Gorgon (Excerpt)

Check out Gorgon, a new Alex Hunter novel from author Greig Beck, available June 10th from Momentum Books as an ebook.

Alex Hunter has been found sullen, alone, leaving a path of destruction as he wanders across America. Only the foolish get in the way of the drifter haunting the streets late at night.

Across the world, something has been released by a treasure hunter in a hidden chamber of the Basilica Cisterns in Istanbul. Something hidden there by Emperor Constantine himself, and deemed by him too horrifying and dangerous to ever be set free. It now stalks the land, leaving its victims turned to stone, and is headed on a collision course with a NATO base. The Americans can’t let it get there, but can’t be seen to intervene. There is only one option they need their best HAWC. Alex Hunter, code name Arcadian.

But the HAWCs are not the only ones seeking out the strange being Uli Borshov, Borshov the Beast, who has a score to settle with the Arcadian, moves to intercept him, setting up a deadly collision of epic proportions where only one can survive.

 

 


PROLOGUE
Psychro Cave, Crete, 1500 BC

Ducetius kneeled to grab a handful of coins. He rose slowly, his eyes fixed on the magnificent golden discs. Below him, the red marble street was so polished he could see his grin reflected in its burnished hues.

He blinked away the sting of perspiration and wiped an arm quickly over his brow. Ignoring the stifling heat he glanced about, still grinning. It was true—the hidden city of stone with its streets of red marble, majestic houses, elaborate statues, and black rivers of oil, some of it afire, existed. And there was the treasure, so much of it, piles and piles of precious stones, metals, and mountains of gold coin.

The single long street was abandoned, silent—but it was like the silence that grew from the holding of breath rather than that of solitude. Ducetius felt he was being watched. The statues were so lifelike and their details exquisite, but their visages were nightmarish. It was if the sculptor had captured a terror that had befallen the models in life.

He drew the sack from his shoulder and bent to scoop up more coins. It had all been worth it. He had followed the clues, paid bribes, cheated men, and stolen maps and scraps of information wherever he could, and at last he had found it—Hades. An underground city filled with riches beyond reason.

He threw his head back and whooped, the sound bouncing away into the enormous cavern’s depths. Ducetius listened to his voice grow softer the further it traveled in the stygian darkness. He grabbed at more coins, then froze. A noise.

He spun and let his eyes travel over the street—there was nothing save the blank stares of the statues who stood mutely weeping, screaming, or tearing at their own faces. He bent again to his task, but hurried now, feeling the desire to be out in the sunlight again. The sack was heavy and beginning to drag. He wished his son was here to help, rather than waiting for him at the surface.

Another soft sound. A footstep? He whirled.

His mouth gaped and his eyes went wide as a white-hot shock ran through his entire body. The thing loomed over him, taller than anything he had ever witnessed.

In the ancient scrolls there had been a warning about the Cursed Ones who walked the pits of Hell. In his haste and lust for wealth, he had chosen to ignore them. He had been selective in what he believed, impatient, foolish. Now he could see, too late, that the warnings were true.

He didn’t want to look but felt compelled to. His eyes traveled up the body until he came to its head. Ropey outgrowths coiled over each other in constant movement, parting to reveal a ghastly white face and the red-slitted eyes of a snake. A shocking pain like a thousand daggers started in his head.

Before he knew what was happening he found himself running, climbing, scrambling toward the light. Thick paste-like vomit spewed from his gut. Still he moved upwards, but was slowing now with every step. His body felt numb.

Ducetius squeezed through the tiny opening in the cave wall, into daylight. He was only barely conscious of the sun’s warmth on his torso, and his vision was misting as if behind a layer of gauze. He was finally out of the creature’s lair but he knew he was not free.

The coins fell from his fingers that stiffened to stone. He lifted his head on a creaking neck and tried to stand, but managed only to get to one knee before the joint seized. His son’s voice sounded distant yet he should have been only a few dozen feet from where Ducetius had exited the hidden cave.

A shadow fell across his face and his son’s voice came again. He could just make out the boy’s features as the ashen veil closed around him. He would have wept, but there were no words, no tears, no moisture at all left inside him. He lifted an arm to reach out to that familiar, beautiful face, but his hand fell from his wrist like crumbling chalk.

His son’s voice rang out again, this time in a long, tormented scream, but for Ducetius the sound receded as if into the dark cave he had just climbed from. The sunshine disappeared too, and Ducetius became another stone monument to the gods.

