Read an Excerpt
Alexandria, Egypt a.d. 391
The screams were getting louder. The curses. The pleas for mercy. The clanging swords.
Unnerved by the violence, Zelek ben Judah waded elbow-deep into a mound of scrolls, frantic to find the misplaced manuscript. He cursed the incompetence of his subordinates. How many times had he lectured them? A disorganized library is worse than no library at all. To misplace a scroll is to destroy it, for who can read words that cannot be found?
Sweat ran into his eyes as he searched. He dared not lift a hand to wipe it away. Sifting through a stack of scrolls was like digging in the sand. If he pulled out now, the scrolls would tumble in and he'd have to start over. With an angry grunt, he wiped the sweat from his eye with the sleeve of his shoulder.
An ungodly shriek from the central room startled him, the dying cry of a man put to the sword. What made it worse, Zelek recognized the voice. Orosius. Only this morning the two of them had discussed the sophist Polemon of Laodikeia while eating figs.
Zelek's heart rose to his throat. He'd spent his life hunched over manuscripts. His were hands that wielded pens, not swords. Paunchy, slow, and aging, his only chance of surviving was to find that scroll. He continued searching with greater intensity.
A tall clay jar sat at his feet. It held two scrolls with room for a third.
"Ah!" Zelek said.
In triumph he hoisted the missing manuscript. Unrolling it, he read to make certain he had the right one. A scowl wrinkled his brow. It was indeed the scroll he'd been instructed to save. But why this scroll? The two in the jar, yes. But this one?
There were worthier scrolls and codices and sacred texts. Works by Plato and Socrates. Euclid's Elements. Eratosthenes' calculations of the size of the earth. Archimedes' invention of the screw-shaped water pump. The Septuagint. Irreplaceable originals. Rare copies. Works that would be lost forever. To place this nothing of a scroll in the jar with the other two manuscripts was wrong.
Zelek checked the door. His escort had not yet arrived.
Did he dare?
Laying aside the third scroll, he chose a more suitable work and placed it in the jar instead. He capped the jar with a lid and stood, satisfied with the exchange. For good measure he sealed it with wax to keep them from discovering the deception.
He donned his cap. Using both hands, he picked up the clay jar and pressed it to his chest. He was ready.
Outside the chamber chaos awaited him. A cacophony of shouts and screams, smashed shelves, and he sniffed the air fire. To his horror, smoke crawled across the ceiling like a legion of demons. Every nerve within him jolted as though struck by lightning. Fire was a librarian's greatest fear.
Save one, Zelek corrected himself. Death is greater.
He checked the doorway again. Where was the escort he'd been promised?
The room was filling with smoke, choking him. Zelek's feet danced nervously as he began to cough.
Were they waiting for him outside? He took a step toward the doorway. Another life-ending wail stopped him. It was nearby. Death was at hand. Zelek whimpered.
He clutched the jar against his chest. He was finding it difficult to breathe.
He looked at the jar.
The third scroll! They knew. They hadn't come for him because they knew he'd switched scrolls.
Dropping to his knees, he pulled a small knife from his waistband and cut into the wax seal. Prying the lid from the jar, he pulled out the substitute scroll and replaced it with the original third scroll.
At that instant two men with swords appeared in the doorway, tall men with broad shoulders and strong jaws. They stood serene in spotless white robes. No one would mistake them for marauders.
"I'm ready," Zelek wheezed, the smoke strangling his voice.
His armed escorts turned toward the central room.
With fumbling hands Zelek fitted the lid on the jar, grabbed a leather pouch, slinging its strap over his head, hugged the clay jar, and ran to catch up with his escort.
The room that opened up before him was a familiar one, the domed palatial expanse of the central library. Hallways branched off in many directions leading to lecture halls, study rooms, dining areas, gardens, and an astronomical observatory.
