Vampires have gotten downright cuddly lately — but in Blood Gospel by James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell, they're at the center of a paranoid action thriller involving secret history and long-buried evil. Rollins, the author of the SIGMA Force novels, combines his penchant for science and historical mystery with Cantrell's gothic horror roots.
We've got an exclusive excerpt from Blood Gospel, in which a team of explorers ventures into an ancient tomb that's been uncovered by an earthquake, and finds something... unexpected. And then at noon PST, Rollins and Cantrell will come in to answer your questions about Blood Gospel. And about vampires in general.
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.