 

 

CHAPTER 1

The Sunken Palace, Istanbul, Turkey; yesterday

The guide walked slowly ahead of the forty tourists, turning now and then to glare at an individual who looked like he or she was considering taking a photograph. There were magnificent pictures for sale at the café on completion of the tour—end of discussion. His nasal monotone bounced around the cathedral-sized chamber, followed by a hollow echo, as he ticked off facts and figures in the autonomous manner of someone who had spoken the words a thousand times, displaying an enthusiasm as dulled as the once polished marble surrounding them.

He waved an arm toward the forest of enormous columns that had been colored moss-green by the centuries, and were now illuminated by lights suspended thirty feet above them and extending hundreds of feet into the distance. ‘The Yerebatan Sarayi, also known as the Basilica Cistern or Sunken Palace, was built in the sixth century by the great Emperor Justinian. It is 105,000 square feet in area, and can hold nearly 3 million cubic feet of water—that is about 250 Olympic-sized swimming pools. It is also –’

‘I understood that it was built by Emperor Constantine.’ The American woman’s voice was grating in the hushed interior of the underground chamber.

The guide groaned—there was always one who thought they knew something. ‘An uninformed misconception. Emperor Constantine built the Great Basilica on this site several hundred years before, but it was a place of commerce and for gathering—more an open garden with some underground vaults for storing things he valued. It was Justinian I who in 532 AD made the Great Basilica Cistern what it is now.’

‘Where was Sean Connery standing? Was it around here?’ asked another overly loud voice.

The guide rolled his eyes and exhaled. Here they were, within one of the wonders of the Middle East, and all these people cared about was where one of their movie stars had once stood. These are the true Western values, he thought. Aloud, he said, ‘It is true that the 1963 movie From Russia With Love was shot in these very chambers, before the walkways were constructed—that is why Mr. Bond had to travel by boat. And no, he was a half-mile further down in the waterway. Now please, keep moving as there is more to see before the cistern is closed for the day.’

The guide motioned with his arm and led the group of garishly dressed tourists further into the enormous chamber. He stopped on the walkway and turned to face them, his back to what looked like a small island in the center of the cistern’s lake. Here, the water had become shallow due to silt build-up, but the deeper pools still bubbled and splashed from time to time with large carp that had been introduced to keep the algae levels down.

‘The Medusa Columns,’ the guide said, and pointed over his shoulder with a flat hand.

The group turned as one to stare at the giant heads at the base of the columns. The faces, all showing the unmistakable countenance of the dreaded Gorgon from Greek mythology, were stained green with age, and either lying on their side or upside down. Snakes wove thickly through their carved hair.

A teenager bent and turned his head sideways to look into a face. ‘They say they were turned sideways and upside down to reduce the power of her stare.’

The guide grunted; at last, a semi-intelligent comment. ‘That is one interpretation. There are other suggestions, such as the head placement is part of some long-lost puzzle, or the heads were carved in Constantine’s time and used by Justinian’s stonemasons because they were the right size for a base for the columns.’

The teenager sagged slightly at the more mundane explanation.

The guide waved the group on again. ‘If we can move along—hurry, please.’

They moved like a single mass toward some wooden stairs. The guide didn’t bother to take a headcount. If he had, he would have noticed that his group of forty tourists now numbered thirty-nine.

 

Janus Caresche waited as the sounds of the group retreated into the distance, followed by the clang of a heavy door being pulled shut. One by one the overhead lights drummed out. A wall of darkness stepped down the chamber toward him, then passed over him to chase the remaining lights further along the ancient cistern.

Caresche was one of the new breed of archeologists—just as much entrepreneur as historian. They tended to avoid traditional work in museums or universities, instead acting more like mercenaries for the highest-paying collectors around the world. Janus Caresche was young, arrogant, and liked to think of himself as an antiquity detective. He got results, but he was expensive.

He kneeled down, removed his small backpack, and pulled out a plastic lunch box. After popping the lid, and removing several wrapped sandwiches, he lifted free a fake bottom to reveal a set of night-vision goggles, six large button-shaped objects, and a ball of blue putty. Caresche shrugged the pack over his shoulders, slipped the goggles over his forehead, and stepped into the shallow water to make his way to the first of the Gorgon heads.

Ma belle.’ He ran his hands over the large face. ‘Gorgos.’ He used the ancient Greek name, meaning “dreadful”, for the monster, and spoke softly to the flaring green-enhanced image of the cruel stone face. ‘May your gaze turn me not to stone but instead make me rich.’

Caresche knew that the three statues weren’t, as many amateur archeologists believed, different artisan’s representations of the Gorgon, but in fact one each of the famous sisters—Medusa, Stheno, and Euryale.

