes—brown ones. The mother below brought the little girl back to her chest and kissed the top of her head.
The pair had no idea about strigoi.
They lived in a world with no monsters.
But monsters were out there, and now Jordan knew it. If this mission failed, everyone else would have to face them, too. He remembered the short work they had made of his own highly trained men.
As he watched the pair step away from the wall and head home, he fought against thoughts of his own family. Especially his mother. She had survived surgery for a brain tumor last month and was still frail, finishing off chemotherapy.
Forget the Belial, the grief of his death might do her in.
Still, he knew what she would want him to do. He was his mother’s child; his belief in right and wrong had been instilled in him by her—by her words, by her actions, even by her suffering. He had signed up to serve his country, his fellow man, partly because of her. He believed in the army motto This We’ll Defend.
Keeping strigoi from ruling the earth was worth a terrible price; he would not flinch from paying it. His family would expect nothing less. His team had given nothing less.
Resolved, he walked back to the table.
His reasons all sounded noble, but he knew part of his decision came from the way Erin had smiled at him when she woke up in the chopper, how she had melted in his arms downstairs. He couldn’t abandon her to Rhun and the others.
He stepped to the table and dropped his dog tags. “I’m in.”
“Jordan …” Erin stared at him, the internal war between relief and fear visible on her face.
He studied his dog tags and looked away. When his parents received them, they would think him dead.
The Cardinal nodded soberly, but his eyes shone with determination. Jordan had seen many a general wear that same expression. Usually it was after you volunteered for something. Something likely to kill you.
Korza stood so abruptly that his chair toppled backward and crashed to the tiles—then he stormed off.
“You must forgive Rhun,” the Cardinal said. “In the past, he paid a terrible price in service of the prophecy.”
“What price?” Jordan picked up Rhun’s chair, flipped it around, and straddled it.
“It was almost four hundred years ago.” Lamplit eyes stared past him toward the modern city lights. “I am certain that, should he wish you to know, he will tell you.”
Jordan had half expected that kind of response. He leaned his arms on top of his chair back. “Now that we are on board, how about telling us about the prophecy and why the three of us are so special?”
Erin folded her hands in her lap like a schoolgirl and leaned forward, wanting answers, too.
“When the book was sealed away, prophecy decreed that—” The Cardinal stopped and shook his head. “Better I simply show you.”
He opened a drawer in the table and pulled out a soft leather case. It didn’t look like a prophecy. But when he opened it, Erin sat forward. Jordan scooted closer, shoulder to shoulder with her.
“This is it?” she asked.
The Cardinal pulled out a document sheathed in plastic. Jordan was no judge, but the parchment looked as old as the city around them. Letters written in dark ink marched along the single page. He couldn’t read it but it looked familiar.
“Greek?” he asked.
Erin nodded, leaning closer to read it aloud. “The day shall come when the Alpha and the Omega shall pour His wisdom into a Gospel of Precious Blood that the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve may use it on the day of their need.”
“The Alpha and Omega?” he asked.
“Jesus. I think.” She returned to the parchment and continued reading, running a finger along the plastic surface. “Until such day, this blessed book shall be hidden in a well of deepest darkness by a girl.” She paused. “Or it might be woman? It’s not clear. It says here a ‘Girl of Corrupted Innocence.’ But the last word could also mean knowledge. Biblical references about knowledge and good and evil often get tangled up.”
Jordan’s head was already beginning to spin. “How about a quick overview? Then work out the particulars?”
“Right.” She continued again. “Until such day, this blessed book shall be hidden in a well of deepest darkness by a Girl of Corrupted Innocence, a Knight of Christ, and a Warrior of Man.”
She took another breath. “Likewise shalt another trio return the book to the light. Only a Woman of Learning, a Knight of Christ, and a Warrior of Man may open Christ’s Gospel and reveal His glory to the world.”
The Cardinal stared at Erin. “I believe that is you, Dr. Granger, along with Sergeant Stone and our Father Korza.”
Erin looked down at the parchment. “Why do you think that we are the ones?”
“The three of you came together at the original resting place of the book. Each of you played a part in defeating the creatures of darkness and returned alive to view the desert stars.”
Jordan sighed—too loudly, drawing the others’ eyes. It all sounded like religious crap, and he told them why. “But we didn’t get the book. It was already gone, taken out into the world. Someone probably already opened the book a long time ago.”
“No, my son, if they had opened the book, the world would have changed. Miracles would be commonplace.”
“Maybe,” Jordan said. “But either way, someone else already found it and took it. They must be the ones the prophecy was talking about, right?”
The Cardinal shook his head. “The prophecy does not say who will find it, only who must open it. I believe that whoever has the book cannot open it because they are not part of the prophetic trio. But I believe you three are.”
“Where do we go to find the book?” Erin asked.
Cardinal Bernard shook his head. “I have no answer to that question. Rhun said that he found nothing in the tomb to indicate who had plundered it.”
Erin sought Jordan’s eyes, clearly asking permission. He nodded. He didn’t see much point in keeping secrets now. She reached in her pocket and drew out the Nazi medallion slowly.
“This was found in the dead girl’s grip. She must have snatched it off whoever stole the book, whoever killed her.”
The Cardinal held out his palm. She hesitated before dropping the silver disk into his red glove.
He studied it for a full minute, closely examining the writing on the medal’s edge, reading it aloud. “The Ahnenerbe.”
“You’re familiar with them?” Jordan asked.
“Our order often had similar research interests as this group. The Ahnenerbe scoured the Holy Lands for lost artifacts and religious items of power. Actually, the priest who once led our search for the Gospel was also tasked with observing the Ahnenerbe. Unfortunately, we lost Father Piers during World War Two.” The Cardinal kissed his cross before continuing. “We lost so many back then.”
Jordan knew how that felt.
Bernard straightened slowly, thoughtfully, and passed back the medal. “I know someone who should see this. We have a Pontifical University—one run by the Order of the Sanguines—hidden at the abbey in Ettal, Germany. They have an enormous research library. There you will find our records concerning the Ahnenerbe and their activities during and after the war. Perhaps that should be the first stop on your quest?”
Jordan looked at Erin. “Do you have any better ideas?”
“Better than a Sanguinist library?” She looked ready to leave immediately. “I can’t wait to see it.”
He grinned. No surprise there. Her excitement was contagious. “Unless Father Korza has objections, let’s start there.”
“I will see to the preparations. After that, I must return to Rome—to ready the Vatican if you are successful.”
The Cardinal made as if to stand, but Jordan held up his hand. “Before you do that, I have a favor to ask.”
“I wrote letters for each member of my team.” He kept his voice even, professional, trying not to think. “Letters to be delivered to their families in the event of their deaths, and mine. I left instructions with my CO about where they were and how to deliver them. Could you make sure that they are sent?”
Bernard bowed his head. “I can, my son. We have contacts with many army chaplains.”
Jordan cleared his throat, speaking formally. “One more thing, Your Eminence.”
He reached into a tiny zippered pocket in his jacket and pulled out his wedding ring. He held the ring between his thumb and finger, remembering the rainy day when Karen had put it on his finger, the moment that had been coming at him like a freight train since his senior year of high school. They’d never thought they’d be apart.
“Please see that this gets to my wife’s family,” he said. “I always told them that if I were to die, they would get it back. They had talked of burying it near her gravestone.”
October 26, 11:14 P.M., IST
Erin had been taking a sip of water when Jordan passed over his wedding ring. She smothered a cough of surprise.
The ring shone gold before the Cardinal’s red glove closed over it. “As you wish, my son. It will be done.”
So Jordan wasn’t married—he was widowed.
She fought to fit this change into her overall view of him, barely hearing Jordan give instructions on where to find his letters and where to send the ring. He was supposed to be married. The tan line said so. She hated it when she misinterpreted evidence. He was a widower, one who had clearly loved his wife and hadn’t wanted to let her go.
This changed everything. If he was single, his actions took on a different cast—as did her own. She began reviewing all their past interactions, centering back at last to that kiss in his room.
She found her fingertips touching her lips and had to force her hand down.
“Excuse me, Your Eminence.” A peevish voice carried across the garden, drawing their collective attention. Father Ambrose crossed toward them. “May I clear?”
She stood, not certain of where to go.
“Of course, my son,” the Cardinal said. “We are finished supping.”
Wanting to keep her hands busy, her thoughts redirected, Erin helped Father Ambrose clean off the table while Jordan and the Cardinal kept talking. She hurriedly followed the fussy priest with their plates back to the stairs.
She closed the door, wanting a moment of privacy with Father Ambrose on the stairs.
“I would like to speak to Father Korza,” she said.
Father Ambrose filched the lone remaining grape from the bowl and ate it. Out of view of the Cardinal, he seemed more relaxed. Or maybe he considered her no threat to his position. “You may try to speak to him, but our Father Korza is not a communicative man.”
“I would still like to take my chances,” she said.
“Very well.” Father Ambrose smiled tightly, as if hiding a secret. “But you have been warned.”
She followed him down to a surprisingly modern kitchen and deposited their dishes in the sink.
He then took two brass candleholders from a cabinet, inserted a candle in each, and lit them. “There is no light where we are going,” he explained.
He handed her a candleholder and returned to the spiral stairs. They descended, winding deeper and deeper, passing the cells where she and Jordan had washed up, where they’d kissed. Her steps hurried past that level.
As she continued deeper, she wondered how best to approach Rhun. He had been furious when she and Jordan agreed to accompany him on the search. But why? What price had he paid four hundred years ago?
She considered his alleged age. Could he truly be five hundred years old? That would mean he’d lived through the Renaissance. His courtly, formal mannerisms made more sense now, but nothing else did.
Like why she was even heading down here?
Part of the reason was simple: to escape. She needed to give herself space and time to adjust to the new Jordan.
But Rhun also had answers she needed.
From the priest’s reaction in the garden, she suspected Rhun would be more truthful about the dangers ahead—at least more forthright than the Cardinal. Even though her mind was made up, she wanted to know everything she could about the quest. Rhun might give her answers or, more likely, he would just stare at her with those dark eyes and say nothing. But she had to try.
Father Ambrose stopped in front of another massive wooden door. He struggled to unlock it with a skeleton key from a ring he kept on his belt. The rusty lock looked as if it had not been opened in years.
Hair stood up on her arms as a stray fear came to mind. What if Father Ambrose intended her harm? She scolded herself at such foolishness. Both Jordan and the Cardinal saw her leave with him. He wouldn’t dare do anything to her. Still, her heart would not slow.
The lock finally gave and Father Ambrose pulled back the heavy door with difficulty and pointed into the dark room.
Across the chamber, Rhun knelt in front of what might have been an altar, although it was too dark to tell. A single votive candle lit the room, most of its light absorbed by the scarlet glass that held it. Its small flame revealed a distant, arched ceiling and ancient stained-glass windows that must look out upon nothing but more rock. Empty wooden pews filled the space, separated by a threadbare carpet running down the center.
Was this a Sanguinist’s chapel?
Father Ambrose gestured that she enter first, and she slipped inside, moving quietly, crossing only a few steps past the threshold, not wanting to disturb Rhun in prayer.
As the door closed behind her, the wind blew out her candle. She should have thought to cup the flame. She turned to Father Ambrose—only to find he hadn’t entered with her.
She went back to the door and tried the handle.
He had trapped her alone with Rhun.
She paused, uncertain about what to do. She would not give Father Ambrose the satisfaction of pounding on the door and begging to be let out. Also she did not want to intrude upon Rhun’s prayers.
For him not to notice her presence already, he must be in deep meditation. Rhun noticed everything. His senses were sharper than hers, but now he gave no outward sign that he knew she was here.
Was he so lost in his faith?
She felt a twinge of envy for such focused devotion.
In the quiet, she heard faint words whispered in Latin, words easy to translate because she’d heard them often enough during the Masses of her childhood.
“The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s Blood was shed for thee, and be thankful.”
He was giving himself Communion. For the first time, she truly understood the meaning behind the prayers. Everything she knew about the Church would have to be rethought. Beliefs she had once rejected were being proven true, supported by a history she had not even thought possible.
“The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ keep you in everlasting life.”
He put a large chalice to his lips and intoned:
“The Blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.”
In the desert, he had been ashamed to drink his wine in front of her and Jordan. She crept back to the door, about to knock, but she stayed her hand.
As much as Rhun had hated her and Jordan seeing him vulnerable, it would surely be worse if Father Ambrose did.
