James Rollins’ next Sigma Force novel, The Seventh Plague, hits shelves on December 13th, and Paste is excited to reveal an exclusive preview of the first chapter. The adventure begins when a British archaeologist—a member of an expedition gone missing for over two years—stumbles out of the Egyptian desert. Before he can explain what happened to his team, he dies. But his remains hold a terrifying discovery that only deepens the mystery: something had begun mummifying his body while he was still alive. Summoned by a former ally at the British Museum, Commander Grayson Pierce of Sigma Force must uncover the truth behind the brutal murder and discover the fate of the missing team.
Keep reading for a sneak peek of The Seventh Plague.
The high priestess knelt naked in the sand and knew it was time. The omens had been building, growing more dire, becoming certainty. To the west, a sandstorm climbed toward the sun, turning the day’s blue sky into a dusty darkness, crackling with lightning.
The enemy was almost upon them.
In preparation, Sabah had shaved all the hair from her body, even the brows above her painted eyes. She had bathed in the waters to either side, two tributaries that flowed north out of the deeper desert and joined at this sacred confluence to form the mighty river that the ancient kings of heqa khaseshet called the Nahal. She pictured its snaking course as it flowed past Luxor, Thebes, and Memphis on its way to the great blue sea that stretched past the river’s fertile delta.
Though she had never set eyes upon that region, she had heard tales.
Of our old home, a place of green fields, palms, and a life ruled by the rhythmic flooding of the Nahal . . .
It was from those lands that Sabah’s people had fled over a century ago, escaping the time of plagues, starvation, and death, chased by a pharaoh long dead. Most of the other tribes had sought refuge in the deserts to the east, conquering the lands out there and creating a kingdom of their own—but her tribe had lived in an area farther south along the river, near the village of Djeba, in the Upper Egyptian district of Wetjes-Hor, known as the Throne of Horus.
During the time of darkness and death, her tribe had uprooted themselves and fled up the river, beyond the reach of the Egyptian kingdom and into the Nubian desert. Her tribe had been scholars and scribes, priests and priestesses, keepers of great knowledge. They had retreated into the empty ranges of Nubia to protect such knowledge from the turbulent times that followed the plagues, when Egypt was beset and overrun by foreigners from the east, a fierce people with faster chariots and stronger bronze weapons who conquered the weakened Egyptian towns with barely an arrow fired.
But that dark time was coming to an end.
Egypt was rising yet again, chasing out their old masters, building monuments of their many victories and spreading ever in this direction.
“Hemet netjer . . .” her Nubian assistant—a young man named Tabor—whispered behind her, perhaps sensing her distress or merely trying to remind her of her role as hemet netjer . . . the maid of God. “We must go now.”
She understood and rose to her feet.
Tabor’s eyes were upon the storm to the west, clearly the source of his worry, but Sabah noted a wisp of smoke due north, marking the destruction of a town alongside the fifth cataract of the Nahal, the latest conquest by the Egyptian armies. It would not be long before those same forces reached this mighty confluence.
Before that happened, Sabah and the others of her order must hide what they had protected for over a century, a wonder unlike any other: a blessing by God hidden at the heart of a curse.
Watching the Egyptians creep and spread up along the river, consuming town after town, preparations had been underway for the past thousand days, mostly acts of purification, all to ready her and her order to become immortal vessels for God’s blessing.
Sabah was the last to be allowed this transformation, having already overseen and guided many of her brothers and sisters on this path. Like the others, she had forsaken all millet and grain for the past year, subsisting on nuts, berries, tree bark, and a tea made from a resin carried here from foreign lands. Over the turning of seasons, her flesh had dried to her bones, her breasts and buttocks gone sallow and sunken. Though only into her third decade, she now needed Tabor’s strong back and arms to help her move, even to slip her linen robe back over her head.
As they set off away from the confluence, Sabah watched the sandstorm roll inexorably toward them, laced with lightning born from the roiling clouds of dust. She could sense that energy flowing across the desert. She smelled it in the air, felt it stir the small hairs along her arms. With God’s will, those same blowing sands should help cover their handiwork, to bury it under windswept dunes.