He laughed softly and patted the broad forehead, before placing a small ball of putty over the baseball-sized pupil of each stone eye. He took two of the buttons and pushed them gently into the center of the putty, then turned the casing on each. A thin red beam shot out from both, neither overlapping nor hitting the same object in their path. Caresche quickly moved to the next head, conscious of the time, even though it would be more than twelve hours until the next tour party arrived. By then, he, and any trace of his exploration, would be long gone. He went through the same procedure with the second head, and then the third. He stayed low for a few seconds, tracing the path of the lasers with his eyes. As he’d expected, each head faced a different section of the ancient Sunken Palace.

Such was the fear of the Gorgon’s gaze that her image was often used as a deterrent to invaders, even in many modern Greek bank vaults. Caresche guessed it was the same here: the Gorgon’s gaze was guarding something of value to the Emperor Constantine; something that needed all three of the sisters’ power to keep it secure and hidden away from the world.

Caresche ticked off in his mind the historical myths about the possible treasures that could have been hidden in Constantine’s vault. They ranged from lost texts from the Great Library of Alexandria, to the body of the boy king Caesarion—the only child of the brief relationship between Julius Caesar and Cleopatra—supposed to be wrapped in a golden web of Indian rubies and African emeralds. There was also the legend of the death mask of Magera, the fourth sister of the Gorgons, erased for unknown reasons from the ancient Greek tales. Whichever treasure was hidden here didn’t matter to Caresche—any one would be worth a hundred king’s ransoms. And he didn’t even have to remove the items, just provide proof of their existence and their location. For Caresche, a picture wasn’t just worth a thousand words; it was worth a million bucks.

He waded through the ankle-deep water to where the six beams intersected and looked up at the chamber’s roof. He twisted a dial on his goggles to enhance their vision, but still there was nothing; and no further clues on any of the other columns.

Undeterred, he began to feel around with his foot—there, a lump or extrusion. He pulled up one sleeve and reached down to trace the outline of the object—it seemed to be a stone crucifix, roughly a foot long, stuck to the brickwork on the bottom of the cistern floor. He was lucky he was here in the dry season—the water was low now, but originally the cistern would have been filled to the ceiling, and this part of the chamber could have been accessed only with scuba equipment, or not at all.

The archeologist traced the cross for a moment longer, before pushing the goggles up on his head, and pulling a headband flashlight from his backpack. He slid it over his forehead and switched on the beam, squinting at the harsh white light. Though the water had been stirred by his movement, it quickly settled, and he could see that the embedded crucifix was at the center of two large rings—the first, some five feet across; the second, at the far edge of his water-refracted beam, more than twenty.

Caresche straightened and looked up at the ceiling, then at each of the Gorgon heads. This was where the lasers intersected; this was the meeting of the Gorgons’ gaze that his research had indicated he should seek out. But what now?

He frowned, standing still and listening to the sound of the carp softly stirring the water in the darkness. He shook his head, kneeled in the water and gripped the cross with both hands, and pulled, then pushed, then turned it one way, then the next. It didn’t budge.

Merde!

He sucked in a breath, grabbed the long end of the crucifix and yanked it toward himself, straining his shoulder muscles. The crucifix moved an inch, like the long hand of a clock. Encouraged, he yanked some more—and was rewarded with another inch.

Silt swirled up, dislodged from the ancient stone cross. Caresche readied himself again, taking a few seconds to suck in some deep breaths. He yanked, and this time the stone cross grated heavily before lifting and turning freely like a giant door handle.

Almost immediately, there was a grinding all around him from the very edges of the cistern walls. Caresche stood as fish darted past him like miniature rockets in the now turbulent water. The grinding noise increased, as though some huge stone machine was starting up under his feet, and he could feel the vibrations in the stonework surrounding him. Dust rained down, and he was contemplating running for the exit when the floor seemed to judder, and then drop a few inches.

Caresche backed up against one of the columns. The grinding turned to a roar as the water level lumped higher, and then started to drop.

He quickly removed his backpack and pulled free another large flashlight. As he aimed the beam at the walls and the source of the noise, he saw that huge blocks of stone had slid aside at the water line, revealing drains now filling with millions of gallons of water rushing to escape. He moved his beam further along the wall—the drain vents seemed to have opened the entire length of the ancient cistern.

In what seemed like minutes the water had gone, leaving stranded carp flopping miserably in muddy puddles. The inner and outer ring carved into the floor around the crucifix were now clearly visible. As Caresche traced them with his eyes, they started to hiss, as if pressure was building beneath them.