She turned her back to Rhun, granting him his privacy. She slid to a sitting position on the floor, wrapped her arms around her knees, and waited.
Rhun raised the cold cup to his lips, inhaling the familiar scents of gold and wine. He needed Christ’s blood tonight more than he had in many years. It would help him heal, and it would still his anger. Knowing the risks, Bernard had bound the innocent woman and the soldier to him. They had accepted the quest, not understanding where it would lead. Had he been so rash when he was a fragile human?
Shame burned in him. The blame for it was not Bernard’s alone. Rhun’s actions had brought the soldier and the woman here. He had told them the forbidden. He had saved them when he should have let them die.
If he failed them now, they would wish that he had let them find a quick death in the desert.
He raised the cup one final time and drank. Long and deep. The liquid scalded his lips, his throat. It was not the fermented grape, but the essence of Christ’s own blood that flamed against the sin that flowed through his tainted body. He set down the drained cup, then raised his arms to shoulder height and let the flames of Christ’s gift burn through him while he finished his prayer. Steam rose from his lips, and he forced the last words through the agony. Then he knelt with nothing left but the memory of his sin.
Fresh rushes rustled under Rhun’s boots as he crossed into the entry hall to greet Elisabeta’s maid, the shy little Anna.
At Čachtice Castle, Elisabeta insisted that each fall the old rushes be discarded, the stone washed clean and dried, and new rushes be left in their place. She strewed chamomile over them, lending her house a clean, restful scent so unlike most of the other noble homes he visited.
“Do you not wish to follow me to the great room, Father?” Anna kept her eyes on the rushes and her birthmark turned from him.
“If you would, Anna, could you fetch the lady here?” Although he had visited many times, tonight he was loath to go deeper inside.
Before Anna had time to leave, Elisabeta arrived in a sumptuous dark green gown cinched tight around her slender waist. “My dear Father Korza! It is rare to see you about so late. Do come into the great room. Anna just laid a fresh fire.”
“I must decline. I believe that my errand … my task … that we are best served if I remain here.”
Her sculpted eyebrows raised in surprise. “How mysterious!”
She waved Anna away, then glided to a high table by the door and lit the beeswax candles. Their honey scent wafted up, reminding him of innocent summers too long past.
Flickering candlelight fell across a face lovelier than he had ever seen. Light glinted off jet-black hair, and silvery eyes danced with mischief. She clasped her hands as she faced him. “Tell me of your errand, Father.”
“I come bearing tidings.” His throat closed.
She stood quite still. The smile vanished from her face, and her silver eyes darkened like a storm cloud. “Of my husband, the Count Nádasy?”
He could not tell her. He could not hurt her. He gripped the silver cross of his office, hoping that it would give him strength. As usual, it only gave him pain.
“He has fallen,” she said.
Of course, as a soldier’s wife, she knew.
“It was with honor. In—”
She sagged back against the wall. “Spare me such details.”
Rhun stood fixed, unable to speak.
She ducked her head, trying to hide tears.
As a priest, he should go to her. He should pray with her, talk of God’s will, explain that Ferenc now dwelt with the exalted. He had filled that role many times and for many mourners.
But he could not do it for her.
Because in truth, he longed to enfold her slim form in his arms, to hold her sorrow against his chest. So, instead, he backed away, letting his cowardice become cruelty, forsaking her at this hard time.
“I offer my deepest condolences for your loss,” he said stiffly.
She raised grief-filled eyes to his. Surprise and confusion flickered across them, then only deeper sadness. She did her best to fix her mask of normality back in place, but she wore it crookedly, unable to fully hide the hurt of his coldness.
“I shall not detain you, Father. The hour is late, and your journey long.”
He said not another word and fled.
Because he loved her, he abandoned her.
As he stumbled down the frost-rimed road that led away from Elisabeta, he realized that everything had shifted between them. Surely she knew it, too. Ferenc had been the wall that kept them both safe, kept them apart.
Without that wall, anything might escape.
Rhun returned to himself, back to the present, sprawled flat on the chapel’s stone floor. As he lay there, he thought again upon that visit to the castle. He should have followed his instinct and fled forever, never to return to her side.
Then, as now, he had buried himself in the dark quiet of the Church. The bright scents in his life dissolved into nothing more than stone dust, the sweat of men, and traces of frankincense, spicy with an undertone of the conifer from which it had bled.
But nothing green and alive.
During those long-ago nights, he had performed his priestly duties. But during the days, he gazed into the Virgin Mary’s clear eyes as she wept for her son, and he thought only of Elisabeta. He slept only when he had to, because when he slept he dreamed that he had not failed her, that he held her warm body against his and comforted her. He kissed her tears, and sunshine returned to her smile, a smile meant for him.
In his long years of priesthood, his faith had never wavered. But, then, it did.
He had put aside thoughts of her and prayed until the stone rubbed his knees raw. He had fasted until his bones ached. Only he and one other Sanguinist in all the centuries had not tasted human blood, had never taken a human life. He had thought his faith stronger than his flesh and his feelings.
And he had thought that he conquered them.
His hubris still ate at him.
His pride had caused his downfall, and hers.
Why had the wine shown him this part of his penance tonight?
A heartbeat thrummed through his thoughts, pulling him back to the candlelit chapel.
A human, here? Such trespass was forbidden.
He raised his head from the stones. A woman sat with her back to him, her head bowed over her knees. The angle of her head called to him. The nape of her neck smelled familiar.
The name drifted through the fog of memories and time.
The Woman of Learning.
Rage burned inside him. Another innocent had been forced into his path. Better that he kill her now, simply and quickly, than abandon her to a crueler fate. He stood as crimson tinged his vision. He fought against the lust with prayer.
Then another faint, familiar heartbeat reached his ears, thick and irregular.
The priest had locked Erin in with Rhun, either to shame him, or perhaps with the hope that Rhun’s penance might cause him to lose control, as it almost had.
He crossed the room so swiftly that Erin flinched and held her hands up in a placating gesture.
“I’m sorry, Rhun. I didn’t mean to—”
He reached past her and shoved the door open with the force that only a Sanguinist could muster, taking satisfaction at the sound of Ambrose’s heavy body thudding into the wall.
Then he heard the man’s rushed and frightened footsteps retreating up the stairs.
He returned to Erin and helped her to her feet, smelling the lavender off her hair, the slight muskiness of her fading fear. The beat of her heart settled, her breathing softened. He held her hand a moment too long, feeling her warmth and not wanting to let go of it.
She was alive.
Even if it cost the world, he would make sure that this never changed.
October 26, 11:41 P.M., IST
Undisclosed location, Israel
Tommy rested his forehead against the window of his hospital room, slowly rapping his knuckles against its thick glass, listening to the dull thud. By now, he had convinced himself that this place was a military hospital or maybe even a prison.
He pulled his IV pole closer, wondering if he could use it like a battering ram to break his way free.
But then what?
If he managed to break the window and jumped, would he die? A television show he watched a couple of years ago said that any fall above thirty feet was probably not survivable. He was higher than that.
He toyed with the leads attached to his IV port. The medical staff measured everything about him—his heart rate, his oxygen saturation levels, and other random stuff. The Hebrew labels were gibberish to him. His father could read Hebrew and had tried to teach him, but Tommy had only learned enough to get through his bar mitzvah.
Reminded of his father, he pictured the blackish-orange gas rolling over his parents.
If he hadn’t told them the gas was safe, they might still be alive. He knew now the gas was toxic, just not to him. Immune was the word he’d heard one doctor use. Maybe he could have dragged his parents to safety. That strange priest at Masada had said that there was nothing he could have done, but what else could he say?
You killed your parents, kid. You’re going to Hell, but it’ll be a long time till you get there.
Tommy looked out the window again. It was a long drop to the desert. Far below, the boulders’ shadows looked like spilled ink against the brighter sand. It was a bitter landscape, but from this height, it looked peaceful.
A rustle jerked his attention back into the room.
A kid was standing right next to him. He looked about Tommy’s age, but he wore a gray three-piece suit. He sniffed the air like a dog, his nose moving closer to Tommy with each sniff. His black eyes glittered.
“Can I help you?” Tommy asked, stepping away.
This earned him a smile—one so cold that he shivered.
Suddenly terrified, Tommy tapped his call button repeatedly, sending out an SOS of panic. He shrank back against the window as his heart rate spiked, triggering the monitors to beep wildly.
The boy winked.
Tommy was struck by the oddity of the action.
Who winked nowadays? Seriously, who—
The kid’s right hand moved so fast that Tommy didn’t even see a blur until it stopped by the angle of his jaw. A sharp pain cut across his neck.
Tommy brought both hands up to feel. Blood ran through his fingers. It pumped from his throat, soaked his hospital gown, dripped on the floor.
The boy lowered his arm and watched, cocking his head slightly.
Tommy pressed his hands against his throat, trying to cut off the flood, strangling himself in the attempt. But blood continued to pour through his fingers.
He screamed, earning only a warm gurgle as hot pain chased up his throat.
Knowing he needed help, Tommy yanked off his EKG leads. Behind him, the monitor flatlined, setting an alarm to wailing.
Immediately, two soldiers charged into the room, machine guns up and ready.
He saw their shocked expressions—then the boy winked again.
The kid lifted a chair, moving blindingly fast, and smashed it through the thick window. Without stopping, he shoved Tommy out into the night.
Free at last.
Cold air brushed across his body as he fell. Warm blood pumped from his neck.
He closed his eyes, ready to see Mom and Dad.
He had barely pictured them—when the ground slammed against his body. Nothing had ever hurt like this. Surely it had to end soon. It had to.
Bullets sparked the asphalt around him. The soldiers shot through the broken window. Bullets tore electric trails of pain into his chest, his thigh, his hand.
Sirens sounded. Searchlights went up.
The boy landed lightly next to him, gray suede boots barely making a sound against the ground. Had he jumped? From that height?
The boy grabbed his arm. Tommy’s bones ground against one another as the kid dragged him out of the spotlights and into the desert, running as quickly as a gazelle. He clearly did not care how the rocks cut Tommy’s back, how the jouncing grated his broken bones.
All the while uncaring stars shone down on them both.
Winking as coldly as the boy.
Tommy wanted it to end. He wanted to sleep. He wanted to die.
He counted down to his death.
One. Two. Three. Four …
Through the haze of pain, he had the worst thought of his life.
What if I can’t die at all?
October 26, 11:44 P.M., IST
Erin kept several feet behind Rhun as he swept out of the chapel, up the stairs, and through a maze of tunnels. Even as swiftly as he moved, she knew he kept his pace slow so that she could keep up, but it scared her to be close to him. In the flickering red glow of the chapel, his rage had been unmistakable. It looked like he had barely restrained himself from attacking her.
If not for the dark maze of winding tunnels, she would have run away. But she had lost her own candle, and she needed the light of the chapel’s votive candle, held in Rhun’s hand, to return to safety.
Then at last, she heard voices arguing, echoing from ahead, from an open doorway glowing with light. She recognized them all: the timbre of Jordan’s anger, Father Ambrose’s prissy officiousness, and the sighing resignation of Cardinal Bernard.
“So where is she?” Jordan boomed, plainly wondering what Father Ambrose had done with her.
Steps away, Rhun’s dark form disappeared through the doorway.
She hurried behind to discover a modern room with whitewashed walls, a polished stone floor, and a long table covered with weapons and ammunition.
All eyes turned to her when she entered.
Jordan’s face relaxed. “Thank God,” he said—though God had nothing to do with it.
The others remained inscrutable, except Rhun.
He rushed forward, seized Father Ambrose by the neck, and slammed him against the wall. The short priest’s feet dangled in the air.
“Cardinal!” Father Ambrose gasped, choking.
Rhun tightened his hand on the priest’s throat. “There will come a reckoning between us, Ambrose. Remember that.”
Jordan took a step toward them, his hands raised as if to intervene.
The Cardinal’s face was impassive. “Let him go, Rhun. I will make sure he is properly admonished.”
Rhun leaned closer.
Only Erin, standing to the side, saw the sharper points on Rhun’s teeth as he snarled and threatened. “Leave my sight. Lest that reckoning come now.”
Rhun dropped the priest, who had gone dead-white. So he had seen those points, too. Father Ambrose collected himself, scuttled a few paces away, then fled.
Jordan stepped closer. “Erin, are you okay? Where were you? What happened?”
