The third book of the Sarah Weston Chronicles
In Delphi, the mountain city deemed by the Greek gods to be the center of the Earth, a cult of neo-pagans re-create with painstaking authenticity ancient rituals to glorify the god Apollo and deliver oracles to seekers from around the world.
When antiquities are stolen from a museum in nearby Thebes, British archaeologist Sarah Weston and her American partner, Daniel Madigan, are drawn into a plot that goes beyond harmless role-playing: someone’s using the Delphian oracle as a smoke screen for an information exchange, with devastating consequences for the Western world.
Pitted against each other by the cult’s mastermind, Sarah and Daniel race against time and their own personal demons to uncover clues left behind by the ancients. Their mission: to find the original navel stone marked with a lost Pythagorean formula detailing the natural events that led to the collapse of the Minoan Empire.
But will they find it in time to stop the ultimate terrorist act?
About the Author
D.J. Niko is the pseudonym for Daphne Nikolopoulos, an award-winning journalist, author, editor, and lecturer who has spent her entire adult life traveling the world. As a former travel writer and zealous adventurer, she has visited remote spots on six continents, many of which have inspired her archaeological thriller series, The Sarah Weston Chronicles. She was born and raised in Athens, Greece, and now resides in Florida with her family. Niko is currently at work on a historical novel set in tenth-century BCE Israel.
Read an Excerpt
By D. J. Niko
Medallion Press, Inc.Copyright © 2015 D. J. Niko
All rights reserved.
Livadeia, central Greece, 393 CE
Like a beast being hunted, the priestess sprinted through the woods. The men who sought her were the worst kind of predators: they would skin her alive while chanting the hymns of the righteous.
The fallen leaves of the mother oaks lay in strata upon the forest floor, crumbling beneath her swift feet and revealing her position as she ran toward salvation. She felt the angry thump of her heartbeat in the pit of her stomach. The shadows that followed her gained ground.
She implored Apollo for a silver thread of moonlight. As she gasped for air to fill her constricted lungs, the pewter clouds parted and a beam flashed through the tree branches, illuminating patches of ground. There, along the hillside, beyond the barren oaks, was the stand of evergreens lining the path to the river Herkyna. Though she could not hear it over her own frantic breath, she imagined the murmur of the river's sacred waters, and it gave her strength.
Just a few more steps to the cave.
Would her brothers be waiting there? Or had they given up on her? It had been so long since she was abducted, dragged into the den of the savages who waved the banner of a new god. Had her tribe remained loyal to her, to their shared principles? Or had they suffered a similar fate and scattered to the four winds?
She would soon know the answer. She ignored her body's protests and commanded her legs to run faster.
Just a few more steps ...
"Aristea of Delphi." The whisper of a male voice mocked her. Was he friend or foe? Without slowing her pace, she looked over her shoulder. No one was there.
He repeated her name, this time with a hiss that made the fine hairs on her arms stand on end. She felt a searing presence and saw in her mind's eye the red-hot iron they had used to brand her, as if she were the property of their despicable temple. The thought unnerved her.
Sucking at the cool air with great gasps, Aristea kept running toward the pines. Her hood caught on a low-hanging branch and was ripped off her head, exposing her shorn hair. The monk's habit she wore as a disguise was soaked through with perspiration, and the linen gauze of the tunic beneath clung to her skin.
None of that mattered. She sought only to escape from the madmen who hunted her, the ones who justified their atrocities by crouching behind a higher power. She knew they were capable of anything. She had been the recipient of their abomination.
"Aristea." Voices now taunted her from multiple directions, as if they had surrounded her. "You cannot hide."
Again she glanced over her shoulder, and again she saw nothing. She faced forward in time to see the peeling bark of the evergreens coming fast toward her. The impact made her fall backward and land on her tailbone on top of a jagged piece of limestone. The pain shot up her spine like Zeus' thunderbolt.
A terrible laugh came from the shadows. Panting, Aristea stumbled to her feet. Her knees so trembled with fatigue she feared they would fail to support her. She gritted her teeth and told herself she was indomitable, the daughter of gods.
She was the oracle of Delphi.
The thought was a tonic to her spirit. She pushed forward, limping toward the entrance of the cave. She could see the brass spikes of the enclosure glinting in the moonlight.
Just a few ... more ... steps ...
The voices quieted. Had she imagined them? No, this was no ordinary silence. It was the baring of the teeth before the attack. The gust of wind before the torrential rain.
Ignoring the pain, Aristea bounded over a tangle of fallen branches and landed on all fours in front of the brass obelisk that opened the gate. She knew what to do: she twisted the stake two turns to the right, then one to the left, and half back again.
The earth yawned open.
With shaking hands, she groped for the rope ladder. Her heart leapt when her hand came across the gnarled jute. She unfurled the ladder and let it dangle in the lightless void. Before climbing down into the womb of Trophonius, she removed the obelisk so her pursuers would have no way of entering.
With the stake under her arm, she stepped onto the first rung and tried to find her balance on the unstable contraption. Her racing heart did not help. She took a deep breath and held it for several moments, a practice she had employed during captivity to manage her fear and focus on the possible.
Her breathing more even now, she stepped onto the second rung, then the third. Before stepping onto the fourth and final rung, she wiped the sweat from her brow and surveyed the ground below. It was too dark to judge depth. She threw the obelisk down and waited. Within seconds a series of clangs came as the stake hit the ground.