For centuries the great library of Alexandria had been a repository of human knowledge, with hundreds of thousands of documents and records collected from every corner of the known world, the sum of mankind's learning preserved on papyrus, vellum, and clay tablets. Now it was a battlefield. Its shelves were on fire, and its floor was littered with the dead and dying.
Their path through the carnage was arrow-straight. In order to keep close to his escort, Zelek was forced to step over bodies. Midstep he recognized Orosius, his chest slashed, his eyes staring in disbelief at the terror he had seen. The mouth that had earlier tasted figs gaped open in death.
Zelek swallowed hard, forcing back an eruption of bile.
Pairs of marauders trolled the room, looking for victims and torching shelves. Zelek's escorts showed no concern or fear. Their swords drawn, they strode almost casually through the vaulted library.
Two marauders spied them. Then two more. And two more. A moment later six filthy, screaming, sweating, wild-eyed men were charging toward them.
Zelek's escorts did not break stride.
Even though Zelek knew something about his escorts that the marauders didn't know, a man doesn't watch six armed attackers with a taste for blood charge at him without experiencing fear. A scream erupted from his throat.
The marauders closed.
Zelek's escorts raised their weapons.
The swords shimmered, then burst into flame with a pulse of light that knocked the marauders off their feet and sent them flying backward.
Zelek's scream turned to giddy laughter. His feet tapped with joy. Borrowing from Scripture, he sang lustily, "My God sent his angel, and he shut the mouths of the lions!"
Once outside they crossed the library grounds with its statues, lush gardens, and pools, leaving behind a pillar of black smoke. They traversed the poorer section of Alexandria without incident. And upon reaching the Mound of Shards, Zelek's escorts disappeared.
"What?" he shouted at the sky. "You would leave me now?"
He stood at the base of a stone stairway that led up to a limestone portico. One of Alexandria's greatest works of architecture, the Mound of Shards rivaled the legendary lighthouse in the bay for its grandeur. It was remarkable for its vast intricately decorated rooms cut out of solid rock.
But despite its legendary beauty, Zelek couldn't get past the fact that it was three levels of catacombs. A city built for the dead. Zelek despised anything that was associated with death.
With the city's attention focused on the burning library, it wasn't surprising to Zelek that he had the catacombs to himself. Given the number of corpses he'd stepped over, business would be brisk tomorrow.
Still clutching the clay jar to his chest, Zelek ascended the steps. To one side of the stairway there was a mountain of broken pottery, terra-cotta containers that had been discarded. It was the quantity of the refuse that had given the catacombs their name. The shattered containers had once carried the food and wine of those traveling great distances to visit the site. Not wanting to carry the empty jars home, they discarded them here.
At the top of the steps Zelek passed between pillars to the underground entrance. A feeling of dread passed over him as he stepped out of the light and into the stone-cold rooms.
The first level boasted a vestibule and a large banquet hall, complete with rotunda and extensive mosaic flooring. Rectangular limestone slabs served as tables flanked by stone couches. It disgusted Zelek to think that dining clubs regularly used this facility for entertainment. What sort of people held banquets in the catacombs?
He crossed to a spiral staircase with a central shaft six meters in diameter. The shaft not only provided light for the stairway but was used to lower bodies to the second and third levels.
At the top of the stairway Zelek hesitated. The first step down was a small one. The builders had designed it so the height of the steps decreased near the top to make it easier for people as they approached the surface. There were ninety-nine steps in all. Perspiring heavily, Zelek took a deep breath and started down.
At the second level he ran out of natural light. Torches were available for visitors. He took one and lit it.
As he turned, his heart seized and he nearly dropped the clay jar. Inches from his face was a writhing serpent, carved in stone and flanking the doorway. The flickering of the torch had brought it to life.
Unlike those in Rome's catacombs, the images on these walls were Egyptian, not Christian.