She didn’t want to talk about it, especially not until she’d adjusted to the change in the marital status of her new teammate. Still, she was more grateful than ever that he was accompanying them on the expedition. She pictured the dark rage in Rhun’s face when he looked at her in the chapel, how his teeth had sharpened when he threatened Father Ambrose.
She leaned closer to Jordan’s reassuring warmth. “Thanks.”
Cardinal Bernard cleared his throat. “Since you are returned to us, Dr. Granger … perhaps now we should finish our discussion of the strigoi.”
He gestured to the loaded table of weaponry. Erin kept to the far side of Rhun, despite the fact that he seemed calm again.
Jordan picked up a pair of goggles from the table and studied them. “These are night-vision scopes, but they look odd.”
“They are of special design, made to toggle between low-light vision and infrared,” Bernard explained. “A useful tool. The low-light feature allows you to discern opponents at night, but since the strigoi are cold, they do not glow with body heat on infrared goggles. If you toggle between those two features, you’ll be able to separate humans from strigoi at night.”
Curious, needing to try this out for herself, Erin picked up the other pair of goggles and looked at Jordan. His hair and the tip of his nose were now yellow; the rest of his face looked warm and red. He waved an orange hand.
She remembered the heat of his kiss—and shoved that thought back down.
She hurriedly turned the goggles on Rhun. Even though the Cardinal had just told her that his body would be at room temperature, it still startled her when she saw his face in the same cold purples and deep blues as the wall behind him. When she switched to low-light vision, everyone looked the same.
“How’d it work?” Jordan asked.
Yet another scientific tool that showed how other Rhun was from them. Did he have anything in common with them at all?
“Here are silver rounds for your weapons.” The Cardinal handed wooden boxes to Jordan. “It is difficult to stop a charging strigoi with a gun, but these bullets help. They are hollow points and expand on impact to maximize the amount of silver that comes in contact with their blood.”
Jordan shook a bullet into his palm and held it up to the light. The bullet and casing glinted white silver. “How does that help?”
“Our unique blood resists mortal diseases. We can live forever unless felled by violence. Our immune system is superior to yours in every way, except when it comes to silver.”
“But you carry silver crosses.” Erin pointed to the cross atop the Cardinal’s red cassock.
He kissed his gloved fingertips and touched his pectoral cross. “Each Sanguinist bears that burden, yes, to remind us of our cursed state. If we touch the silver—” He took off his leather glove and pressed a pale finger against the bullet in Jordan’s hand. The smell of burning flesh drifted to Erin. The Cardinal held up his finger to show where the silver had seared his flesh. “It burns even us.”
“But not as bad as it does the strigoi, I’d wager,” Jordan said, pocketing the rounds.
“That is true,” Bernard admitted with a bow of his head. “As a Sanguinist, I exist in a state halfway between damnation and holiness. Silver burns me, but does not kill me. Strigoi do not have the protection of Christ’s blood in their veins, so silver is much more deadly to them.” He drew his glove on again. “Holy objects also have some value, although not enough to kill them.”
“Then how do we defend ourselves?” Jordan asked.
“I suggest that you view strigoi as animals,” the Cardinal said. “To put them down, you must grievously wound them with traditional weapons, just like any other animal.”
She looked over at Rhun, who showed no reaction to being called an animal.
Instead, the priest took a dagger and slashed his palm.
His eyes flicked to her face as blood pattered to the table. “You must understand fully,” he said.
“Doesn’t that hurt?” She couldn’t help but ask.
“We feel many things more acutely than humans. Including pain. So, yes, it does hurt, but watch the wound.”
He held out his open hand. The blood flowing from his cut stopped as abruptly as if he had turned off a tap. The blood at the edge of his wound even seeped back into his hand.
“And you are showing us this cool little trick because …?” Jordan asked.
“The secrets lie in our blood. It flows on its own through our bodies, a living force. This means our wounds stop bleeding almost instantly.”
Erin leaned closer. “So you don’t need a heart to propel your blood? It does it on its own?”
Rhun bowed his head in acknowledgment.
Erin considered the implications. Was this the origin of the legend of the living dead? Strigoi seemed dead because they were cold and didn’t have beating hearts?
“But what about breathing?” she asked, wanting every detail.
“We breathe only to smell and to speak,” Rhun explained. “But there is no necessity for it. We can hold our breath indefinitely.”
“More good news,” Jordan mumbled.
“So now you understand,” Rhun said. “As Cardinal Bernard warned you, if you cut a strigoi, keep cutting. Do not assume that they are fatally wounded, because they are likely not. Be on guard at all times.”
“A strigoi’s only weaknesses are fire, silver, sunlight, and wounds so grievous that they cannot stop the blood flow quickly enough.”
Jordan stared down at the array of weaponry, clearly more worried than he’d been a moment ago. “Thanks for the pep talk,” he muttered.
The Cardinal spread his gloved hands across several daggers that had been laid out on the table. “All of these weapons are coated with silver and blessed by the Church. I think you will find them more effective than the blade you wear at your ankle, Sergeant Stone.”
Jordan picked up each dagger, testing its heft. He settled on a bone-handled knife that was almost a foot long. He examined it closely. “This is an American Bowie knife.”
“A fitting weapon,” Rhun said. “It dates back to the Civil War and was carried by a brother of our order who died during the Battle of Antietam.”
“One of the bloodiest fights of that war,” Jordan commented.
“The blade has since been silver-plated.” Rhun eyed Jordan. “Wear it well and with respect.”
Jordan nodded, soberly acknowledging the weapon’s heritage.
Erin remembered the knife battles in the tomb. She would never cower helplessly in a box again. “I want one, too. And a gun.”
“Can you shoot?” the Cardinal asked.
“I hunted as a kid—but I’ve never shot anything I didn’t intend to eat.”
Jordan gave her that crooked grin again. “Think of this as shooting something that wants to eat you.”
She forced a smile, still sickened by the thought of shooting someone, even a strigoi. They looked like people; they were once people.
“They will not hesitate to kill you or worse,” Rhun said. “If you cannot bring yourself to take their lives—”
“Now, Rhun,” the Cardinal interrupted. “Not everyone is meant to serve as a soldier. Dr. Granger will be traveling as a scholar. I am certain that you and Sergeant Stone can keep her safe.”
“I do not share your unswerving belief in our abilities,” Rhun said. “She must be ready to defend herself.”
“And I will.” Erin picked up a Sig Sauer pistol.
“A fine weapon.” The Cardinal handed her a few boxes of silver ammunition.
She put the gun in a shoulder holster, feeling ridiculous in her long skirt, like she should be part of a Wild West sideshow. “Can I get a pair of jeans?”
“I will see to it,” Bernard promised, then pointed to a pair of garments hanging on wall pegs: two long leather dusters. “And these are for you also.”
Jordan crossed and fingered the larger of the two coats. “What’s this made of?”
“From the wolf skin of a blasphemare,” the Cardinal said. “You’ll find such leather both stab- and bullet-resistant.”
“Like body armor,” Jordan said approvingly.
Erin picked up the smaller coat, clearly meant for her. It was about twice as heavy as a normal jacket. Otherwise it looked the same, textured like expensive leather.
Jordan pulled his on over his shoulders. It was the color of milk chocolate, and it suited him perfectly. He looked even better in it than he did in his camouflage.
Erin slipped into her jacket, a lighter brown than Jordan’s. It reached her knees, but was full enough to allow plenty of movement. The round collar brushed the bottom of her chin, protecting her neck.
“I also want to give you this.” Rhun pressed a silver necklace into her hand, a chain with an Orthodox cross.
Years ago, she had worn such a cross every day—until finally she had flung it from the horse’s back as she fled the compound. After years of beating God into her, her father had succeeded only in beating God out of her.
“How is this useful?” she asked. “The Cardinal said that holy objects are not that powerful against the strigoi.”
“It is no mere weapon.” Rhun spoke so softly she had to strain to hear him. “It’s a symbol of Christ. That is beyond weaponry.”
She stared at the sincerity in his eyes. Was he trying to bring her back into the fold of the Church? Or was it something more?
In deference to what she saw in his gaze, she hung the cross around her neck. “Thank you.”
Rhun bowed his head fractionally, then handed another cross to Jordan.
“Isn’t it early in the relationship for jewelry?” Jordan asked.
Rhun’s eyebrows drew together in confusion.
Erin smiled—and it felt good to do so. “Don’t mind him. He’s teasing you, Rhun.”
Jordan sighed, put his hands on his hips, and asked one last question. “So when are we leaving?”
Bernard answered with no hesitancy. “At once.”
They mounted up to heaven;
they went down to the depths;
their courage melted away in their evil plight.
October 27, 3:10 A.M., Central European Time
With the promise of dawn still hours away, Jordan shifted in the rear passenger seat of the black Mercedes S600 sedan. He stared out the window into a dark Bavarian forest, where night still held sway. Erin sat next to him, while up front, Korza drove with a skill that demonstrated his preternatural reflexes.
Mario Andretti in a Roman collar.
Beyond the asphalt of the winding stretch of road, spruce and fir trees carved blacker lines into the murky gray sky. All around, wisps of fog stretched from the dark loam like ghostly fingers. Jordan rubbed his eyes. He had to stop thinking like a man trapped in a horror movie. Reality was freakish enough without letting his imagination run away with him.
He yawned, still jet-lagged. He had barely climbed into the luxurious private plane supplied by the Vatican before falling asleep in one of its giant seats. It was hard to believe that it was still the same night, and they had left Jerusalem only four hours before, whisking north at the jet’s top speed.
When the plane had landed in Munich, Erin had an endearing, just-woken-up look, so he figured she got a bit of sleep, too.
Now she was facing away from him in the backseat, looking out her own window. She wore simple gray jeans, a white shirt, and the leather jacket the Cardinal had given her. Jordan slid his finger around his own high collar. Except for the tight neck, it was the most comfortable body armor he’d ever worn, and it looked like a regular jacket. Still, considering what they were up against, it might not be enough.
Up front at the wheel, Korza had ditched his torn cassock and wore his own leathers—black, nicer than Erin’s and Jordan’s, and tailored. He seemed unfazed by the long night they had spent.
Had he slept at all on the plane? Did he need sleep?
Jordan hadn’t made a sound since the car started, not wanting to distract Korza from the road. Erin had kept quiet, too, but he doubted it was for the same reason.
He couldn’t figure her out. Ever since he handed the Cardinal his wedding band, Erin seemed to have retreated from him. He caught her watching him occasionally from the corner of her eye, as if she dared not look him fully in the face.
If he’d known that announcing that he was single would make her less interested in him rather than more, he would have passed the ring to Bernard in private. But what did he know about women? He’d spent the year since Karen’s death hiding behind the ring.
Erin stirred beside him. “There’s the village of Ettal.”
He leaned over to see where she pointed.
Ahead, nestled in the piney woods, glowing streetlamps revealed white buildings with brown roofs. Most windows were still dark at this early hour. The place resembled a postcard, a picturesque hamlet with the words Enjoying Bavaria! emblazoned on the front. It was hard to believe the humble village hid a darker secret, that it was a Sanguinist stronghold.
Rhun did not slow and swept past the town.
A few hairpin turns later, a grand Baroque structure appeared, rising high and spreading outward into two towering flanks. In the center, a domed roof thrust into the sky, supporting a massive golden cross that shone in the moonlight. Countless archways decorated the bone-white facade, sheltering statues or hiding ornate windows.
“Ettal Abbey,” Erin said, awed, sitting straighter. “I had hoped to see it someday.”
Jordan liked to hear her talking again.
She continued, excitement returning to her voice. “Ludwig of Bavaria chose this spot for the abbey because his horse bowed three times at this site.”
“How do you get a horse to bow?” Jordan asked.
“Divine intervention apparently,” Erin answered.
He grinned at her before leaning forward to talk to the priest. “Is this the monastery you were talking about, padre? The secret university?”
“It lies behind. And I’d prefer you call me Rhun, not padre.”
The car fishtailed as it rounded the corner, a plume of gravel spewing from the tires. Their headlights caught simpler buildings in the back, white with red tile roofs, more humble and austere. This seemed more like the Sanguinists’ style.
Rhun drew them to a fast stop beside one of the nondescript buildings. The priest was out before the engine had fully died. He remained near the sedan, scanning the surrounding hills, moving only his eyes. His nostrils flared.
Erin reached for her door handle, but Jordan stopped her.