It was a leap of faith, but it was all she had. She treaded onto the last braid of jute and let go, dropping into the dark chasm.
Aristea landed hard on her side. She hurt, but she was safe. She looked up at the circular opening some ten cubits above. According to the tenders of the cave of Trophonius, the door was rigged to close when there was no pressure on the ladder and reopen when someone inside tugged at the rope.
That night, it did not.
Was she too light to trip the mechanism made for men? Had she been misinformed? Whatever the truth, she was at the bottom of an earthen womb, exposed and vulnerable.
Then she heard them.
"So it exists," one whispered. "The cave of demons."
A second man guffawed. "Two notches on the board. We will be paid well for this one."
Bounty hunters. Someone had hired them to capture her — and no doubt kill her. It was not enough that they had tortured and humiliated her over the course of so many moons she'd stopped counting; they wanted her blood.
She would take her own life before letting them win.
"A ladder. Let us see where it leads."
"You first. I will look out for beasts."
Aristea crawled to the side of the cave and crouched against a wall dressed with stones, like an oven. Somewhere there was a cavern that led to the inner sanctum. Trophonius himself, the great architect who'd built the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi, had fashioned the passage in the most ingenious way, and only the faithful knew how to enter it.
Propelling herself on hands and knees around the perimeter, she groped for the opening whose breadth was said to be two spans — so small the uninitiated would miss it.
"The ladder does not reach all the way down."
"Jump, you fool."
There. Aristea's hand sank into the indentation. She lay on her back and pushed her bare feet into the groove: the prescribed method for entry. She regretted she had no cakes kneaded with honey to offer to the spirit of Trophonius, nor had she performed the ritual ablutions at the river. She prayed the gods would forgive her that once, recognizing in her plight the epic ruin that had befallen Greece.
The fugitive priestess was testament to the fact the Greeks were no longer free to worship as they wished. Their gods were mere whispers in the wind, spoken softly into one ear and another like secrets from the grave, abolished from the fecund earth and dispatched to a desolate hell.
With some effort, she pushed her legs farther into the tight opening. She heard a thud. Her assassin had landed.
Suppressing a grunt, she forced her knees into the hole. Take me, Trophonius. Take me into your rapturous darkness.
An unseen energy tugged at her legs. It was working. The force, akin to the vortices that swallowed ships in the Aegean, snatched her in earnest and sucked her in. The sleeve of the habit caught on something and, with a rip that resonated in Aristea's ears, was torn away.
The force propelled her down with a violent thrust. Cool, moist earth brushed against her bare arm as she slid on a chute toward the unknown. She should have been frightened, yet she felt safe. She trusted that whatever was down there, in the grave Trophonius had dug to facilitate the terrifying journey into one's true nature, was better than the fate that awaited her aboveground.
The chute expelled her into a void, and she fell into complete darkness, flailing her arms and legs in a futile attempt to gain purchase on something, anything. She closed her eyes and embraced the falling sensation.
Trust. Apollo will not abandon his chosen.
Aristea landed on her legs and tumbled thrice before the mass of her body slammed against the cave wall. Liquid trickled into her mouth. Her tongue registered a metallic tang: the taste of her own blood. She struggled to sit up. Her left leg was twisted beneath her and would not cooperate. As she willed her body to an upright position, a stabbing pain tore through her knee and up her torso until every cell in her body pulsed with the sensation.
She bit her lip to contain a scream and reached down to examine the immobile leg. Through broken skin, she felt the sharp edges of splintered bone. She gasped.
"Look at this." The men's voices were muffled, barely audible. She listened closely.
"Her robe. She must have escaped through another hole."
"We must look for the way out."
Her heart hammered as she imagined them searching for the secret entrance to the cave's inner sanctum. She begged her patron god for redemption from the nightmare, not for the sake of her own trivial life but for the preservation of the secret.
"I don't see a passage."
"She is probably trapped underground, like a rat." He chuckled. "And there she will stay. Now let us make haste. We must seal this opening so the devil's work cannot be done."
"What about this?" There was a pause. "It's heavy."
The obelisk. Aristea's eyes widened.
"Take it. We will throw it into the river so that no one will enter this den of evil again."
The voices were reduced to a murmur, then ceased altogether. Aristea was alone, drenched with sweat and shivering in the blackness. Her own rapid, strained breath punctured the silence. Her mind amplified the sound, driving her mad.
She tried again to move her leg. It was no use. The injury was too grave to launch into a heroic escape. She leaned onto the earthen wall. The cold mud against her bare neck sent a quiver down her back.
She thought of her brothers, the priests who tended the sanctuary at her beloved Delphi and who had raised a woman to lead them in the adoration of the one who replaced darkness with light. For the first time, she allowed the possibility those good men had been exterminated, like so many others.
For the first time, hope had left her.
Hot tears streamed down her cheeks. She let herself collapse into soft sobs and succumbed to the icy embrace of despair.
Excerpted from The Oracle by D. J. Niko. Copyright © 2015 D. J. Niko. Excerpted by permission of Medallion Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
D. J. Niko has created another wonderful read--an interesting, fast-paced thriller. This book is eduational as well as a pleasure to read. It alternates between ancient and modern Greece.