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48 B.C. Alexandria, Egypt
Julius Caesar listened to the centurion, his face grim. The news was not good. His escape route was cut off. While the ship bearing his precious cargo had escaped the siege, the Egyptians had effectively ensured that he could not send for help from his legions in Asia Minor.
He was trapped.
An ordinary man would have cursed his fortune. He would have railed at his miscalculation in bringing two under-strength legions, of 3200 infantry and 800 cavalry, into Egypt in the middle of a civil war. He would have denounced the gods for their fickleness in watching over him, allowing the Egyptians to outmanoeuvre him.
But Caesar was no ordinary man.
And the siege served his plan, even if it was wholly fortuitous. He had reason to thank the gods.
He waited patiently until the centurion had finished. The man was clearly worried. Not scared. at would be most unlike a Roman. But worried, yes. The odds were stacked against them. What was Caesar going to do?
When the centurion had finished, Caesar waited, allowing a few moments of silence to accentuate what he was about to say.
‘ The Egyptians have not mobilised all the ships,’ he began. ‘Fifty ships, which were commanded by Gneus, returned to the harbour and are now out there.’ He gestured towards the window, towards the Egyptian fleet moored there.
‘Twenty-two ships from the Egyptian fleet, as you say, have come into the harbour to reinforce them. They will ensure that they control all seventy-two ships in the harbour.’ He paused for effect.
‘Here’s what you are going to do,’ Caesar continued. He swiftly outlined the strategy. The Roman legionnaires were to take up strategic positions, waiting for an opportune moment to set fire to the ships and the docks.
The objective was to destroy the Egyptian fleet, the docks, and the warehouses, even the buildings adjoining them. Nothing was going to stop him from achieving his ambitions…
And, there was one more thing.
Caesar beckoned to the centurion. ‘Alexandria must burn,’ he said softly. ‘I task you with this responsibility.’ He told the centurion what he had to do. A posse of soldiers had a specific task to accomplish.
The destruction of a building.
It would cover his tracks and remove all evidence.
The centurion nodded and saluted. It would be done.
As the man walked away, Caesar sat back, lost in thought.
It had taken him eight years to get here, he reflected. Eight long years since he first learned, in Gaul, about the great secret that would give him even more glory than he could accomplish by merely ruling over Rome.
He hadn’t wasted time. Seven years ago, he had led an exploratory expedition to Britannia but had failed to find the secret. Refusing to give up, he had mounted another expedition to Britannia the following year.This time, he had found success but it was partial. He was only able to get information on where the secret was hidden. The means to put that secret to use, in order to achieve the purpose he had in mind, still eluded him.
And then, it had occurred to him that he might find what he sought here, in Alexandria, the city that Alexander the Great had founded almost 300 years ago.
A week after the completion of the mission, he was now confident that he finally had the secret within his grasp. Now, all he had to do was erase its existence from the memories of men.
That would happen today.
It didn’t matter how long it took him to return to Rome. He was its ruler now. And when he got back, he would have control over the greatest secret to rule mankind. One that even Alexander the Great did not have.
Julius Caesar would be the greatest ruler of the world. Ever.
Near Bathgate, West Lothian, UK
The man named Jeremy McGregor looked around at his men, who were hard at work, and licked his lips nervously. The tall oak trees surrounded them completely, shielding the light of their lamps from any prying eyes that may have been skulking on the perimeter of the woods. This time of night was quiet and it was extremely unlikely that anyone would be around right now, at this location, right at the top of the hill that was called Kernepopple.
The small group of men had been toiling since early afternoon when the winter sun had begun to sink below the horizon. It had been hard work, clearing the undergrowth and digging through the layer of earth that covered the cairn, accumulated over the passing of three thousand years.
McGregor’s nervousness was palpable. He was the leader of this motley group of cairn robbers, professional thieves who had made it their speciality to dig up the ancient barrows that lay scattered all over this part of Scotland, in search of treasure.
For these barrows were rumoured to be ancient graves, three or four thousand years old if the legends and myths were to be believed, built for important people of those ages, tribal chiefs or noblemen. Very often, these people would have been buried with precious stones and jewellery, for which there was a ready market. And the bones themselves, if they still survived, were also in demand.