“Let’s wait till he clears us to go. And zip your jacket up, please.”
He wanted her protected as fully as possible.
Outside, Rhun spun in a slow circle, like he expected an attack from any direction.
Rhun cast out his senses, drawing in the heartbeats of the men who were asleep in the neighboring monastery. He smelled pine from the forest and hot metal from the vehicle and heard the soft whoosh of an owl’s wings above the forest, the quick scurry of a vole below his feet.
He found no danger.
He took one breath to relax, to become one with the night. He spent most of his life indoors in prayer or out in the field hunting, too busy with war to enjoy the natural world. When he first took the cloth of his order, the otherness of his senses had frightened him, reminding him always of his nature as one who was damned, but now he treasured these rare moments when he could stop and commune with God’s creation at its fullest, at its most intimate. He never felt nearer to God than in these moments of solitude, far closer than when he was buried on his knees in some subterranean chapel.
He selfishly drew in one more breath.
Then the woman shifted inside the vehicle, recalling him to his duty.
He faced the massive structure of the main building and its two wings. He studied the rear windows, watching for any movement. It appeared no one was spying from inside. A thick door stood closed at the base of one of the smaller towers. He stretched his senses through its stout wood planking, but he heard no heartbeat on the far side—only a whisper meant for his ears alone.
“Rhun, be welcome. All is safe.”
Rhun relaxed at the familiar soft voice, accented in German.
He turned and gave Jordan a quick nod. At least the man had had sense enough to stay inside the car with Erin. The pair clambered out, sounding loud and clumsy to Rhun’s sharp ears.
Once they were safely in his shadow, Rhun strode toward the wood door.
Jordan kept himself between Erin and the dark forest, protecting her from the most likely direction of attack. He had good instincts, Rhun had noticed. Perhaps that would be enough.
The thick door opened before they reached it.
Rhun stepped to the side to let the other two precede him. The sooner they were out of the open, the better.
As Jordan and Erin ducked through the small doorway, he cast one final glance around. He uncovered no menace, but danger still pricked at his senses.
October 27, 3:19 A.M., CET
Hidden on a forested hilltop overlooking the abbey, Bathory lay on her stomach in a bower of leaf litter, letting the cold damp soothe the fury smoldering inside her at the sight of Rhun Korza.
Bare linden branches creaked above. Through her high-power binoculars, she had watched the knight leave the sedan behind the monastery. She’d placed her post far from the monastery to stay out of range of the Sanguinist’s senses. The knight’s caution as he stood at a rear doorway indicated his suspicion, but he had not discovered her.
Right now her only enemy was the rising fog.
As Korza disappeared inside the abbey, she rested her forehead on her arm in relief.
The risky gamble she had played had paid off handsomely.
She had sent the photos of the Nazi medallion to three historians who were in league with the Belial. As they squabbled over the medallion’s importance, she had set another course, turning to her network of spies throughout the Holy Lands. They came back with news that Korza planned to take a plane to Germany, but they didn’t know where he would land, where he would go.
She did know—or at least, she had her suspicions.
Korza would not let the book’s trail grow cold for long. He would take the only clue from the tomb and consult historians loyal to his order, as she had done with those loyal to hers. She knew about Ettal Monastery, the Pontifical University of Sanguinist scholars devoted to historical research, going back to the end of World War II.
Of course he would come here.
So she had acted, telling no one, knowing that waiting for permission would take too long. She gathered all of the strigoi forces out of the sands of the Holy Lands—a small army—and hunkered them down here in loam and leaf.
It had been a bold move, one supported by Tarek, who she knew secretly hoped she would fail.
Magor shifted next to her, resting his head on her shoulder. She leaned against him. Despite wearing a thick fur-lined coat against the frigid cold of the Bavarian night, she appreciated the furnace of Magor’s body, and even more, the affection flowing from him, bathing her as warmly as his flesh. Likewise, he sought reassurance from her. She felt the undercurrent of unease in his breast.
This was a strange new world for the desert wolf.
Be calm … she sent to him … prey bleeds as easily here as out on the sand …
On her other side, another stirred, one who held her only in contempt. “Shouldn’t I take the others and move closer?” Tarek asked. “I have no heartbeat to give me away. Unlike you.”
She ignored the insult, suspecting he wanted to steal the glory of this moment from her. She reined him in. “We stay. We can’t risk alerting them.”
The musty smell of wet leaves filled her nostrils. Unlike Magor, she drank it in. After years in the dry Judean desert, she welcomed the familiar sounds and smells of a forest. It reminded her of her home in Hungary, and she took strength from those happier memories—the time before she took His mark.
“We have more troops this time,” Tarek pressed. “We could take them, wring the information from them, and retrieve the book ourselves.”
She heard the raw desire behind his words, his need to avenge those who had been lost at Masada, to slake his bloodlust. She gripped her binoculars tighter. Did he not realize she shared the same yearning for revenge, for blood? But she would not be foolish or rash—nor would she let Tarek be. That was the true strength of the Belial union: to temper the ferocity of the strigoi with the calculated cunning of humans.
She didn’t bother to turn her head. “My orders stand. Such strongholds have protections against your kind. Just one of those Sanguinists took down six of you on unfamiliar ground in Masada, and we do not know how many live at the abbey. Anyone who ventures down there will not return.”
Most of her troops looked cowed at the thought.
Tarek did not. He pointed toward the abbey, ready to argue, to test her. She was done with his disrespect of her authority. She needed to break him as surely as the Sanguinist had broken her family.
She grabbed his extended arm and forced his hand to her throat before he could react. “If you think you can lead,” she spat, “then take it!”
As his palm touched her mark, his skin sizzled. Tarek leaped high and away with a snarl, his fingers smoking from the brief contact with Bathory’s tainted blood, even through her skin.
The other men fell back—all but Rafik.
He came to his brother’s defense, landing on top of her.
Magor growled, ready to join the fray.
No, she willed to him.
This was her fight, her lesson to teach.
She rolled Rafik’s thin frame under her, straddling him like a lover. She grabbed a fistful of his hair and dragged his mouth to her throat. Tender flesh smoked as Rafik screamed and writhed under her.
She stared at Tarek all the while. “Should I feed your brother?”
The anger in his eyes blew out, replaced with fear—for his brother’s life, but also fear of her. Satisfied, she let Rafik go and cast him away. He went whimpering on all fours to Tarek’s side, his lips smoking and blistered.
Tarek knelt and comforted his addled brother.
Bathory felt a twinge of guilt, knowing Rafik’s intelligence was little better than that of a small child, but she had to be hard—harder than any of them.
Magor belly-crawled to her side, both nosing her to make sure she was okay and prostrating himself to show he respected her dominant role in the pack.
She scratched behind his ear, accepting his wolfish deference.
She stared over at Tarek, expecting the same from him.
Slowly, his head bowed, his eyes averted.
She returned to her leafy bower and lifted her binoculars.
Now to break the other one.
October 27, 3:22 A.M., CET
As soon as Erin stepped through the small rear door of the abbey, the familiar smell of wood smoke took her back to her days of hauling firewood and water at the compound.
The oddity of it struck her. Why would the Sanguinists need a fire? Did they enjoy the warmth, the dance of flame, the crackle of embers? Or were there humans in this part of the abbey?
Past the threshold, she stopped alongside Jordan at the entrance to a long stone hallway, the end hidden in darkness. The way was blocked by a cherubic-looking priest, no more than a boy really.
If he was a boy.
“I am Brother Leopold,” he greeted them, accompanied by a slight bow, his accent strongly Bavarian. He wore a simple monk’s robe and round, wire-rim glasses. “Let me switch the lights on.”
He reached forward, but Rhun caught his hand. “No illumination until we are well away from the door.”
“Forgive my carelessness.” Brother Leopold motioned to the long hall. “We get little excitement here in the provinces. If you’ll follow me.”
He hustled them down the dark hallway to a set of stairs. In the darkness, Erin stumbled and almost took a header down the steps, but Rhun caught her elbow and pulled her upright, his hand as firm as it was cold.
Jordan put a pair of the night-vision goggles in her other hand. “We’ve got the toys. Might as well use them. Like they say, when in Rome …”
She slipped the glasses over her head and strapped them in place. The world brightened into shades of green. She could now easily pick out the stairs. Rather than crude stone steps, she found only worn linoleum, which remined her of the steps at any other university.
The small touch of normalcy reassured her.
Curious, she switched her goggles to infrared mode, picking out the glow of Jordan’s body heat beside her. She instinctively drew a little closer to it.
A glance toward their host revealed that he had vanished—though she could still hear his footsteps on the stairs. He plainly cast no body heat. Despite his cherubic exterior, he was not a young man, not at all. He was a Sanguinist. Disturbed at the thought, she quickly toggled back to low-light mode.
At the bottom of the stairs, a steel door with an electronic keypad blocked their way.
Brother Leopold punched five digits into the keypad and the door swung inward. “Quickly, please.”
Erin looked over her shoulder, suddenly fearful, wondering what danger he had sensed.
“The room is climate-controlled,” Brother Leopold explained with a reassuring smile. “Nothing more, I assure you.”
She hurried through the door, followed by Jordan, who did not relax his vigilant posture.
Brother Leopold reached over and flipped a switch. Light flared, bursting blindingly bright through Erin’s goggles. Both she and Jordan ripped off the equipment.
“Sorry,” Brother Leopold said, realizing what he had done.
Erin blinked away the residual retinal flare to discover an overstuffed office, much like her own back at Stanford. But instead of biblical-era treasures, the room was filled with memorabilia and artifacts from World War II. Framed maps from the 1940s plastered one wall; another was covered with a floor-to-ceiling case crammed with books shelved two deep; the far wall was odd, covered with black glass. The room smelled like old books, ink, and leather.
The scholar in her wanted to move in and never leave.
A dilapidated leather office chair stood at an angle to the large oak desk. The top was obscured by stacks of papers, more books, and a glass display box filled with pins and medals.
Jordan surveyed the room. “Thank God, for once, I don’t see a single thing that looks older than the United States.”
“You say that like it’s a good thing,” Erin scolded.
“And do not be fooled,” Rhun added. “Much evil has been done in modern settings as well as old.”
“No one is going to let me enjoy the moment, are they?”
Jordan moved closer to her as he let Brother Leopold pass. She again felt the welcoming and reassuring heat of his body.
“Forgive me for not tidying up,” the young monk said, adjusting his glasses. “And for not making a proper introduction. You are Sergeant Jordan Stone, yes?”
“That’s right.” Jordan offered his hand.
Brother Leopold grasped it in both of his, pumping it up and down. “Wilkommen. Welcome to Ettal Abbey.”
“Thanks.” Jordan gave the monk a genuine smile.
Brother Leopold returned it, his expression as enthusiastic as his handshake.
After making her own introductions, Erin decided the monk seemed far more human than either Rhun or Bernard. True, his hand felt as cold as theirs when she shook it, but it was still friendlier than the usual stiff and formal gloved handshake of the others.
Maybe he was simply younger than his centuries-old elders.
Brother Leopold turned with a dramatic sweep of his arm over the chaos of his office. “The collection and I are at your disposal, Professor Granger. I understand you have some artifact that you wish to gain some further insight about.”
“That’s right.” She reached under her long duster to her pants pocket and pulled out the Nazi medal. She held it out toward the monk. “What can you tell us about this?”
He held it between his pudgy finger and thumb, eyeballing it with and without his glasses. He flipped the coin over several times, finally drifting toward his desk, where he placed the medal under a fixed magnifying lens.
He read the writing along the edge of the medallion. “Ahnenerbe. No surprise to find one of their calling cards buried in the sands of the Holy Land. That group spent decades scouring tombs, caves, and ruins there.”
He tapped the symbol on the back. “But this is interesting. An Odal rune.” He glanced at Erin. “Where exactly was this found?”
“In the mummified hand of a girl murdered in the Israeli desert. We are looking for something, an artifact, that might have been stolen from her by the Ahnenerbe.”
One of the monk’s eyebrows lifted in surprise. He looked to them for further explanation, but when none came he simply sighed and concluded, “The Nazis’ evil ranged far.”
Erin felt guilty for not being more open with the enthusiastic monk. She knew Brother Leopold had been told nothing about the search for the Blood Gospel, only that they needed help with the medallion found in the desert.
“Do you think you can figure out whom the medal might have once belonged to?” she asked. “If we knew that, we might know where to continue our search.”
“That may be difficult. I see no identifying marks.”