But first they had to reach the hills in the distance.
She concentrated on putting one foot before the other. Still, she feared she had waited too long at the river. By the time she and Tabor reached the deep cleft between two hills, the storm had caught them, howling overhead and scouring any exposed skin with burning sand.
“Hurry, mistress,” Tabor urged, all but picking her up. Carried now, she felt her toes brushing the ground, scribing the sand underfoot with indecipherable glyphs of beseechment.
I must not fail . . .
Then they were through the dark doorway and hurrying down a long steep passageway to the greater wonder sculpted out of the sandstorm below. Torches lit the way, flickering shadows all around them, slowly revealing what was hidden, what had been created by artisans and scholars working in tandem for over seven decades.
Tabor helped her over the arcade of large stone teeth and across the sprawl of a sculpted tongue, carved in exquisite detail. Ahead, the chamber bifurcated into two tunnels: one that dove through the rock toward the stone stomach below; the other was ribbed and led to the cavernous chest cavity.
It was the latter route they took now in great haste.
As Tabor helped her, she pictured the subterranean complex buried under these hills, modeled after the body of a featureless man in repose, one who lay buried under these hills. While this sculpture had no exterior—for the world was its skin—all of the interior details of the human body had been meticulously carved out of the sandstone, from liver and kidney to bladder and brain.
Beneath the hills, her order had created their own stone God, one large enough to make their home within, to use its body as a vessel to preserve what must be kept safe.
Like I must do now . . . to make of my own body a temple for God’s great blessing.
Tabor led her to where the ribbed passageway split yet again into two smaller tunnels, marking the same division of airways found in her own chest. He took her to the left, requiring that they duck slightly from the curved roof of the smaller passage. But they did not have long to go.
Torchlight grew brighter ahead as the tunnel ended and opened into a massive cavernous space, seemingly supported by stone ribs that arched up to the carving of a mighty sternum overhead. In the room’s center sat a stone heart, rising four times her height, again rendered in perfect symmetry with great curving blood vessels that fanned outward.
She glanced to the handful of other Nubian servants, all on their knees, who awaited her in the chamber.
She stared over to the colonnades of curved stone ribs. Between those ribs, fresh bricks had been used to seal the many alcoves hidden there. It marked the tombs of her brothers and sisters of the order, those who had preceded her into the future. She pictured them seated or slumped on their chairs, their bodies slowly finishing their transformations, becoming vessels for the blessing.
I am the last . . . the chosen maid of God.
She turned from the walls to face the stone heart. A small doorway opened into one of the chambers, a place of great honor.
She shook free of Tabor’s arm and took the last steps on her own. She crossed to the doorway, bowed her head low, and climbed inside. Her palm felt the cold stone as she straightened. A silver throne awaited her inside, equally cold as she sat upon it. To one side rested a bowl of carved lapis lazuli. Water filled it to just shy of its silver-embossed brim. She lifted the bowl and let it rest on her thin thighs.
Tabor leaned toward the opening, too pained to speak, but his face was easy to read, full of grief, hope, and fear. Matching emotions swelled within her own breast—along with a fair amount of doubt. But she nodded to Tabor.
“Let it be done.”
Grief won the battle in his face, but he matched her nod and bowed out.
The other servants came forward and began sealing the entrance with dry bricks of mud and straw. Darkness fell over her, but in the last flicker of torchlight from outside, she stared down at the bowl in her lap, recognizing the dark sheen to the water. It was colored a deep crimson. She knew what she held. It was water from the Nahal, from when the river had been cursed and turned to blood. It had been collected ages ago and preserved by their order—along with the blessing held at its cursed heart.
As the last brick was set, she swallowed hard, finding her throat suddenly dry. She listened as a fresh coat of mud was smeared over the bricks outside. She also heard the telltale scrape of wood being stacked under the base of the heart, encircling it completely.
She closed her eyes, knowing what was to come.