Their mission here was to excavate a single grave within the cairn. They didn’t know what they would find in the grave, but they did know that the possibility of finding bones was slim. The grave was centuries old and the acid soil would have consumed any human remains buried in it.
But there was a strong possibility that they would find valuables inside—precious stones, even silver from the mines nearby. This was a grave that had stayed untouched despite the passage of the centuries. They had instructions to collect and carry away everything they found within it.
It was not without reason that Kernepopple had been spared by grave robbers in the intervening centuries. Apart from the fact that the silver mines in close proximity to the hill yielded far more treasure than any grave could, the hill itself—and this cairn in particular—was rumoured to radiate a mysterious and powerful energy. For well over a thousand years, the hill had been associated with an ancient fertility goddess, though no one remembered her name any longer. There were also legends, born of ancient myths, that the goddess herself was buried within the cairn.
These ancient legends had been bolstered by the Romans who, when they passed through the area, recorded the cairn as “ ”—which meant “central sanctuary”— of the highest order of Druids. And, as everyone knew, the Druids, while they flourished, were the greatest sorcerers of their time. Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century A.D. had, in passing, referred to them as Magi. And almost every eminent classical scholar, Greek or Roman, had written about their power over the people and their knowledge of science and astronomy.
It had been reason enough for McGregor and his ilk to stay away from the cairn on the hill.
The reward on offer this time was so high that he had been encouraged to put his fears aside. He had convinced himself that the stories surrounding the hill were just that; stories.
But now that he was actually at the site, with his men digging away, McGregor wondered if he had let his greed get the better of him…
It wasn’t just the fear of being discovered that was unnerving. It was also a fear of the unknown, of the myths and legends surrounding this place. Of the fact that they were actually going to uncover the tomb of the legendary goddess who had been buried here. For it was her grave that they had been tasked to rob.
The identity of McGregor’s employer had not been revealed to him. A group of men had summoned him to Linlithgow, where he had been given his instructions along with a purse of gold. And there was more to come once their mission was successfully completed.
But McGregor was no fool. It was easy to guess where that gold was coming from. Edward I of England had invaded Scotland nine years ago. Three years ago, the English monarch, also known as the“Hammer of the Scots”, had built a formidable defence around the royal residence at Linlithgow, called the “Peel”. And just this year, William Wallace who had led an insurrection against the English, was captured and convicted of treason against London, after which he was hanged and his corpse drawn and quartered.
The rebellion of the Scots, while brutally suppressed, had troubled Edward I. And McGregor had a feeling that his order to ransack the grave was connected to King Edward’s worries. It seemed to him that they were looking for something beyond a treasure of precious stones. If Edward got his hands on whatever was buried in that grave, it would give the English king a hold over the Scots. With the grave goods of the goddess in his hands, McGregor knew that the Scots would be less inclined to repeat their adventure against the English.
While McGregor and his men had no idea about the exact location of the grave, they did know from legend that there were supposed to be three graves in the cairn, of which the largest one was the grave of the goddess. They had spotted a stone protruding from the ground and had decided to start digging there. If everything else in the cairn was under the earth, a stone large enough to be visible above the surface of the ground could possibly mark something very important.
Their guess had been spot on. The stone seemed to be an immense headstone. It was highly probable that this was the grave they sought.
‘Come on, then,’ he urged his men.‘Let’s get inside and take what we came for.’
The top of the headstone jutted out from the stones of the cairn around it; approximately a foot was now visible in the light of their lamps, though even less had protruded above the layer of earth that had covered the cairn.
‘Let’s get to work,’ McGregor said. The men started hauling the stones away; slowly creating a crater within the pile of stones that formed the cairn. Inch by inch, the tall headstone was revealed, shining in the lamplight as its crystals reflected the light back at them.
For a few moments, the men stared at what they had uncovered. From the headstone, smaller standing stones radiated outwards in an ovoid shape, surrounding a smaller cairn within the larger one they had just excavated.
Was this the grave?
Then, something strange happened.
‘Look!’ someone pointed at the headstone. The sight was terrifying, even though it was tempered somewhat by the light of their lamps.
