Read an excerpt of Black Scorpion, the next adventure of The Seven Sins’ Michael “The Tyrant” Tiranno.
ONE: Northern Israel, 950 BC
“They come, oh great King.”
Solomon, weary and weak from going so long without rest, leaned heavily on the shoulder of his son as he emerged from inside his goat-hair tent. Already he and his private guard had fought off two ambushes. Bandits appeared to be to blame, but Solomon suspected otherwise given their weaponry, skill, and the fact that they hadn’t fled when confronted.
Now his heart pounded with anticipation, but also with fear, in the night’s heat. He was so close now, so close to fulfilling the destiny shaped by his father, the great King David. And that reality filled him with the awesome scope of the responsibility before him, along with the price of failure.
He could not fail. The fate of his kingdom was at stake.
Solomon cast his gaze down the road to see a single wagon kicking up a dust cloud in its wake. Traveling under cover of darkness greatly lessened the threat of a raid by bandits and, in any event, at first sight the wagon seemed to be carrying nothing more than a farmer’s crops being taken to the open market in Jerusalem.
Solomon peeled back his beggar’s hood to reveal long locks of shiny brown hair and finely etched features that looked chiseled onto his face. He’d just nodded off, dreaming of Jerusalem, imagining the lanterns lighting the city twinkling in the night, when the captain of his private guard alerted him to the wagon’s coming. Solomon eased his hand from the shoulder of his 15-year-old son Rehoboam, as the wagon drew closer so the boy wouldn’t feel him stiffen. “Keep a keen eye, my son, for our enemies are everywhere.”
“Father?” the boy said, sliding a hand to the knife Solomon had presented him on the occasion of his Bar Mitzvah. He was small for his age and a bit frail. But, as heir to the kingdom of Israel, he needed to be part of such a vital mission, no matter how perilous.
“They would seek to destroy this symbol of our people and the foundation of our future. With our temple complete, we have safe refuge for it at last.”
The Temple of Solomon had taken nearly eight years to build, requiring men and materials the likes of which had never been seen before in the known world. A staggering two hundred thousand workers had ultimately played a part in its construction, milled from vast quantities of local stone and imported cedar wood. It was a sprawling, palatial structure, perhaps the greatest ever erected—and with good reason, since it would be housing the vast stores of priceless treasures amassed by the Jewish people through time. What Solomon had kept secret from all but his most trusted cadre was the construction of a special chamber within the temple called Kodesh Hakodashim, or Holy of Holies. This would house the ark of the covenant, containing the remains of the stone tablets that held the actual Ten Commandments, along with the contents carried in the rear of the simple farmer’s wagon approaching now.
It drew close enough to hear the snorting of the horses and pounding of their hooves atop the roadbed that was dry and cracking from the long drought Solomon took for God’s impatience. And, as if to reinforce that belief, he felt the first trickle of raindrops and took this as a good omen, until thunder rumbled in the distance and it became something much different.
“Benaiah!” he called to his most trusted advisor, the wagon slowing to a halt before his party now. “Deploy the—”
Too late! Solomon realized, as arrows split the night, taking down two of his guards. The cloaked figures, dark everywhere with scarves pulled over their faces, rushed them from both sides of the road at once, shrieking and bellowing with swords drawn. More arrows split the air, scattering Solomon’s outnumbered forces.
Until two dozen riders broke from the cover of darkness and surged onto the scene. The attacking forces hesitated just long enough for Solomon, Benaiah, and the members of the king’s private guard to whip out their swords, seizing the offensive.
“The tent!” he ordered Rehoboam, shoving the boy that way.
Rehoboam stiffened, hand straying to the hilt of his sheathed knife. “But, Father, I want to fi —”
The boy scampered away through the rain that had begun to tumble from the sky in waves, swiftly turning the ground to mud. Solomon sloshed through it, sweeping his sword toward any enemy target it could reach. He fought to keep his breath as he split one man’s thorax with a thrust and cut another’s throat with a whistling slice through the air. He saw a few of the enemy, enough, break through the lines and rush the wagon through his troops lost in the intensity of battle further complicated by the night and the sudden storm.