She tried not to look crestfallen, but how could she not?
Jordan must have caught her tone because he squeezed her shoulder and changed the subject. He read a few of the titles off the maps, pronouncing the German names correctly.
“You speak German?” she asked.
“A little,” Jordan said. “And a little Arabic. And a little English.”
Rhun shifted, drawing Erin’s attention to him. She wondered how many languages he spoke.
Jordan faced Brother Leopold. “How did you come upon such a comprehensive collection of maps?”
“Some have been in my possession since they were drawn.” The monk stroked wooden rosary beads hanging from his belt. “I am ashamed to say that I was a member of the National Socialist Party, when I was human.”
Jordan’s eyes widened. “You—”
Equally surprised, Erin tried to picture the round monk with the open face as a Nazi.
Rhun interrupted. “Perhaps we should turn our attention to the Ahnenerbe?”
“Of course.” Brother Leopold sat on his creaky leather chair. “I merely wish your two companions to understand that my knowledge of such matters is not esoteric. Since becoming a Sanguinist, I have learned more about the activities of the Nazis and have dedicated my continuing existence and my studies to the undoing of their evil and to ensure that such malevolence never rises again.”
“To that end,” Rhun asked, “have you seen any medallions like this before?”
“I’ve seen similar.” Brother Leopold rummaged through a desk drawer and pulled out a tiny wooden box with a glass lid. “Here are some badges of the Ahnenerbe. Most of these were collected by Father Piers, a mentor of mine and the priest who converted me to the cloth. He knew far more about the Nazi occult practices than anyone—probably more than the Germans knew themselves.”
Erin remembered Cardinal Bernard mentioning the deceased priest’s name back in Jerusalem. Over the centuries, many famous historians had died, taking their undocumented knowledge with them to the grave. That kind of tragedy was not limited to human scholars.
The monk directed her attention back to the display box. “I think you’ll appreciate the shape of the medal in the center.”
He tapped the glass over a pewter badge in the shape of the Odal rune, with a swastika in the middle and two legs extending out from the bottom like tiny feet.
She read the words that marched around its edges. “Volk. Sippe.”
“‘Folk’ and ‘tribe,’” he translated. “The Ahnenerbe believed that Germans descended from the Aryan race, a people that they believed settled Atlantis before moving north.”
“Atlantis?” Jordan shook his head.
Erin’s eye caught on another pin in the case. The emblem appeared to be a pedestal holding up an open book. “What’s this one?”
“Ah, that one represents the importance of Ahnenerbe in documenting Aryan history and heritage, but there are some who say it represents a great mystery, some occult book of deep power held by them.”
Erin matched glances with Rhun.
Could this be some hint of their possession of the Blood Gospel?
The monk shoved aside a stack of Nazi-era documents to reveal a modern keyboard. He began typing, and the wall of glass beside his desk bloomed to light, revealing it to be a giant computer monitor. Across the large screen, data scrolled at startling speeds. It appeared the Sanguinists had their share of both ancient and modern toys.
“If you’re looking for a lost Ahnenerbe artifact,” Leopold said as his fingers flew over the keyboard, “this is a map of Germany. I’ve been working on it for the better part of sixty years. The red arrows you see represent suspected Nazi bunkers and repositories. Green ones have been cleared.” He sighed. “Sadly there are more red arrows than green.”
Erin felt a sinking in her gut. Barely an inch of the map didn’t contain an arrow.
And yes, most were depressingly red.
“If all these are not cleared,” Erin said, “how come you know they’re even there? What do you mean by suspected Nazi bunkers?”
“We hear stories of them. Local folklore. Sometimes we can guess from half-destroyed Nazi documents.”
Jordan squinted at the screen. “But that’s not the only way you’re pinpointing these places, is it?” He nodded to the crowded screen. “From the sophistication of this survey, I’m guessing you must be using satellite telemetry and ground-penetrating radar to identify hidden, underground structures.”
Brother Leopold smiled. “It almost feels like cheating. But in the end, all that wonderful technology has only succeeded in adding more red arrows to the screen. The only way to know if there’s anything really there—or if those hidden structures contain anything significant—is to search them in person, one by one.”
Rhun’s eyes flicked from side to side as he scanned the map from top to bottom. “What we seek could be in any of those hundreds of locations.”
Brother Leopold pushed back his chair and crossed his legs. “I’m sorry I don’t have a better answer for you.”
Rhun twitched. Erin sensed his impatience. The Belial were on the trail of the book as avidly as she and Jordan and Rhun were. Every minute mattered.
Jordan tapped one of the red arrows. “Then it’s grunt work from here, guys. We go through the sites and assign them high and low probabilities and work through them. Use a grid pattern. It won’t be quick, but it’ll be thorough.”
His idea sounded logical—but it felt wrong.
Jordan watched Erin step to the desk and remove the medallion from under the magnifying lens. He could tell she was frustrated from the pinch of her brows and the stiffness of her back. He didn’t like the idea of searching hundreds of sites either, but what other choice did they have?
As Erin turned in his direction, a light flickered deep in her eyes. That usually meant things were about to change, not always for the better.
He touched her shoulder. “Erin, you got something?”
“I don’t know.” She rubbed the rune on the back of the medal with her thumbs.
Rhun cocked his head, his eyes fixed on Erin with an intensity that somehow rankled Jordan; as if that gaze would consume her.
Jordan shifted to stand between them. “Talk it out,” he said. “Maybe we can help.”
Erin’s brown eyes remained far away. “Symbols were crucial to the Ahnenerbe. Why that symbol on the stolen badge?”
Leopold’s chair creaked. “The Odal rune indicates inheritance. If the Odal rune was written next to a person’s name or an object, it meant ownership.”
“Like writing your name on your sneakers,” Jordan said. He looked over at the badge with the swastika in the center of the rune. “So does that emblem mean the Ahnenerbe owned the Nazis?”
He knew he probably sounded like an idiot to the scholars, but sometimes an idiot’s perspective ended up getting more things done.
“I think it’s more like the Ahnenerbe thought they owned the Third Reich,” Erin clarified. “They believed they were the true protectors of Aryan heritage.”
“But what does that signify?” Rhun pressed her, leaning toward her as if trying to draw the answer from her physically.
Erin leaned back. “I’m not sure, but at the end of the war, Berlin was being bombed. The Third Reich was on the run.” Her words came out slowly, as if she searched for words to a once-familiar story. “And the Ahnenerbe scientists would have known that the war was over long before the formal surrender.”
Leopold nodded. “They would have. But they thought in terms of centuries. To them, the present was a pale thing of little importance. They were interested in the history of the Aryan race going back ten thousand years—and forward the same number of millennia.”
“To the Fourth Reich!” Erin said, her eyes lighting up. “That group would have been planning for the long term. They would have wanted to keep their most important objects hidden until the coming of the Fourth Reich.”
“Which means that they would have hidden them somewhere unknown to the leaders of the Third Reich,” Leopold said, swinging back to his deck. “So we can eliminate any bunkers documented by the Nazi government.”
The monk tapped hurriedly at his keyboard and half the red arrows vanished.
“That helped,” Jordan said.
“There are still too many,” Erin concluded, and began to pace the small office, plainly trying to discharge nervous energy and stay focused.
Rhun did not move, but he tracked her with his eyes.
Erin pointed at the screen but didn’t glance at it. “Where would they hide their more precious artifacts to ensure that some future Aryan scientists could find them?”
“How about Atlantis?” Jordan asked with a roll of his eyes. “With the mermaids?”
She slapped her forehead with her palm. “Of course!”
All three men looked at her as if she were mad.
“Erin,” Rhun warned, his voice gentle. “I must remind you that the Nazis did not know the location of Atlantis.”
She waved such details aside. “Legend has it that the Fourth Reich would rise like Atlantis from the sea, returning the Aryan race to supremacy.” She faced Leopold. “What if the last of the Ahnenerbe tried to hedge that bet, to force the prophecy to be true?”
Rhun stirred next to Jordan, as if something Erin said had disturbed him.
Erin forged on. “To match that legend, they might have hidden their most important and significant artifacts near water. Trapped and surrounded by Allied forces, the last of the Ahnenerbe couldn’t reach the sea at the end of the war—and they would’ve wanted to keep their treasures buried in the soil of the Fatherland anyway. So they might have sought the next best thing.”
Leopold’s voice grew hushed. “A German body of water.”
“A lake,” Erin said.
Leopold typed in a command and all but a dozen red arrows disappeared, marking unexplored lakeside bunkers.
Jordan’s fist tightened with excitement.
Even Rhun came dangerously close to smiling.
“Let me bring up a satellite view of each one,” Leopold said.
In a few minutes, a checkerboard of images filled the large screen, displaying ground-penetrating images of each of the suspected bunkers.
“Mein Gott in Himmel,” Leopold swore, reverting to his native tongue in shock.
They all moved closer to the screen. They all saw it.
In the lower right checkerboard, one of the outlines of the subterranean bunkers was in the exact shape of the Odal rune.
And this particular one wasn’t just next to a lake.
It lay sunken underwater.
Just like Atlantis.
October 27, 3:55 A.M., CET
In front of the computer screen, Rhun stood near enough to Erin to smell the simple soap Bernard stocked at his Jerusalem apartments. Her long hair left a trace of warmth in the air when she swung it away from her face.
Jordan stepped between them, blocking his view of her again. Rhun knew it was done on purpose. The soldier kept his hands out at his sides, ready for anything, including a fight.
Irritation flashed through Rhun, but he forced it away. Jordan was correct to enforce a space between him and this young woman. Erin Granger, with her sharp mind and compassionate heart, was a very dangerous woman indeed. And Rhun needed all the distance he could muster.
Rhun turned his attention to Brother Leopold and to the task at hand. “Is there a triad in residence?”
“Natürlich.” The monk’s rosary clacked against the desk when he rose. “Nadia, Emmanuel, and Christian are here. Shall I fetch them?”
“Nadia and Emmanuel only,” Rhun said. “I will be the third.”
“What’s a triad?” Jordan asked, eavesdropping on their conversation.
Leopold lifted the receiver of a black telephone and explained. “Sanguinist warriors often work in groups of three. It is a holy number.”
And a perfect fighting unit, Rhun added silently.
Aloud, he said, “I will go with two others to this bunker and search it.”
Erin crossed her arms. “I’m going, too.”
“We’re a package deal,” Jordan added. “Isn’t that what the Cardinal said?”
Rhun drew himself up straight. “Your orders were to aid me in the search, which you have done. If we are successful, we will return here with the artifact.”
Jordan gave an unconvincing smile. “I believe the Cardinal said that we were the trio. Woman, warrior, and knight. I’m all for getting reinforcements, but not replacements.”
Brother Leopold dialed four numbers and spoke into the receiver—but his eyes had locked on to the soldier. He had heard what was spoken, knew what it meant, understood now what they sought.
“Rhun,” Erin said. “If the … artifact is in this bunker, my help led you there, and maybe you’ll need my help once you’re inside, too.”
“I have survived for centuries without your help, Dr. Granger.”
She didn’t back down. “If the Cardinal is correct about the prophecy, this is no time for pride. From any of us.”
Rhun blinked. She had blithely named his greatest fault.
Such a fault had once brought him low—he would not let it happen again. She was right. He might very well need their help, and he could not be too proud to accept it.
“We must all do what we were called to do,” Erin said, echoing something the Cardinal had told him.
We must each humbly bow to our own destinies.
Erin added, “The book demands no less.”
Rhun cast his eyes down. If the fulfillment of the prophecy had begun, the three of them together must seek the book. As much as he wanted to, he could not leave Erin behind.
Not even for her own safety.
Or for his.
A new map covered the large computer screen, a modern road map of the mountainous terrain of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. The lake and its hidden bunker lay about forty miles into that rough terrain. On the glowing monitor, Erin traced the thin white line that threaded between dark green hills and ended at the small alpine tarn.
“Is that a road?” she asked.
“An old dirt track,” Brother Leopold said. “The vehicle you arrived in cannot navigate it. But—”
The office door clicked open behind them.
Jordan’s hand went to the butt of his submachine gun.
Rhun flowed back into a ready stance.
Erin simply turned. Were the others right to be so on edge, even here, where she had felt safe? At that moment she sensed her inadequacy to deal with the dangers ahead.
Two black-cloaked figures swept into the room like an icy wind: swift, relentless, and cold. Only when they stopped moving did Erin recognize them as Sanguinists.