Bluish flames seemed to be emerging from the ground around the headstone.
A man moaned.‘ The fires of hell!’
There was more to come. Above the headstone, four-inch flames of light flickered into existence and then disappeared within a few seconds only to be replaced by orbs of light that floated above the ground.
Another man yelped in fear.‘It’s the goddess!’
Even as he spoke, the earth beneath their feet began trembling. Some of the men dropped to their knees and began praying.
For a few moments, the group of men stood absolutely still, looking around them as the earth continued to shiver underfoot.
Then, as abruptly as it had started, the tremor ceased. The balls of light disappeared. Darkness descended on the hilltop once again, broken only by the light of their lamps.
A strange feeling took hold of the men. Whether it was the myths they had been fed or something that truly was within the grave, they could feel an inexplicable sensation within their heads.
One of the men started back towards the path leading out of the grove. ‘I can’t breathe,’ he spluttered. ‘I don’t feel good at all.’ He sprinted back up the path and was lost in the darkness instantly.
‘Rubbish!’ McGregor declared, repressing his own feelings of nausea and that tingling sensation at his fingertips. The weight of the purse of gold in his waistcoat pocket was a great counterbalance to the experience he and his men were undergoing. ‘It was just a small earthquake. Let’s get our job done and get the hell out of here! There’s gold waiting for us when we get back.’
The men stared back at him doubtfully. A big man ambled forward and glared at McGregor.
‘So you say.’ He spat. ‘An earthquake! And what about the fire and lights? I don’t want no gold if the devil’s going to come and take my soul! is hill’s cursed. We know the legend of the goddess. We are all fools to have come here on a crazy mission like this.’ He turned and walked away, muttering a prayer under his breath.
‘We haven’t even begun digging up the grave,’ another man piped up, ‘and the earth is shaking and…and…’ he spluttered, struggling to find words to describe what he had seen.‘What’s going to happen when we uncover the bones?’
The other men murmured their agreement.
McGregor stood there, fighting the urge to join the men. The sensation in his brain that had played havoc with his emotions was beginning to subside. But the fear in his mind was refusing to fade away. The words of his men rang true. The superstitions of the time were too strong for him to ignore. Edward could keep his gold. It was not worth risking the wrath of the goddess for an English king.
‘We’re done,’ McGregor announced, finally, making up his mind.‘Let’s leave.’
Without bothering to replace the stones they had moved from the cairn, the men hurried away.
The mysterious grave that had lain untouched and undisturbed for over three thousand years had won a reprieve. The story of McGregor’s experience would spread and other grave robbers would learn of it. They would steer clear of the cairn on the hill. The grave would stay that way for another six hundred years before an excavation would uncover it once more.
By then, it would be too late for the world to learn the truth about the tomb and its mysterious occupant.
Too late for the world to stop from hurtling towards its fate. A fate that would be worse than death.
February, present year Hertfordshire, England
Ernest Hamilton sat in his favourite chair in his manuscript room and perused the ancient vellum manuscript on the table in front of him. The document was placed under an archival-quality plastic sheet protector to prevent it from deteriorating any further. He took a sip from the glass of whisky at his side from time to time, lost in contemplation of the contents of the manuscript. It was his latest acquisition and, as was his wont with his new acquisitions, he would go through it intimately. He did not collect ancient manuscripts for their value on the antiquities market. It gave him pleasure to know that he had purchased the knowledge of centuries ago; texts written by men now long dead—creations that had outlived their creators by hundreds of years. Even if it was a mundane letter written by an ancient merchant ordering supplies from a distant land, it still gave him a thrill to read the text—the fine script, the objects mentioned, the scratchings on the paper, all had the ability to transport him back in time. It was for this reason that he had mastered five ancient scripts, which enabled him to read almost all the documents in his collection.
A noise from the hall below interrupted his thoughts. He frowned. It was late. Hamilton had dismissed his staff for the night except for Henry, his butler, who had left the room just a short while ago.
‘Is that you, Henry?’ he called out. There was no reply.