With only a quartet of his men left to defend the wagon, Solomon slipped through the carnage of flying limbs and blood mixing with the rain, sword whirling like a wheel to clear his path. He caught two of the enemy rushing the wagon and cut them down from behind when they neared the horses. A third turned to confront him and Solomon unleashed a vicious strike from the side that lopped off his head. By then, though, six more of the enemy had reached the wagon, too many for his guards there to put down.
Solomon rushed to save his destiny, his people’s destiny, a desperate cry freezing him in his tracks.
He swung to see Rehoboam in the grasp of one of the enemy soldiers, struggling as the man drew him from the tent with one hand, ready to use his sword with the other. If he moved now, he might be able to save the boy. But the wagon was closer, its desperately vital contents in jeopardy as well.
Solomon turned from his son and his cries and, letting out a scream that pierced the night, surged on. Unleashing a fury when he reached the wagon that reddened the rain and soaked the rags he wore for disguise in both blood and entrails. The smell of it remained thick in the air, the guards who’d stayed with the wagon and those who sought to steal its contents all dead by the time Solomon sank to his knees in the mud, feeling Benaiah jerk him back to his feet.
“It’s over, my King. We killed most, chased the others off.”
“Rehoboam,” Solomon remembered, turning toward the tent breathless.
The boy was kneeling over the body of his attacker, as the rain washed the last of the blood off the blade of his knife. Solomon rushed back to the heir to his crown and took the boy in his arms.
“We live, my son,” he said over the boy’s sobs. “Now, come with me so you may see what nearly cost us our lives.”
He wrapped an arm around his son’s trembling shoulders and led him toward the wagon. Rehoboam’s shaking had stilled a bit by the time they reached it, Solomon easing back the animal skin covering the rear.
“Behold the most divine symbol of our people.”
The boy’s eyes widened, his face glistening in the glow emanating from the contents. The horses neighed, kicking at the ground as if suddenly agitated and unsettled.
“Father, is it . . .”
“A gift from God Himself, providing we prove ourselves worthy of it.”
Rehoboam stretched a hand out into the glow, but the king covered the wagon again before he could get any closer. He eased his son away, surveying the carnage left behind by the battle and laying a hand lightly upon Rehoboam’s head.
“Let the blood spilled this night remind you always of the great responsibility you bear for securing the future of the people of Israel, for you are truly a man now worthy of that,” Solomon resumed, picturing the wagon’s contents once more in his mind. “And whoever holds this treasure in his hand holds the power of God as well.”
TWO: Rome, 47 BC
“Hail, Caesar! Hail Caesar! Hail Caesar!”
The chants came from both sides of the streets, Caesar himself acknowledging them with waves from the head of the military pro cession that seemed to stretch forever, covering the entire length of his vast legions. After a military campaign that lasted nearly ten years in conquering Gaul, he’d then crossed the Rubicon River en route to an even greater triumph in the civil war that propelled him to power.
Now he basked in the glory of that triumph, beloved by his people and destined to achieve even more glory for himself and Rome.
“Hail, Caesar! Hail Caesar! Hail Caesar!”
The streets were a sea of people roaring and cheering, thrusting their own hands into the air to mimic the swords held high overhead by the soldiers who’d delivered an unprecedented string of victories for their leader. Those swords reflected the midday sun in blinding fashion, stretching so far along the streets of Rome that it seemed as if the pro cession was being smiled upon by the Gods themselves all the way to the Roman senate. The admiration and devotion shown by his people validated the sense of power that filled Caesar and affirmed the destiny he felt was his to achieve, as he squeezed the golden medallion that hung outside his robes. An ancient relic that was more than just a keepsake or talisman.
“Greetings, my friends.”
Gaius Julius Caesar, his position as dictator recently secured and approaching the height of his power, entered the room through majestic double doors opened by his helmeted centurions. Immediately the dozen men gathered, mostly strangers to each other until that evening, abandoned the wine and fruit they’d been served, and moved to greet the most powerful man in the world with proper reverence.
In an uncharacteristic show of humility, Caesar waved them off and beckoned them back to their seats and refreshments.
“Please,” he said, “partake of my hospitality.”