Having caught his breath, Zelek continued downward to the third level, where he found a central hallway intersected by a series of connecting corridors. The dense humidity at this depth made it seem darker than the second level, and Zelek fought a strong urge to turn back. He tried not to think what lay beyond the reach of his torchlight.
Following his instructions, Zelek counted the connecting corridors as he passed them. At the ninth corridor he turned right and proceeded to the end, where he encountered solid rock. This was where his instructions ran out.
His torch flickering, the walls dripping, his heart pounding, Zelek waited for whatever was to happen next. Initially, when he was told of the plan to rescue the scrolls, the description of the massacre in the library had so frightened him that waiting alone in the catacombs seemed a minor thing. It didn't seem so minor now. He stood alone in the dark, deep underground, with his only escape a hallway of row after row of rotting corpses.
"I'm here," he said with a shaky voice.
His eyes strained at the corridor entrance, alternately wanting someone to appear and fearing someone would appear.
Then the rock wall behind him shuddered.
He jumped away from it.
It shuddered again, as did the stone floor.
Zelek's eyes bulged with fear.
He turned to run, but as he did the rock floor tilted, throwing him against a slick wall. He managed to spin just in time so that his shoulder, and not the clay jar, took the brunt of the force.
The rock underfoot rippled like waves. To keep from falling over, Zelek sank to the floor, his back against the wall. He watched in fearful wonder as a fissure opened at the closed end of the corridor, large enough for a man to walk through.
The quaking stopped. Everything was still again. Still and silent as rock was meant to be.
A light appeared through the fissure. Soft at first, then increasing to blinding brilliance.
Inching himself up the side of the wall Zelek managed to get to his feet. He approached the fissure, clay jar in hand. He left the torch behind, for it was no longer needed.
Shielding his eyes, Zelek stepped through the fissure. An exquisite radiance awaited him.
"Gabriel!" Zelek fell to his knees and offered the jar. "I have done everything you have asked of me."
The angel stared down at him. "Seal the jar."
The angel's voice resonated within Zelek's chest like the music of a thousand instruments in perfect harmony. The feeling was pleasant to the point of distraction.
"I...I...brought the wax," Zelek managed to say.
He shrugged the strap of the pouch over his head and retrieved the tools he needed to seal the jar. Under heaven's gaze, Zelek ben Judah took pains to make certain the container was properly sealed. Then he placed it with several other jars that had already been deposited in the cave.
The angel nodded his approval.
Zelek sighed with relief. He had done it. He'd faced his greatest fear and preserved a pair of invaluable scrolls. Now all he had to do was climb out of this wretched hole of death.
Beaming, he said, "God willing, in the future I will tell my grandchildren of the day the angel Gabriel dispatched two of his own to guide me safely through the valley of death."
"You would tell them a lie?" the angel asked.
The smile on Zelek's face vanished. "A lie? I don't understand."
"You have never met Gabriel."
The brightness of the angel increased dramatically. His voice boomed off the walls of the small subterranean cave. "I am Semyaza. Tremble before me."
Zelek recognized the name. "You are Satan's man!"
Terror animated him. He lunged for the fissure, but it had already begun to close. Desperate to get out, he stretched a hand to the other side. But who was there to rescue him? There were only corpses there. And soon he would add to their number.
The fissure continued to close. Zelek had no choice but to retract his arm to keep it from being crushed. His back against the rock, he turned toward his captor, who pulsed with heavenly radiance.
Zelek's gaze fell on the clay jar. He understood now. "The third scroll."
He picked up a sizable rock and lifted it over his head. "Let me out, or I'll destroy the jar."
Semyaza's expression remained unchanged. He did not acknowledge the threat.
Zelek protested, "You promised "
" to keep you safe from the marauders. I have kept that promise."
His arms trembling with exertion, blinking back the sweat that stung his eyes, Zelek said, "You deceived me."
"Would you expect any less from Lucifer's lieutenant?"
Zelek had but one move left. He lifted the rock to smash the jar.