Hamilton pulled off the white cotton gloves he had worn while examining the manuscript and strode towards the doorway of his manuscript room—a specially designed space that contained temperature- and humidity-controlled cabinets to house his manuscripts and preserve them. One wing of the house was dedicated to his collection, with its own state-of-the- art security system.
He stopped short as the door flew open and someone entered the room.
It was a stranger.
‘Henry!’ he called out again, ignoring the woman.
‘I’m afraid Henry is in no position to respond,’ the woman smiled unpleasantly and held up a wicked-looking, bloodstained dagger with a slim blade. She was around 5 feet 5 inches in height, young, slim and clad in black. Her skin was a mocha colour and she spoke with a clipped British accent.
He stared at her goggle-eyed, seeming to notice her for the first time. He couldn’t take his eyes off her face. Not that she was unusually beautiful. Attractive, in her own way, perhaps, but that was not what caught his attention.
Hamilton staggered back. His hand shook and he spilt some whisky on the carpet.
‘Who…who are you?’ he stuttered. A cold fear had begun to take hold of him.
What had this woman done to Henry? The bloodstained dagger made him fear the worst.
There was movement at the door and two men entered the room and stood behind the woman.
The cold dread that Hamilton had been experiencing so far turned into a panic born of certainty.
This was a burglary. They had come for his collection.
He wasn’t worried about his treasures. They were safely locked away behind bullet proof, unbreakable, glass cabinets. Each cabinet had its own unique passcode and he had made it a point not to remember any of them, just in case he was kidnapped for ransom.
But he was worried that, in their ignorance, they might torture him to get to the passcodes.
‘I don’t know any of the passcodes,’ he blurted out, hoarsely, bumping into a tall cabinet that housed a collection of manuscripts from ancient Rome, as he anxiously backed away from her.
The woman laughed. It was a chilling laugh. Something about it made Hamilton’s hair stand on edge. Her voice was cold, like a steel blade.
‘Oh, don’t worry about that,’ she smirked. ‘I don’t want any of these.’ She waved a hand at the ancient texts stored in the room.‘I only want the coins.’
‘ The coins?’ Hamilton echoed, puzzled.‘What coins?’
‘ The Inverness Hoard,’ the woman replied.‘ Three coins were unearthed. Your grandfather gave them away.’ She shrugged. ‘I just need to know who has those coins now. We didn’t know where to start looking. So many possibilities, you know. Like hunting for a needle in a haystack. So, I thought I would ask you. It’s the easy way out. I’m sure you have a record of who your grandfather bequeathed those coins to. Tell me and you’ll live to enjoy your collection.’
Hamilton realised what she was talking about. In 1905, a group of workers had discovered a decaying bag with three ancient Roman coins, while excavating the foundations for a building in Inverness. It was hardly a hoard, but had been instantly dubbed one by the media since the coins were all made of solid gold. His grandfather had purchased the so- called hoard and even published an account of it in 1914, with a detailed description of the coins.
It had been an extraordinary find but had got lost in the news of the Great War that had broken out in Europe that year. The woman was correct. His grandfather had bequeathed those coins. Two private collectors and a museum had them now. A cold chill ran down his spine. He knew exactly whom the coins had been bequeathed to. And something told him that this woman wouldn’t hesitate to use any means to get the information out of him.
‘ Those coins aren’t very valuable,’ he said feebly. His mind was racing. ‘ They were never meant to be used as currency. They’re worthless.’
‘Never mind,’ the woman told him. ‘ Their value is far beyond money.’
She gestured and the two men blocked the entrance to the room.
He had been contemplating making a break for it through the main entrance to this room. That option had just been ruled out. Another thought flashed through his mind. He didn’t have an option. He had to try it. And it might even work. Even at forty-five years, he was fit and would swim sixty laps of his pool every morning.
He was not thinking of himself. His thoughts now revolved around his daughter. She, too, could be in danger. She had gone to a friend’s place and had decided to stay over for the night at Hamilton’s plush apartment in Mayfair. She had to be warned.
Before fear could make him change his mind, he acted.
A quick sprint towards the window directly opposite the cabinet he was standing against.
Swiftly unlatching the window, he threw it open and leaped onto the window frame, perched precariously there for a moment.
Then, he jumped…
Book releases 21st June,2016