Taking a seat so they’d be comfortable doing the same, Caesar addressed the men he’d summoned here. They were not soldiers nor senators, but scribes and scholars. Men hardly used to a royal audience, much less one before Caesar himself.
“You’ve heard the tales of my victories in battle, in Gaul and beyond,” he began, rotating his guise from man to man. “You’ve heard how I refused to accept sublimation and chose to subject Rome to civil war in order that the empire might be saved. You’ve seen since I took control how Rome has expanded its power and how its people have never been better served. I’ve called you here tonight to undertake a mission vital to the Republic, so its future may not just be preserved, but enhanced to a level never seen by the Gods.
“For the mission you are to embark on may bring you face-to-face with those Gods themselves,” Caesar finished.
And with that he eased the golden medallion from beneath his robes, displaying it in hand as he moved about the men for all to see.
“I took this relic off Cilician pirates when I was a consul after they kidnapped me a second time. They thought they were saving their lives,” he smirked, “but they only bought a quicker death.” The smirk vanished, replaced by an icy stare he rotated about the room. “The same fate that awaits any of you who betray my confidence and my trust. Speak out of turn of what you are to learn tonight and afterwards, and you will pay with your lives as well as the lives of your families. Any man among you unable to accept such conditions and unwilling to swear such an oath should leave now.”
Caesar stopped, waiting to see if any the men he’d chosen for this mission rose. They stiffened to a man, but not a single one so much as moved.
“We are honored by your trust in us, sire,” one of the men said, and all the others nodded.
“Very well then,” he told them, satisfied as he let the relic dangle over his robes again. “Let us continue. I fully believe this medallion begot the victories I’ve won and achievements I’ve made, the power I’ve gained and expanded. I bring you here before me to form a secret order of loyalists that will travel under the royal seal of Caesar. You will leave to night, under cloak of darkness with my royal guard, without returning to your families or the lives you will be leaving behind. Your mission, to be undertaken at all and any costs including your very lives in service to mighty Rome and the Republic, is to uncover the origins of this relic. And you will not return until your purpose is fulfilled, no matter how long that quest takes lest you risk my wrath by failing in your mission, equal to treason for which you will suffer the pain all enemies of Rome have known and will know. And your mission shall continue until such time as you find the answers that you are not to return to Rome without.”
Caesar stopped and met each and every one of the men’s suddenly apprehensive and fearful gazes before resuming.
“For glory, for Rome. Curate ut valeatis. Di vos incolumes custodiant,” he finished. “Take care that you fare well and may the Gods guard your safety.”
THREE: Siberia, four years ago
The rumbling shook the snow from the trees, the ice of the frozen inlet quaking and then beginning to crack. The waters draining off the Bering Sea had been frozen for months already which didn’t stop the Yupik, as Siberian Eskimos were known, from fishing the inlet through holes carved in the thick ice. With the worst of winter fast approaching, they needed to stockpile as much food as possible, the portent for this winter especially harsh.
This region was no stranger to earthquakes, so the Yupik fishermen thought nothing of the rumbling until the center of the inlet burst open in a hail of frigid froth. The fishermen scattered, leaving their poles and lures behind to watch something crash through the ice. When the cold mist, laden with chunks of shattered ice, cleared they saw an oblong obelisk that looked otherworldly until the top popped open and the first of the gunmen climbed out.
Standing on the fractured ice alongside the submarine’s conning tower, the woman supervised the process of the snowmobiles being off-loaded: A dozen of them, sized to carry two men each. Their fuel tanks, too, needed to be adapted to be able to manage the journey to and from their target. No easy task in the deteriorating conditions, especially when figuring the likelihood of mechanical breakdown.
“There’s a storm coming,” a native scout who knew this region better than any of them told the woman from alongside her.
“Better to disguise our approach to the prison.”
The guards at Koryak Prison saw the storm coming as a vast white wall on the horizon. The wind pushed an ice mist forward ahead of it, a crystal- laden fog that sped across the white land like a rolling ball.
“Shit,” said one of the guards in the east tower, shivering from the cold. The tower’s internal heating system had failed months before and the space heaters allocated to provide heat in its stead kept blowing fuses in the ancient facility.