She pictured torches igniting that bonfire of wood.
(Read the chapter’s conclusion on page 2.)
Slowly came confirmation as the stone grew warm underfoot. The air inside the heart—already stifling—did not take long to become heated. Any moisture dried away, escaping up the flue of the sculpted vessels. In moments, it felt as if she were breathing hot sand. She gasped as the bottom of her feet began to burn. Even the silver throne had become as hot as the scorched lip of a dune under a summer sun.
Still, she kept quiet. By now, those outside should have exited this underworld, sealing the way behind them. They would leave these lands under the cover of the storm, vanishing away forever, letting the desert erase all evidence of this place.
As she awaited her end, tears wept from her eyes, only to be dried from her cheeks before they could roll away. Through cracked lips, she sobbed from the pain, from the certainty of what was to come. Then in the darkness came a soft glow. It rose from the basin on her lap, swirling the crimson water with the faintest of shimmers.
She did not know if it was a mirage born of pain, but she found solace in that glow. It granted her the strength to complete her last act. She lifted the bowl to her lips and drank deeply and fully. The life-giving water flowed down her parched throat and filled her knotted stomach.
By the time she lowered the empty bowl, the heat inside the stone heart had intensified to a blistering agony. Still, she smiled through the pain, knowing what she held within her.
I am your vessel, my Lord . . . now and forever.
Now this is more like it . . .
With his goal in sight, Samuel Clemens—better known by his penname Mark Twain—led his reluctant companion through Gramercy Park. Directly ahead, gaslights beckoned on the far side of the street, illuminating the columns, portico, and ironwork of the Players Club. Both men were members of this exclusive establishment.
Drawn by the promise of laughter, spirits, and good company, Twain increased his pace, moving in great, purposeful strides, trailing a cloud of cigar smoke through the crisp night air. “What do you say, Nikola?” he called back to his chum. “According to my pocket watch and my stomach, Players must still be serving dinner and barring that I could use some brandy to go with this cigar.”
Younger by almost two decades, Nikola Tesla wore a stiff suit, worn at the elbows to a dull sheen. He kept swiping at a fall of dark hair and darted glances around. Whenever nervous, like now, the man’s Serbian accent grew as thick as his mustache.
“Samuel, my friend, the night is late, and I still have work to finish at my lab. I appreciate the tickets to the theater, but I should be off.”
“Nonsense. Too much work makes for a dull man.”
“Then you must be exceptionally exciting . . . what with your life of such extreme leisure.”
Twain glanced back with an exaggerated huff. “I’ll have you know I’m working on another book.”
“Let me guess,” Nikola offered with a wry smile. “Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer get into more trouble.”
“If only those two bastards would!” Twain chuckled, drawing the eye of a passerby. “Then I might be able to pay off my creditors.”
Though Twain kept it quiet, he had declared bankruptcy last year, turning over all of his copyrights to his wife, Olivia. To help pay off his debts, he was due to head out on an around-the-world lecture tour over the next twelve months.
Still, the mention of money had soured the moment. Twain kicked himself for mentioning it, knowing Nikola was struggling as much with financial hardships, despite his friend being a veritable genius, a polymath who was equal parts inventor, electrical engineer, and physicist. Twain had spent many afternoons at the man’s South Fifth Avenue laboratory, the two becoming great friends.
“Maybe one drink,” Nikola conceded with a sigh.
They headed across the street toward the portico under the hissing gas lamps. But before they could reach the entrance, a figure stepped from the shadows to accost them both.
“Thank God,” the man said as he ambushed them. “I heard from your doorman that you might end up here tonight.”
Momentarily taken aback, Twain finally recognized their attacker. Surprised and delighted, he clapped his old friend on the shoulder. “Well met, Stanley? What are you doing here? I thought you were still in England?”
“I only arrived back yesterday.”
“Wonderful! Then let’s celebrate your return to our shores by raising a glass or two. Maybe even three.”
Twain moved to draw the other two men inside with him, only to be stopped at the threshold.