The archeologist’s mouth opened in a smile as the larger outer circle spun and then dropped … and kept dropping, until it disappeared completely. It wasn’t a freefall motion, but more a lowering, as the stone seemed to split and then reassemble itself into spiral steps that dropped deep down into the lower cistern chambers.

Caresche stepped forward quickly and stared into the darkness. He coughed. The chamber must have been sealed for many long centuries, and the air smelled of damp, decay, and something that reminded him of fish putrefying at the high-tide line on a beach.

The archeologist glanced at his watch, its face large on his slim wrist. He lifted his head to listen—there was a constant dripping and a few gasps from dying fish, but no shouts or sirens, and the chamber’s lights remained off.

Janus Caresche grinned. ‘All mine’, he said to the dark hole before him.

He reached into his backpack for a small hammer and metal spike. This time, if he came to another barrier, he’d go through it. He slid the tools into his belt, took one last look around, and started down the black stone steps into a stygian darkness.

He counted the steps as he descended, finishing at one hundred—the centum, an important number in ancient Rome. The twin beams from his flashlight and headlamp barely illuminated the large vault-like room. The ground and walls ran with moisture and dripping mosses.

Caresche kneeled and wiped his hand across the floor—polished mica, still shining like glass after all the centuries. Behind the slime, the walls were covered in beautiful mosaics made from abalone shell, more mica, and semi-precious stone shards, showing images of serpents, faces screwed up in agony, or night-time scenes with chalk-like figures shielding their eyes. In one, a large figure sat in an ox-drawn cart with a covering concealing its head. The detail of every mosaic was exquisite, and even now, centuries later, the faces seemed to take on life in the light of his beam.

Every few panels showed a large staring face, like a ghastly death mask, its eyes orbs of metal. Lifting his light, Caresche saw the metal was silver, and he knew that it would once have been polished to a mirror-like sheen. Viewers of the panels would have seen themselves reflected back in all the silver eyes.

He held out his arms. ‘All shall bathe in the gaze of the Gorgos.’

He grinned and threw his head back, then frowned. He lifted his flashlight to the vaulted roof. In trompe l’oeil style, which created an almost 3D effect, the magnificent painted ceiling depicted a noonday sun, soft clouds and birds flying across a blue sky. Someone had gone to great trouble to ensure this room would forever seem bathed in perpetual sunlight.

Caresche lowered his light toward an ornate doorway. He immediately recognized the design—a Roman triumphal arch, used to signify victory over an enemy, or even over death. A wall had been erected across the arch, sealing it. He placed a hand on the brickwork—typical Roman fire-hardened clay. Strong, but the mortar would be weakened by nearly a millennium of moisture.

He wedged the sharp metal spike between two bricks and struck it with the hammer. The hammer clanged and bounced back, causing minimal damage to the wall but jarring his shoulder.

‘Fuck you too,’ he said, and replaced the spike.

This time he swung hard, and the bricks separated. It took him another ten minutes to remove the first brick, but from there, most came out like old teeth from loose gums. He kicked at the last few blocks, which crumbled inwards.

Janus Caresche flicked sweat from his face, placed a hand over his mouth and nose, and stepped inside. ‘Oof.’ It stank … of something unidentifiable.

The space was small, no more than twenty feet around, and plain by Roman standards. It seemed to be a fortified storeroom, which he had expected for something Emperor Constantine had wanted to keep hidden away.

There was a single object in the center of the room—a huge urn of age-darkened bronze, as tall as he was. It reminded him of the pots whalers used in the 1800s for rendering whale blubber down to oil. He walked slowly around it, flicking his light up and down its sides. It stood on three ornate clawed feet, its sides adorned with horrible faces crowned with what looked like writhing snakes. There was writing on the vessel and on the walls nearby—a strange script he didn’t recognize, even though he spoke and understood a dozen languages.

He rapped against it with a knuckle; the sound was deep and hollow.

Bonjour, beautiful. Anybody home?’

He smiled and was about to step back when he froze. What was that? A sound? He put his ear to the urn—listening, waiting. Nothing.

He snorted softly and shook his head. ‘Let’s get this done.’

He ran a hand along the top to feel a manhole-sized lid held in place by huge clasps and chains. Caresche had seen many Roman chests and many ornate locks in his time, but this was a first—probably purpose built. The signs were good: it was a significant strongbox with plenty of locks and a lot of chains, and to someone like him, that meant whatever was inside was of enormous value.

Payday, he thought as he placed the metal spike against one of the bronze clasps. He tapped it once with the hammer for alignment, then raised the hammer high and swung down hard.

The first lock broke away.

 


Gorgon © Greig Beck, 2014

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