The first, surprisingly, was a woman, outfitted in tailored leather armor, similar to Rhun’s—except she wore a thin silver belt that looked like it was made of chain. She had braided her shiny black hair and pinned it up in a bun. Her severe face was darker-complected than Rhun’s, but equally implacable. She rested a gloved hand on the hilt of a dagger that was strapped to her thigh.
Her eyes swept the room, then she offered the slightest bow of her head to Erin and Jordan. “I am Nadia.”
The other, a man, stood two steps behind the woman.
“And I am Emmanuel,” he said, his accent Spanish.
He wore a black cassock, unbuttoned down the front, revealing leather armor beneath and a silvery hint of hidden weapons. Blond hair hung loose past his shoulders, far too long for a priest, and a pink scar ran down one chiseled cheekbone.
Rhun spoke hurriedly to the two in Latin. Erin listened, not showing that she understood. Jordan maintained his usual guard, his palm resting on the stock of his shouldered submachine gun. He plainly didn’t trust any of them.
Erin followed his example and feigned interest in the map on the screen as she eavesdropped.
Rhun quickly related everything in terse Latin: about the prophecy, about Erin and Jordan, about the book they sought and the enemy they faced. As he mentioned the word Belial, both Nadia and Emmanuel tensed.
Once finished, Rhun turned to Leopold. “You’ve readied what I asked?”
Leopold nodded. “Three bikes. They’re already gassed and waiting for you.”
Erin glanced back to the map, to a thin white track that wound through the mountains. It seemed they weren’t going to be traversing that torturous route via car or truck.
“If you are ready,” Rhun asked, taking Erin and Jordan in with a single glance.
Erin could only nod—but even that gesture was false. She hated to leave the familiar territory of dusty books, leather chairs, and the cold certainty of the computer screen. But she was committed.
As Leopold led them back up the stairs, Jordan hung back with her, touching her wrist, allowing his hand to linger.
He bent close to her ear, his breath chasing across her cheek. “Anything I need to know about what they just said?”
Of course, her act hadn’t fooled him. He knew she had been eavesdropping. She struggled to answer his question, but her mind was too busy registering his proximity—and how a part of her longed to close the last inch.
She had to repeat the question in her head before she answered. “Nothing important. He just filled the others in.”
“Keep me apprised,” he whispered.
She glanced over at his eyes, then down to his lips, remembering how they’d felt against hers in Jerusalem.
“Dr. Granger?” Rhun called from the top of the stairs. “Sergeant Stone?”
Jordan gestured for her to proceed ahead of him. “Duty calls.”
Rather breathless—and not only from the climb—Erin hurried toward the Sanguinists.
Once outside, she found the night much colder, the fog much thicker. She could barely make out the outline of their Mercedes sedan.
As they rounded past the car, Jordan whistled appreciatively.
Three black motorcycles, accented with red piping, sat parked on the dried grass ahead. They didn’t seem like much to Erin, but Jordan was clearly impressed.
“Ducati Streetfighters,” he commented happily. “With magnesium rims and what looks like carbon silencers on the exhaust. Nice. Apparently it’s good to be pope.”
Erin had a more practical concern, comparing the number of passengers and the number of bikes. “Who is riding with whom?”
Nadia raised the corner of her mouth in a tiny smile, which went a long way toward humanizing her. “For an even weight distribution, I shall take Sergeant Stone.”
Erin hesitated. She still didn’t fully understand the role of a female Sanguinist. If Rhun was a priest, was Nadia some sort of nun, equally sworn to the Church? Whatever the circumstance, the look she gave Jordan was anything but chaste.
Jordan apparently had his own thoughts on the matter, crossing to one of the bikes. “I can drive.” From the edge to his voice, it was clear that he wanted to drive one of these bikes. “And I prefer that Erin and I stick together.”
“You will slow us down,” Nadia said, her dark eyes twinkling with amusement.
Erin bristled, but she knew, after watching Rhun drive the sedan, that her and Jordan’s reflexes were no match for a Sanguinist’s.
Jordan must have recognized it, too, sighing heavily with a curt nod.
Emmanuel crossed and hooked a leg possessively over one of the bikes, not saying a word. Jordan followed Nadia to another.
“You shall ride with me, Dr. Granger,” Rhun said, motioning to the third motorcycle.
“I don’t know if—”
Rhun stepped past her objection and crossed to the bike, mounting with a flourish of his long coat. Twisting in his seat, he patted the leather behind him with one gloved hand. “I believe you stated ‘the book demands our best.’ Those were your words, were they not?”
“They were.” She hated to admit it and climbed behind him. “Shouldn’t we be wearing helmets?”
Nadia laughed, and her bike roared to life.
Rhun tensed when Erin’s arms slipped around his waist. Even through his leather, he felt the heat of her limbs wrapped low over his midsection. For a moment he fought between elbowing her away and pulling her closer.
Instead, he stuck to the practical requirements of the moment. “Have you ridden before?” he asked, keeping his gaze fixed to the fog-shrouded dark forest.
“Once, a long time ago,” she said.
He felt her heart race against his back. She was more frightened than her tone indicated.
“I will keep you safe,” he promised her, hoping it was true.
She nodded behind him, but her heart did not slow.
Jordan gave a thumbs-up from the back of Nadia’s bike as she throttled her engine to a muffled roar. Emmanuel simply gunned his bike and tore away, not waiting.
Nadia followed after him.
As Rhun urged his bike forward more gently, Erin’s arms tightened around him. Her body slid forward until it pressed against his. Her animal warmth flowed into his back, and his body fought against leaning into it.
He must not permit baser instincts to control him. He was a priest, and with God’s help, he would fulfill his mission. He murmured a short prayer and focused on Nadia’s rapidly disappearing red taillight.
He sped faster—and faster still.
Black tree trunks whipped past on both sides. The blue beam of his headlight penetrated the heavy blanket of fog. He kept his eyes on the uneven road. One misjudgment, and they would crash.
Ahead of him, Nadia and Emmanuel poured on more speed. He matched it.
Erin buried her face between his shoulder blades. Her breaths came quick and shallow, and her heartbeat skittered like a rabbit’s.
Not panicked yet, but close.
Despite his prayers and promises, his body quickened in response to her fear.
Jordan leaned hard into the curve. Nearby trees blurred into a long line of black topped by dark green. Wind stung his eyes. His jacket flapped behind him.
Nadia opened up the throttle on the next straightaway, a rare stretch along this twisting dirt course. He flicked a quick glance over her shoulder at the speedometer: 254 kilometers per hour. That came out to a little more than 150 miles per hour.
It felt like flying.
He felt more than heard Nadia’s laugh as she pushed the bike to go faster.
Unable to stop himself, Jordan matched her enthusiasm, laughing along with her, ebullient and feeling free for the first time since Masada.
Nadia leaned the bike over for another curve. His left knee skimmed a fraction of an inch above the gravel, his face not more than a foot from the rocks that tumbled by under them. One wrong move from either of them, and he was dead.
A part of him hated to be at the mercy of her skill.
No more than a spectator to her dexterity.
Still, he smiled into the wind, tucked in tight against her cold, hard form, and simply abandoned himself to the ride.
October 27, 4:43 A.M., CET
When the motorcycle finally slowed, Erin risked opening her eyes. For most of the journey, she had ridden blind, sheltered behind Rhun’s broad back, but she was still left windburned and rattled.
Ahead, a spatter of lights revealed the reason for Rhun’s slowing pace. They had reached the mountain hamlet of Harmsfeld. He slowed their pace to a crawl as he crept through the center of the sleeping village. The small Bavarian town looked like it had just emerged from a medieval time capsule, complete with dark houses with red tile roofs, stacked stone walls, and painted wooden flower boxes adorning most windows. A single church with a Gothic-style steeple marked a village square, a space that probably converted into a farmers’ market during the day.
She searched past Rhun’s shoulder for the other two bikes, but she saw no sign of them on the cobblestone street, a testament to the more cautious pace Rhun had set with her as his passenger.
Still, she felt like she’d left her stomach in the parking lot of Ettal Abbey.
As they left the village, a silvery expanse of lake appeared. Its still surface held a perfect reflection of the starlit skies above, the surrounding forest hugging its banks, and the craggy peaks that enclosed the valley.
Erin spotted the others, parked beside a beach next to a wooden dock. Its ash-gray pilings were darker than the waters that gently lapped at them.
Rhun roared up next to the other bikes and finally braked to a stop. She forced her hands to unclench from the front of his jacket, unhooking her arms from him and climbing off the bike on shaky legs. She tottered forward like an old lady.
Near the dock, the other three pushed a wooden dory across the mud and into the moonlit water. Jordan’s excited tone echoed off the water to her, expressing how much he had enjoyed his ride. Something he said caused Nadia to laugh, the sound unexpectedly carefree.
Jordan noted Erin’s bowlegged approach and called to her. “How was it?”
She gave him the shakiest thumbs-up of her life, which drew a laugh from him.
Rhun glided past her like a shadow.
Nadia eyed the two of them as they reached the shoreline, as if trying to read some secret message.
Emmanuel simply gave the small rowboat a final heave into the water, set it to floating, and climbed on board. He moved to the front, then sat there as unmoving as the figurehead on a pirate ship.
Nadia leaped as lithely as some jungle cat into the boat.
Jordan stayed on the beach to help Erin into the dory. She took hold of his hand and climbed in, noticing the white paint was peeling off the wide wooden planks of the seats. It didn’t look like the most seaworthy of boats. She freed her flashlight, turned it on, and shone it at the bottom of the boat.
No water inside.
“Did you have an enjoyable ride?” Nadia asked, and moved to the side so Erin could join her on the middle seat.
Rhun and Jordan sat on the plank behind them while Emmanuel continued his lone vigil at the bow.
“On the way back, I think I’ll call a cab,” Erin said.
“Or you can ride with me on the way back,” Jordan said, staring longingly back toward where they had hidden the three Ducati bikes. “That is, if we’re not over deadline.”
Rhun dug his paddle into the water so hard that the boat lurched to the side.
Nadia glanced at him and whispered something in a teasing undertone too faint for Erin to discern. Rhun’s back stiffened, which broadened Nadia’s smile.
The female Sanguinist then handed Erin a heavy wooden paddle. “I believe we four must paddle while Emmanuel rests.”
Emmanuel ignored her and settled back against the gunwale.
Soon Erin was stroking her paddle through the water, trying to settle into the rhythm of the others. As they glided across the surface, fog rolled thicker over the lake, swallowing them up and dimming the moonlight. The dory now bobbed through a ghostly world where Erin could see only a few yards ahead.
Jordan touched her back, and she jumped.
“Sorry,” he said. “Look down.”
He angled his small flashlight into the dark water. The beam stretched down through the murk like a probing finger. Far below, the mottled light traced across a human form. Erin held her breath and leaned closer to the surface. Emerald-green algae draped from an uplifted arm, the curve of a cheek. It was a statue of a man on a rearing horse. Underneath it rested the huge bowl of a fountain.
Fascinated, she freed her own flashlight and played it in a wider circle, revealing the uncanny sight of rectangular forms of ruined houses and lonely stone hearths.
Nadia explained, “According to Brother Leopold, the local Nazis—likely of the Ahnenerbe—had this lake enlarged, damming the river on the far side and flooding the town below. Some claim the Nazis sealed anyone who protested in their own homes, along with their families, drowning them as punishment.”
Below, a school of silvery fish ghosted through Erin’s light. She shivered, wondering how many people had died and were entombed down there.
Jordan’s voice took on a somber tone. “They must have done it to hide the entrance to the bunker beneath the lake.”
Erin had seen enough and switched off her light.
“I assume you both can swim?” Nadia asked.
Erin nodded, although she knew she wasn’t the strongest swimmer. She had learned the basics in college, mostly to appease her roommate, who was convinced she would fall off a dock someday and drown. Erin conceded the practicality of the skill, took the class, but still hated the water.
Jordan, predictably, had better credentials. “I was a lifeguard in high school. Done a bit of training since. I think I’ll be okay.”
Erin had never thought to ask how deep the entrance was to the bunker. What if she couldn’t make it all the way down and had to wait in the boat? Or what if the entire place was simply flooded?
Emmanuel spoke his first word since leaving the abbey, a command that startled Erin with its fierceness. “Stop.”
He pointed into black water in front of the boat.