The world believed this infamous Soviet-era gulag to have been closed a generation before, an obsolete relic of the Cold War and nothing more. The atrocities that had taken place within these walls were little known beyond them, since so few ever imprisoned here survived to tell of the tale.
“What’s that?” the second guard in the east tower raised.
“There’s something moving in the ice mist.”
The second guard raised the binoculars in his gloved hands to his eyes, but pulled the frigid plastic from his flesh at first touch. “I’m too cold to care.”
Those were his last words before a bullet pierced his forehead dead center. He fell toward the other guard who reached out to grab him when a bullet caught him in the identical spot.
There were only sixty-three forgotten men currently imprisoned at Koryak, a facility capable of handling ten times that number. As a result, security had gone lax and those serving out their enlistments here passed the time struggling to play cards from within bulky gloves while bundled up in three or four layers of clothing. Indeed, there was little to “secure” when the bulk of the sixty- three prisoners were old, infirm, weak, or some combination of the three. Koryak didn’t seem a gulag notorious for its brutality any longer, so much as a rest home for the forgotten. And those charged with guarding it believed the facility’s secretive nature, along with its distance from anything even approaching civilization, made for the best security of all. No roads whatsoever led to the complex and helicopters had trouble managing the region’s winds in the best of conditions, never mind ones like these.
The recreation room overlooked the front of the prison complex awash in a thick ice mist, before bright orange flashes flared amidst it. The soldiers saw the flashes an instant before the explosive percussion burned the air and blew out a measure of the room’s glass. A brief wave of heat comforted the soldiers before a frigid blast of air surged inward, just ahead of the combination of shrapnel and ruptured glass tearing them apart.
The woman yanked off the full-face Nomex mask that had protected her from the cold as well as from witnesses and security cameras. A shock of jet-black hair tumbled out, making her green eyes look even more vibrant, so piercing and intense in moments as focused as this that it was difficult to meet them. She led the gunmen down the halls streaked with grime and peeling paint, encountering little resistance along the way until they reached the final fortified checkpoint set before the lone cellblock in use.
“RPGs!” the woman ordered.
Three of her men unshouldered and fired the weapons in rapid succession, obliterating the security station in a mass of twisted steel and shattered glass. The woman led her men over that and the bodies of the guards within, surging on toward the wing’s command center.
“Pomogite, nas atakuyut!”
She heard the desperate call that the prison was under attack, screamed by one guard into an old- fashioned shortwave radio, as two more braced themselves before a door barricaded with desk, chairs, and fi ling cabinets. The woman signaled her men to take cover.
“Use your fire to distract them,” she ordered, and heard their gunfire ring out immediately, while she looped around to the command center’s lone interior window.
The woman shot the guard operating the radio through it first, then the other two men in rapid succession, never once considering how exposed she’d been herself in the process. Once inside the command center, she yanked a heavy lever sideways to mechanically unlock all the doors in the cellblock beyond and shot out the radio, just in case.
From there, the woman headed down a set of rusted steel stairs to the block and straight to the seventh cell down an endless aisle. The first thing she saw was an interconnected series of landscape drawings that made it look as if the blank cell walls actually formed an expansive picture window offering a majestic view of a pristine landscape beyond. The next thing she noticed was an old man with long gray hair and beard adding to them in deliberate, painstaking fashion with what looked like children’s crayons.
The old man continued his drawing, either ignoring or not hearing her call.
“Professor Taupmann,” she said louder.
He turned finally, regarding her with a start and then squinting. “Did you find my glasses?”
“Come with me, Professor.”
The old man smeared the collection of colors staining his hands onto his drab, worn prison uniform. “Because I need my glasses. I can’t read without my glasses.”
The woman yanked the cell door open. “We need to go.”
He narrowed his gaze. “You’re a woman,” he said, as if realizing it for the first time.
“Please, Professor. Now.”
“Oh, I can’t leave,” he said quite calmly, unmoved by her presence. “I’m a prisoner.”
“Not anymore, Professor,” Raven Khan told him, moving a pair of glasses resting atop his head to the bridge of his nose. “There’s someone who very much wants to meet with you.”
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