“As I understand it,” Stanley said, “you have the ear of Thomas Edison.”
“I . . . I suppose I do,” Twain answered hesitantly, knowing all too well of the deep-seated friction between Edison and his companion this night, Nikola Tesla.
“I have a matter of urgency to discuss with the inventor, something to show him, a task given to me by the Crown.”
“Truly? What a tantalizing bit of intrigue.”
“Perhaps I could help,” Nikola offered.
As the two men were unacquainted, Twain made proper introductions, acting as a potential matchmaker for this strange affair. “Nikola, this is Henry Morton Stanley—soon to be Sir Stanley if the rumors hold true—famed not only as an explorer in his own right but also regaled for his discovery of David Livingston, a fellow explorer lost in the darkest heart of Africa.”
“Ah,” Nikola said, “I remember now, especially how you greeted him. ‘Doctor Livingston, I presume?’”
Stanley groaned. “I never said those exact words.”
Twain smiled and turned to his other friend. “And this is Nikola Tesla, as much a genius in his own right as Edison, perhaps more so.”
Stanley’s eyes grew wider upon this introduction. “Of course. I should have recognized you.”
This drew some color to Nikola’s pale cheeks.
“So,” Twain began, “upon what dire mission has the British Crown assigned you?”
Stanley wiped a damp palm across his thinning gray hair. “As you know, Livingston was lost in Africa while seeking the true source of the Nile. Something I’ve sought myself in the past.”
“Yes, you and many other Brits. Apparently it’s a quest on par with finding the Holy Grail for you all.”
Stanley scowled but did not discount his words.
Twain suspected that the drive behind such a concerted search by the British had less to do with geographical curiosity as it did with the country’s colonial ambitions in Africa, but for once, he held his tongue, fearing he might scare his friend off before the night’s mystery revealed itself.
“So how does the source of the Nile concern the British Crown?” Twain pressed.
Stanley drew him closer and pulled a small object from his pocket. It was a glass vial full of a dark liquid. “This was only recently discovered among the relics of David Livingston’s estate. A Nubian warrior—someone who Livingston had helped by saving the man’s sick son—had given David an ancient talisman, a small vessel sealed with wax and carved with hieroglyphics. This is a sample of the water found inside that talisman, water which the tribesman claimed came from the Nile itself.”
Twain shrugged. “Why’s that significant?”
Stanley stepped away and raised the vial toward one of the gas lamps. Under the flickering flame, the liquid inside glowed a rich crimson.
“According to Livingston’s papers, the water was said to be thousands of years old, drawn from the ancient Nile when the river had been turned to blood.”
“Turned to blood?” Nikola asked. “Like in the Old Testament?”
Twain smiled, suspecting Stanley was attempting to set him up. The explorer knew of his personal disdain for organized religion. They’d had many heated discourses on that very matter. “So you’re claiming this came from Moses’ Biblical plague, the first of the ten he cast upon the Egyptians?”
Stanley’s expression never wavered. “Trust me, I know how this sounds.”
“It can’t possibly—”
“Twenty-two men are dead at the British Royal Society. Slain when the Nubian talisman was first opened and its contents tested in a laboratory.”
A moment of stunned silence followed.
“How did they die?” Nikola finally asked. “Was it a poison?”
Stanley had paled. Here was a man who had faced all manner of dread beast, debilitating fever, and cannibal savage with nary a sign of fear. He now looked terrified.
“Not a poison.”
“Then what?” Twain asked.
With deadpan seriousness, Stanley answered, “A curse.” He closed his fist around the vial. “This is indeed a remnant of God’s ancient wrath upon the Egyptians—but it’s only the beginning if we don’t stop what is to come.”
“What can be done?” Twain asked.
Stanley turned to Nikola. “You must come to England.”
“To do what?” Twain asked.
“To stop the next plague.”
We hope you enjoyed this exclusive preview of The Seventh Plague. For more Sigma Force adventures, check out Rollins’ latest novel in the series, The Bone Labyrinth, which celebrates its paperback release tomorrow.