Jordan shifted forward and shone his flashlight into the water to reveal a rounded arch far below, its crest velvet with algae.
Emmanuel lowered the anchor into the water so slowly that it barely made a splash. Once the dory was secure, he slipped off his cassock, balled it up, and secured it under his leather armor. Then, quick as a fish, he dove and followed the anchor line down.
Blond hair streamed behind him as he sank away.
Erin watched his progress, judging the depth of the water. Maybe twenty feet. She could dive that deep, but what then? Would she have to explore the tunnels underwater?
Her throat closed up.
“You both wait here,” Rhun said, and signaled to Nadia.
The pair dove overboard, rocking the boat, carrying lights down with them. Erin put a hand on each gunwale to steady it, glad to be alone in the boat with Jordan.
“Not much of a swimmer, are you?” Jordan asked with a smile.
“How could you tell?”
He threaded the paddles under the seats, then straightened. “Your shoulders inch up to your ears when you get nervous.”
She made a mental note to stop doing that and gestured to the Sanguinists below. “I sure can’t swim like them.”
Through the water, she watched the trio try to shift what appeared to be a large metal hatch.
“They cheat,” Jordan said. “They don’t need to breathe, remember? Just one more weird thing to add to the list.”
“You have a list?”
He ticked items off on his fingers. “No heartbeat, free-flowing blood, allergic to silver. Did I miss anything?”
“How about the way they can sit still as statues or move twice as fast as we do?”
“There’s that. And the fact that they prey on humans.”
“Sanguinists don’t,” she reminded him. “That’s one of their laws.”
“Law or not, I can tell they still want to. That lust is still in them.” He leaned forward. “I’ve seen the way Rhun looks at you, like he’s both fascinated and hungry.”
“Quit it! He does not.”
She had to turn away, hiding her lack of conviction in her words, the memory of what had transpired in the subterranean chapel in Jerusalem still fresh in her mind.
“Just be careful around him,” Jordan added.
Erin glanced back again, hearing a catch in his voice. Was he right, or was he simply jealous? She wasn’t sure which proposition she found more worrisome.
Just then, a sleek black head popped up next to the boat. Nadia. “The door is open. The bunker is sealed with an air lock. We must enter together, close the first door, and open the second.”
She swam a yard off and waved an arm for Erin and Jordan to follow.
Always a soldier, Jordan dove immediately. He surfaced quickly, rolled onto his back, and stared at Erin with a big grin.
“Water’s fine,” he said, the shiver in his voice belying his words.
Nadia could read the true reason for Erin’s hesitation. “If you are frightened, perhaps you had best remain with the boat.”
Erin stood and leaped into the water. The snowmelt cold of the lake shocked her, as if trying to force reason back into her skull, to encourage her to return to the safety of the boat.
Instead, she took a deep breath and dove straight for the open door below.
At the bottom of the lake, Rhun heard their two heartbeats change when Erin and Jordan entered the water. He stuck his head out of the archway door and shone his waterproof flashlight up, offering them a beacon to follow. Silver moonlight from the surface silhouetted their dark forms as they kicked and pawed their way downward.
The soldier swam swiftly and economically. He could have reached the bottom in seconds, but he hung back, keeping watch on Erin.
She, on the other hand, was a terrible swimmer. Her movements were jerky with panic and her heart raced. Still, Rhun respected her for having the courage to try. Without the heavy grimwolf coat weighing her down, he doubted that she would have made it.
Once she got close enough, Rhun reached out, seized her arm, and pulled her through the archway and into the small flooded air lock. Less than a second later, Nadia and Jordan swam in.
Together, the pair tugged the outer hatch closed.
Metal thudded into place. A quick clanking sounded as they spun the door lock. Rhun’s flashlight revealed concrete walls surrounding them—and the frightened face of Erin.
He worried that her heart might explode, its pace barely pausing between beats. He had to get her out of the water before she panicked and drowned. If the bunker beyond the air lock was flooded, he would have to rush her back to the surface himself.
On the far side of the small chamber, Emmanuel worked at the steel dogs that locked down the inner hatch. As he twisted the last one, the door burst open on its own, shoved by the water pressure from inside the air lock. As the water flooded out of the chamber, they were all swept along with the draining torrent—and spilled into the dry Nazi bunker.
October 27, 5:07 A.M., CET
Beneath Harmsfeld Lake, Germany
Erin stood shakily, soaked to the skin, her teeth already beginning to chatter.
Everyone else was on their feet, weapons drawn, sweeping their lights down the dark concrete tunnel ahead. She rested her hand on the cold stock of her own holstered pistol and pulled out her waterproof flashlight from the wet pocket of her long leather coat.
Her heart still thudded in her throat. She glanced back into the air lock. She did not want to ever have to do that again. She hoped there was some hidden landward exit to this bunker.
Clicking on the flashlight, she shone its beam on the floor, where drains were already reclaiming the water that had flooded in with the new arrivals. She swept the beam around the tunnel. Its rounded sides rose from a level floor, climbing fifteen feet, large enough to drive a Sherman tank down without scraping the concrete from the walls.
She imagined the teams of skeletal concentration-camp inmates working on this tunnel in near-total darkness, only to be killed when the structure was complete, their blood shed to keep its secrets.
She sniffed the air: dank and moldy, but not stale. She searched the ceiling. Likely some passive ventilation system was still intact.
She joined the others. Based on the satellite map, they should be standing in the right leg of the Odal rune. But where should they go from here?
“What now?” Jordan asked, mirroring Erin’s concern. “We just wander around looking?”
The triad of Sanguinists formed a silent wedge-shaped shield a few steps away: Emmanuel, at the head, pulled his wet cassock back over his leather armor. Nadia and Rhun flanked him. All three were clearly casting out their senses, gaining their bearings, and judging the threat level.
Erin moved closer to Jordan, into the shelter of their protection.
She knew her role, too—as scholar, the alleged Woman of Learning.
“I think the most symbolically powerful place to store a sacred object here,” she offered, “would be at an intersection, like where this leg intersects with the bottom of the diamond. Or maybe the top of the diamond.”
“Agreed,” Nadia said, and urged Emmanuel forward, to take point.
She and Rhun moved in sync behind him, as if the three were connected by invisible wires.
“You go in front of me, Erin,” Jordan said. “I’ll take the rear.”
Erin didn’t argue, happy to comply with military protocol in this instance.
Together, they all moved down the tunnel—too swiftly for Erin’s taste, but likely too slowly from the triad’s perspective. While the Sanguinists kept to their formation perfectly, she kept following first too close and then too far.
Emmanuel stopped at the first door they came to—a nondescript gray metal hatch on the side of the tunnel. He tried the handle. It was clearly locked, but that didn’t seem to deter the stoic Spaniard. He flexed black-gloved fingers and yanked the handle out of the door. He tossed it aside with a skittering clunk.
Jordan’s eyes widened, but he didn’t say anything.
Emmanuel nudged the door open with one leather boot. A short silver sword appeared in his hand. He and Nadia stepped through together.
Rhun stayed outside next to Erin. She glanced up the hall, pointing her flashlight. Empty as far as her beam would reach.
“Safe,” called Nadia from inside.
Erin and Jordan went in next, Rhun last.
Inside, Erin’s light revealed a dusty-looking desk on which sat an old-fashioned radio assembly. A code book lay open in front of it. Next to the desk, a chair had been pushed out. Beside it sprawled the skeleton of a Nazi soldier. He had probably been transmitting or receiving when he died.
Jordan’s light picked out a pewter Ahnenerbe pin on his lapel. The decoration was in the shape of the Odal rune, an exact match of the one etched on the Nazi medal found in the tomb at Masada.
“Looks like we came to the right place,” he said.
Erin stepped over and examined the dead soldier, keeping a professional attitude.
He’s just like any mummy I’ve encountered on digs.
That was what she kept reminding herself as she studied the dried blood staining the front of his uniform. It had run in great gouts down his chest.
What had happened?
She shifted behind the body, turned, and directed her light back at the doorway. A second body lay off to the side. She shuddered to think that she had practically stepped on it on her way in.
The Sanguinists ignored both corpses and searched the shelves next to the radio.
There wasn’t room to help them, so Erin walked to the remains by the door. A neat round hole in the center of the man’s skull left no question as to how he had died. His uniform differed from the radio operator’s. His was khaki brown and of a rougher fabric.
She panned her light across it.
“Russian,” Jordan said. “See the five-pointed red star? It’s an emblem from the World War Two era, too.”
“What was he doing here?” Erin asked. “And how did he get in?”
Jordan crouched next to her and went through the soldier’s pockets, setting items on the thick dust that covered the floor: cigarette pack, matchbox, an official-looking document in Cyrillic, a letter, and a picture.
Jordan held up the faded black-and-white photo of a Slavic woman holding a thin girl with pigtails in front of a haystack.
Probably the dead man’s wife and daughter.
She wondered how long the woman had had to wait to learn of her husband’s fate. Had she mourned him or been relieved that he was gone? The man’s wife surely must be dead by now, but the little girl might well be alive.
Erin turned to Rhun, needing to do something. “Is there any way for Brother Leopold to notify the soldier’s family?”
Rhun spared her a quick glance. “Take the letter. Knowing Leopold, he will try.”
She collected the note and stood up. She pictured the scene from long ago.
The radio operator at his desk, perhaps calling for help. The Russian soldier bursts in. Shots are exchanged. Afterward, someone seals the place without anyone retrieving the bodies.
Nadia stood over Jordan, holding out her gloved hand. “Show me the other document.”
When he handed her the paper with the Cyrillic writing, she scanned it, folded it, and put it in her pocket.
“What did it say?” he asked.
“Orders. His unit had been ordered to deploy from St. Petersburg to southern Germany near the end of the war. To ‘retrieve items of interest’ from the bunker before the American invasion.”
“From St. Petersburg?” Rhun asked.
He and Nadia exchanged a long glance, both their faces worried.
Then Nadia waved toward the door. “We’ve learned what we can here,” she said. “We move on.”
Erin looked around in dismay. The archaeologist in her hated that she had not photographed the room, mapped things properly, and made an inventory of the contents. “But there might be more clues to—”
“We must search as many rooms as we can before the Belial find us.” Rhun stopped halfway out the door. “Brother Leopold will do a more thorough inventory later, if there is time.”
Jordan stayed close behind Erin as she followed Rhun back into the long tunnel.
The Sanguinists proceeded more quickly now. Something had clearly spooked them. Erin shared an uneasy look with Jordan. Anything that made a trio with powers like theirs nervous had to be terrifying.
Moving down the tunnel, they cleared another room: sleeping quarters filled with bunks. Erin counted four dead German soldiers, two still in their bunks, two halfway to the door. Two dead Russians were slumped against the wall.
Whatever transpired here, it had been hard fought.
Metal chests next to the bunks stored folded clothes, cigarette packs, matches, a few risqué postcards, more letters, and plenty of pictures of women and children, a sad reminder of those who had sat at home awaiting word on their loved ones.
Erin collected as many letters as she could and crammed them into her pockets, hoping that the water wouldn’t cause the faded ink to run.
They also discovered books—a manual on caring for a rifle, a novel in German, an instruction pamphlet on venereal diseases—but nothing that fit the description of the Blood Gospel.
Defeated and heavyhearted from all the slaughter, Erin returned to the corridor. The others filed out with her.
A heavy rustling, like the shaking of curtains, accompanied by a faint and distant squeaking filled the corridor. The hairs on the back of her neck immediately stood on end.
“I hear it, too,” he said. “Rats?”
Nadia herded them behind her. “No.”
A pace ahead of them, Emmanuel sniffed the air, shoulders thrown back, neck arched, and head raised, like a dog.
Or a grimwolf.
Erin drew in a deep breath, but she only smelled mildew and wet concrete. What could he smell that she could not?
“What is it?” Jordan asked.
“Blasphemare,” Nadia said. “The tainted ones.”
“Another grimwolf?” Jordan moved his machine pistol into ready position.
“No.” Nadia’s eyes flashed at Erin, wholly inhuman at that moment. “Icarops.”
Jordan looked confused by the foreign word.
Rhun clarified, cold and matter-of-fact. “Icarops are bats whose nature has been twisted by strigoi blood.”
Erin’s heart clenched into a knot.
He was talking about blasphemare bats.
Erin remembered the monstrous wolf in the moonlit desert—its fetid breath, its teeth, its muscled bulk. This time, with wings. She shuddered.