His arms froze in place, held back by an unseen force. Crying out in frustration, he strained against it with all his might, to no avail.
The ground beneath him trembled. The cave shuddered. From the domed ceiling rocks pelted him like meteors. He collapsed onto the floor. Semyaza, untouched by the rocks and appearing as beautiful as ever, looked down on him without pity.
A second fissure opened. This one on the opposite side of the cave. The sea rushed in, crashing against the rocks and Zelek.
The cave filled quickly. Zelek ben Judah remained alive long enough to know he'd been entombed in seawater, and long enough to watch the clay jars settle gently against the ocean floor.
The last thing he saw before he died was the glory of Semyaza shining against the black dome of the cave ceiling while a thousand flecks of sand glistened like stars in the sky.
Tartarus © 2008 by Jack Cavanaugh
A heavenly glory blazed directly in my path. Shielding my eyes, I fought to keep them open. To close them now meant almost certain death. I hated driving east at this time of morning.
As if Southern California freeways weren't dangerous enough, the sun hovered at just the right inclination to make seeing nearly impossible. Through the thinnest of eye slits I saw the cars ahead of me begin to stack up at the Second Street off-ramp. I slowed, maneuvering into the queue.
For some reason my mind flashed back to an elementary-school assembly. Instead of going to the auditorium we carried our chairs out to the playground, and as we sweltered on the blacktop, a man who called himself Mr. Science taught us about the sun.
"Never look directly at the sun," he said.
To demonstrate what would happen if we failed to heed his warning, Mr. Science pointed a telescope at the sun. Then he held a grape with a pair of pliers close to the eyepiece. The grape was supposed to be our eye. We slid to the edge of our chairs in anticipation.
At first nothing happened, but Mr. Science assured us that even though we couldn't see anything yet, the sun was cooking the retina of the substitute eye, causing permanent damage. Seconds later, when the focused sunlight burned through the skin, hot juice squirted out of the grape, eliciting squeals of disgust from the girls and howls of delight from the boys. Not only did Mr. Science make his point, but he inspired all manner of shenanigans with grapes-as-eyeballs at lunch.
A wave of taillights rippled toward me. I braked. Traffic came to a standstill. I turned my head, using the pause in the action to give my eyes a rest.
As bright as the sun was, I'd seen brighter, on top of the Emerald Plaza tower in the middle of the night. Let me tell you, the sun's a dim bulb compared to the light of two dozen angry angels. If Mr. Science ever demonstrates what happened to me that night, he'll place a grape on the ground and squish it under his heel.
It's hard to believe that was a month ago, or that it's been that long since President Douglas was assassinated. I haven't seen a single angel since. At least that I'm aware. I mean, when they take human form, who can tell? I lived with one every day for four years and never knew he was an angel.
But then I suppose all that will change soon. Professor Forsythe had that Paul Revere tone in his voice when he called.
The angels are coming! The angels are coming!
He didn't actually say it. He didn't have to. Believe me, it takes a lot to drag me away from my cheese Danish and coffee in the morning.
When I finally arrived at Heritage College, the parking lot was full. Likewise, the area streets were lined with cars. If the universe is expanding like scientists say, why is it I can never find a parking place?
I ended up a quarter of a mile from the college. I must have looked like one of those Olympic walkers as I hurried toward the campus.
My cell phone rang. It was my publisher. I considered letting the answering service take the call. I wasn't sure I was ready to talk to him yet.
I flipped open the phone.
"Grant? Higgins. Have you read the contract?"
"My agent faxed it to me this morning," I told him. "I haven't had time to go over it yet."
"Whatever problems you have with it, I'm sure we can work them out," he said. "I don't mind telling you that I'm getting a lot of pressure from above on this one."
I grinned. Pressure from above. Little did he know.
"I told you, I haven't had time to look at it yet."
"Can I at least tell them you're interested?"
Of course I was interested. I needed the money.