“Just when you think it can’t get any weirder.” Jordan switched on the light attached to the barrel of his Heckler & Koch machine pistol. “How do we proceed?”
“Quickly, I would recommend,” Nadia said. “And quietly.”
They set off down the tunnel—toward the source of the noise.
Jordan kept his weapon fixed in front, readying himself.
“Will guns kill them?” Erin whispered.
“Even silver bullets will only enrage them,” Nadia said. “A knife is a better tool.”
Jordan leaned down and pulled the silver Bowie knife from his boot sheath.
Erin drew her knife, too.
“I don’t like the idea of a corrupted bat getting close enough to kill it with a blade,” Jordan said. “I think I’d rather take them out with an intercontinental ballistic missile.”
“When they come,” Nadia warned, her voice low and her tone matter-of-fact, “lie down on the floor. We’ll keep them off you as best we can.”
“Not happening.” Jordan hefted his knife. “But thanks for the offer.”
Nadia lifted her thin shoulders in a shrug.
Erin agreed with Jordan. She had no intention of lying on her stomach, waiting for a bat to chew through her spinal cord. She’d rather take her chances standing up, with a knife in her hand.
The Sanguinists were now moving so quickly that she and Jordan had to run to keep up with them.
Soon they arrived at the intersection of another cross tunnel.
“We must have reached the base of the diamond,” she said, picturing the Odal rune, running a map of their progress in her head like a schematic.
From the air, this crossing of the two tunnels must look like a giant X—hopefully as in X marks the spot, Erin thought.
“This feels like the most likely place to hide something,” she said.
She cast her light across the floor but found only featureless concrete. She splashed her beam across the walls and ceiling. Nothing indicated a special or sacred hiding place at this intersection.
Jordan understood. “We’ll have to check all three of these next corridors. Search every door.”
Before they could take another step, though, screeches filled the air—coming from all three tunnels ahead.
There was no escape.
The smell reached them first, thrust forward by the muscular beat of hundreds of wings. The stench threatened to knock Jordan to his knees—a foul combination of the fetid bite of urine and the bloated ripeness of corpses left in the sun. He fought his heaving stomach, wondering if this reek was as much a weapon of these beasts as their teeth and claws, meant to incapacitate their prey.
He refused to succumb.
It was more than his life in danger.
With a shaky hand he pushed Erin behind him so that she was shielded both by him and the Sanguinist triad. Her flashlight beam cut across the tunnel to the left, to the right, searching for a door.
No such luck.
Then darkness consumed the light, flowing up the tunnels on all sides. A handful of winged pieces of shadow broke from the pack and rushed forward. They swept high, over the heads of the Sanguinists, as if they had no interest in creatures without heartbeats.
Still, silver flashed through the air, slicing through wing and body.
Black blood rained.
Furred bodies fell, twisting, screeching, tumbling.
One creature made it through the silver gauntlet, diving through its dying brethren. Blinded by the light here, it struck a wall behind them and slid to the floor, flipping immediately around. It might be driven sightless by the shine, but it could still hear.
It hissed at Jordan, who again sheltered Erin behind him.
It was the size of a large cat, with a massive wingspan of two meters. It rushed at him, scrabbling on its hind legs and the hard angle of its wings. The bat’s eyes glowed red, and its needlelike teeth shimmered in the light. A high-pitched screech burst from its slathering jaws as it launched itself at him.
Jordan lashed out with his Bowie knife, slicing across the creature’s throat. Blood burst from the wound, but the bat’s bulk still struck at him, knocking him back a step. He had come close to decapitating the beast in a single blow. Still, leathery wings tried to fold around him. Claws dug at his body, but the thick skin of his duster protected him.
Finally, death claimed the creature, and it fell away.
Jordan turned to find a hellish winged fury sweeping in a dark tide from three directions, breaking upon the triad in front. Each Sanguinist faced a different tunnel.
Erin stood in the center of them, her face a mask of terror.
Jordan ducked to her side, ready to defend her as devoutly as the trio.
Bats now swirled overhead in a shadowy cluster of wings, claws, and glowing eyes. The horde held back for the moment, possibly smelling the blood of their foul brothers, hearing their death cries.
Even now, the shrill squeaks set Jordan’s teeth to aching.
He tried to find a single animal to focus on, but they darted back and forth too quickly.
Erin shone her light above. The bats shied from the beam, swooping away, as if it stung—and maybe the brightness did.
“Vespertilionidae,” she gasped, as if the word were an incantation. “Vesper bats. Never seen them more than a tenth of this size.”
“How do you—”
“I work in caves a lot,” she explained.
Her light jumped back and forth. Each time it struck a bat’s eyes, the animal retreated.
“They’re never aggressive like this.”
Jordan pointed his submachine gun up, the beam from the weapon scattering them, too. “Because you work around normal bats, not friggin’ tainted ones.”
“They’re regrouping faster each time.” Erin spoke like an objective researcher, but her voice was pitched an octave higher than usual. “They’re growing accustomed to the light.”
“Let them come.” Nadia had pulled off her silver chain belt and held it in one gloved hand. She fingered each silvery link like the beads of a rosary. “Waiting is wearing to my nerves.”
“Patience,” Rhun said. “Let’s walk farther ahead, search for a door, somewhere to shelter. Perhaps they won’t attack.”
“If you can,” Erin suggested, “look for a door on the right side of the passageway, something that might lead into the center of the Odal diamond.”
Jordan had to hand it to her. Even shrouded within a black cloak of shrieking death, she never took her eye off the ball. She still sought the treasure that was hidden in the bunker.
Emmanuel took a step forward, one hand upraised. A dagger glinted from his fist.
Nadia moved next to him, weight balanced, graceful as a ballerina.
Together, the five of them made slow progress down the tunnel, all eyes intent on the bats massed above them.
Jordan longed to fire his weapon, but he was worried about ricochets, and concerned, too, about provoking the bats. He remembered Nadia’s earlier warning that bullets would not kill them. Their best chance lay in reaching—
Without a sound, the bats dove.
Again, they ignored the Sanguinists and zeroed in on the pair at the center of the triad.
They came for Erin’s face.
Overhead, Nadia twirled her belt. Jordan now recognized it as a silver chain whip. With her preternatural speed and strength, she wielded the weapon like it was a Cuisinart. Bats who came too close were shredded and torn apart.
Learning its lesson, the horde retreated.
Nadia’s whip caught one last straggler across its gray back, snagging the creature from the air and smashing it against the concrete wall.
Meanwhile, Rhun and Emmanuel kept the path open ahead, continuing to fight through the shadowy forms with silver blades in both hands.
Jordan defended the rear as best he could with his Bowie knife. The high-pitched shrieking stabbed his ears. Despite the protection of his leather duster, his hands and face bore countless scratches.
It now seemed as if for every bat taken down, two took its place.
Erin plunged her knife into the belly of one that slipped past Jordan. Its sharp caninelike fangs snapped closed by her nose before it thudded to the floor.
Jordan grabbed another bat as it tried to fly past, its skin cold and dry, like a dead lizard. He swallowed revulsion and slashed at it with his knife. It pivoted its muscle-bound neck and sank its teeth into the fleshy part of his thumb. Pain shot up his arm.
He slammed his hand against the concrete wall, once, twice, three times, but the bat’s teeth stayed firm. It would not knock loose. He felt teeth scrape bone, threatening to take off his thumb. Blood ran down the inside of his coat to his elbow. Another bat glanced off the side of his head, opening up a stinging wound across his temple.
Erin came to his aid. She grasped the bat attached to his hand by its ears. She thrust her knife under its chin and drew the blade downward. Black blood sprayed the wall, and the teeth finally let go.
“Forward!” Rhun called from a step away—which at the moment felt like an impassible distance. “A door ahead! To the right!”
Emmanuel drove forward, leading the charge. Bats flew at Emmanuel’s face, his neck, his hands. But they seemed reluctant to bite him, not that the tall man didn’t sustain wounds. His entire form dripped blood, his blond hair black with it.
Another of the horde reached past Jordan’s tiring arm. Fangs locked onto his wrist. They didn’t seem to have any problem biting him.
Rhun’s knife flashed through the air, slicing through wings and fur, freeing him.
But the bats never slowed.
Jordan’s arm trembled, weakening—and still the bats came.
October 27, 5:39 A.M., CET
Bathory knelt beside the fog-shrouded Bavarian lake.
Her finger touched drag marks left in the mud. Something wide and heavy had been hauled along the bank here—and recently. Water had seeped in to fill the lines, but no leaves or pine needles marred the surface; nor animal tracks.
Straightening, she motioned for her troops to stay back while she circled the area where the boat had entered the water. She counted footprints, recognizing American military boots, a set of Converse sneakers, and three others in handmade boots, two large and one small. Judging by the depth of the impressions, she guessed two women and three men.
But Bathory hated to make assumptions.
She followed the tracks to the water’s edge. She peered into the gauzy fog, but could see no farther than a few yards, cursing the mountain mists. Earlier, she’d almost missed Rhun and his companions as they fled under the cloak of fog. Until the roar of the motorcycle engines gave them away.
She turned to her second in command. “Do you hear anything, Tarek?”
He cocked his head to the side as if listening. “Not a heartbeat out there.”
But was he telling the truth, or was he lying to keep her from finding the book?
Magor? she cast out silently.
The wolf pawed the ground and ducked his head. He also heard nothing. She patted his warm flank. Her vehicle had been no match for speeding motorcycles across this harsh terrain. It had taken Magor’s nose to track her quarry this far. While the wolf’s keen senses had served her well, he was no more able to sense across water than she was able to see in fog.
She studied the smooth lake again. It seemed that the Sanguinists had procured a boat and had a good head start.
That presented a new challenge.
“Tarek, bring up a map of the lake.”
He handed her his cell with a satellite picture. The lake had no islands. So either the Sanguinists had used the boat to cross to the other side, or they had searched for something underwater. A problem, as she had no boat, nor any idea of where to steal one. Searching would waste precious time.
Tarek growled deep in his throat, impatient. Strigoi hated to wait. The others caught his insolence and shifted from foot to foot.
She stared him down until he fell silent—then commanded him for good measure: “Disable the motorcycles. But stay within hearing.”
Magor slumped to his haunches next to her, his reddish-golden eyes staring across the water. She rested her free hand atop his head, then returned her gaze to the on-screen image. Perhaps she could learn why the Sanguinists had chosen this place.
She zoomed in on the satellite image and scrolled around to view the terrain surrounding the lake. The picture had been taken in summer. Dark green trees obscured the ground. No clearings seemed significant.
“The bikes won’t run again,” Tarek called.
“Good,” she answered. When they returned, the Sanguinists would have no quick way to escape.
She zoomed in tighter on the map, her eye caught by a long straight line of lighter green. The trees were different in this spot. Did that mean water? Or were the trees younger? She connected that line with another line, then another, almost too faint to see.
She smiled at her own brilliance as she recognized the pattern.
It was a corner of the design depicted on the Nazi medallion. The rest appeared to extend under the lake.
So that’s why they came out here.
In her mind’s eye, she completed the shape of the rune. On the screen, she ran one long fingernail around the diamond shape. She realized something of great interest. The two legs of the rune—one stretched and ended under the lake, but the other ran underground and terminated on the far side of the hill across the lake. The terrain maps showed that area to be heavily wooded. No man-made structures, just trees and boulders, but that didn’t mean something wasn’t still buried there.
She glanced to her small army, a force strong enough to dig for hours without tiring. She had to take the gamble. She stared across the lake to the distant hills.
If she was right, this subterranean vault might have a back door.
October 27, 5:48 A.M., CET
Beneath Harmsfeld Lake, Germany
In the echo chamber of the cavernous concrete tunnels, Rhun’s senses swam and wavered, as if he were fighting underwater. Ultrasonic shrieking tore into his skull. The flurry of beating wings and writhing bodies, splattered with a rain of blood, made it near impossible to focus.
But he fought through the noise by concentrating on one face: scared, bloodied, and fierce.
Rhun reached her and swatted a bat away from her chest with all the strength in his arm, cracking hollow bones and crushing the creature’s face. Although Erin’s long jacket continued to protect all but her hands and head, he watched the frantic thrum of her heartbeat in her throat, heard the gasp of her breath. Their group could not last much longer.
Erin twirled before him, struggling with another icarops that clung to her back, clawing its way toward her neck.
Her flashlight jerked as she struggled, illuminating curtains of bats overhead.