The publisher came to me on this one. They wanted a tell-all book documenting how the Douglas administration had systematically deceived me while I was researching President Douglas's biography. It would begin with an eyewitness account of the assassination and then detail subsequent events that uncovered the web of lies that concealed the truth from the American public.
My agent said the publisher was anxious to save face after printing the president's story. And frankly, my career could use some damage control, since I was the expert researcher who had been duped.
"We want you to show that things aren't always as they seem," Higgins pressed. "After reading this book John Q Public will never take a White House statement at face value again. They'll always wonder what's really going on behind the scenes."
"This isn't the world you think it is," I mused.
"Exactly! So you're in? Grant, I want you to know that I went to the mat for you on the advance money."
It was an impressive amount. Nearly double what they'd offered me for the biography. My agent told me not to let the amount give me a swelled head, that it reflected the publisher's desperation more than their assessment of me as an author. He was right.
"Shouldn't you be talking to my agent?"
Higgins mumbled something about desperate times and desperate measures. We both knew that his end run around my agent was unethical.
"How much leeway will I be given on the project?" I asked. "If I do it, I want to do it my way."
"That's what we want!" Higgins insisted. "Your frustration. Your outrage. How you felt when you first realized you were being led down a garden path."
That wasn't what I meant. I wanted to write about what I saw in the sky the day of the assassination. I wanted to reveal to the world the supernatural forces behind the plot. But I knew if I started talking about angels and the war in heaven my publisher would pull the contract off the table in a human heartbeat.
I'd reached the stairs that led from the parking lot to the campus.
"Listen, Higgins, I'll need to get back to you."
"You sound winded."
"I'm late for a meeting."
"A meeting? Grant, you're not meeting with another publisher, are you? Let me get back to my boss. I can get you more money."
"I'll have to call you back."
"When? Grant, the pressure on me is incredible. Don't leave me hanging."
"Soon. I'll get back to you soon."
I'd reached the top of the steps. My breathing was labored, and it was difficult to talk. "I'll call you as soon as I have an answer." I snapped the phone closed. For good measure I turned off the ringer.
The first thing I noticed about the campus was that there were more students milling about than usual. Someone or something had poked the hive. The place was abuzz with conversation.
The professor had told me to meet him in the library. It was our usual meeting place. As I wove my way in that direction some of the students recognized me from recent events. They fell silent and stared as I passed them.
I opened the library door and had stepped aside for some coeds who were trailing behind me when Sue Ling grabbed me.
"You're late," she said by way of greeting. She pulled me away from the door.
"I couldn't find a parking place."
Her pace was urgent. Her expression serious. Something was wrong.
"The professor, is he "
She plowed ahead. "He's waiting for you."
Small, with dark hair and brown eyes that shimmer with intelligence, Sue Ling is the most devoted person I know. As his personal assistant she serves the professor with passionate loyalty, with an emphasis on passionate. Just once I'd like to know what it feels like to have a woman look at me the way she looks at the professor.
"Talk to me, Sue Ling. Tell me what's going on."
"You'll learn soon enough."
Did I tell you she was stubborn? So am I.
I put on the brakes. Sue Ling's momentum carried her several steps before she realized she was walking alone.
"Grant!" she protested. "We don't have time "
Fifty feet ahead of us the door to the administration offices swung open. Seated in his wheelchair, the professor held the door open with one arm.
"Miss Ling, I told you to bring him the moment he arrived!" the professor said, clearly exasperated.
From the expression on her face it was evident his words stung. Sue Ling prided herself on her efficiency.
I stepped between them. "Professor, it's not her fault. I "
But the professor wasn't listening. His arm looked like a windmill in a gale as he motioned toward me. "Come, come "
I half-ran toward him. Sue Ling didn't follow. When I looked over my shoulder, she had turned and was walking away.
"We need your help," the professor said, pulling me inside.
Tartarus © 2008 by Jack Cavanaugh