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Excerpt

Excerpt

The Reincarnationist

One
Rome, Italy - Sixteen Months Ago

Josh Ryder looked through the camera’s viewfinder, focusing
on the security guard arguing with a young mother whose hair was
dyed so red it looked like she was on fire. The search of the
woman’s baby carriage was quickly becoming anything but
routine, and Josh moved in closer for his next shot.

He’d just been keeping himself busy while awaiting the
arrival of a delegation of peacekeepers from several superpowers
who would be meeting with the Pope that morning, but like several
other members of the press and tourists who’d been ignoring
the altercation or losing patience with it, he was becoming
concerned. Although searches went on every hour, every day, around
the world, the potential for danger hung over everyone’s
lives, lingering like the smell of fire.

In the distance the sonorous sound of a bell ringing called the
religious to prayer, its echo out of sync with the woman’s
shrill voice as she continued to protest. Then, with a huge shove,
she pushed the carriage against the guard’s legs, and just as
Josh brought the image into that clarity he called "perfect
vision," the kind of image that the newspaper would want, the kind
of conflict they loved captured on film, he heard the blast.

Then, a flash of bluish white light.

The next moment, the world exploded.

In the protective shadows of the altar, Julius and his brother
whispered, reviewing their plans for the last part of the rescue
and recovery. Each of them kept a hand on his dagger, prepared in
case one of the Emperor’s soldiers sprung out of the
darkness. In Rome, in the Year of their Lord 391, temples were no
longer sanctuaries for pagan priests. Converting to Christianity
was not a choice, but an official mandate. Resisting was a crime
punishable by death. Blood spilled in the name of the Church was
not a sin, it was the price of victory.

The two brothers strategized—Drago would stay in the temple
for an hour longer and then rendezvous with Julius at the tomb at
the city gates. As a diversion, that morning’s elaborate
funeral had been a success, but they were still worried. Everything
depended on this last part of their strategy going smoothly.

Julius drew his cape closed, touched his brother’s shoulder,
bidding him goodbye and good luck, and skulked out of the basilica,
keeping to the building’s edge in case anyone was watching.
He heard approaching horses and the clatter of wheels. Flattening
himself against the stone wall, Julius held his breath and
didn’t move. The chariot passed without stopping.

He’d finally reached the edge of the porch when, behind him,
like a sudden avalanche of rocks, he heard an angry shout split
open the silence: "Show me where the treasury is!"

This was the disaster Julius and his brother had feared and
discussed, but Drago had been clear – even if the temple was
attacked, Julius was to continue on. Not turn back. Not try to help
him. The treasure Julius needed to save was more important than any
one life or any five lives or any fifty lives.

But then a razor sharp cry of pain rang out and, ignoring the plan,
he ran back through the shadows, into the temple and up to the
altar.

His brother was not where he’d left him.

"Drago?"

No answer.

"Drago?"

Where was he?

Julius worked his way down one of the dark side aisles of the
temple and up the next. When he found Drago, it wasn’t by
sound or by sight – but by tripping over his brother’s
supine body.

He pulled him closer to the flickering torches. Drago’s skin
was already deathly pale, and his torn robe revealed a six-inch
horizontal slash on his stomach crossing a vertical gash that cut
him all the way down to his groin.

Julius gagged. He’d seen eviscerated carcasses of both man
and beast before and had barely given them a passing glance.
Sacrifices, felled soldiers or punished criminals were one thing.
But this was Drago. This blood was his blood.

"You weren’t… supposed to come back," Drago said,
dragging every syllable out as if it was stuck in his throat. "I
sent him… to look in the loculi… for the treasures. I
thought… stabbed me anyway. But there’s time… for
us to get out… now... now!" Drago struggled to raise himself
up to a sitting position, spilling his insides as he moved.

Julius pushed him down.

"Now… we need… to go now." Drago’s voice was
weakening.

Trying to staunch the blood flow, Julius put pressure on the
laceration, willing the intestines and nerves and veins and skin to
rejoin and fuse back together, but all he accomplished was staining
his hands in the hot, sticky mess.

"Where are the virgins?" The voice erupted like Vesuvius without
warning and echoed through the interior nave. Raucous laughter
followed.

How many soldiers were there?

"Let’s find the booty we came here for first," another voice
chimed in.

"Not yet, first I want one of the virgins. Where are the virgin
whores?"

"The treasury first, you lecherous bastard."

More laughter.

So it wasn’t one man; a regiment had stormed the temple.
Shouting, demanding, blood-lust coating their words. Let them
pillage this place, let them waste their energy, they’d come
too late: there were no pagans to convert, no treasure left to find
and no women left to rape, they’d all already been killed or
sent into hiding.

"We have to go…" Drago whispered as once again he fought to
rise. He’d stayed behind to make sure everyone else got out
safely. Why him, why Drago?

"You can’t move, you’ve been hurt…" Julius broke
off, not knowing how to tell his brother that half of his internal
organs were no longer inside his body.

"Then leave me. You need to get to her… save her and the
treasures.... No one… no one but you...."

It wasn’t about the sacred objects anymore. It was about two
people who both needed him desperately: the woman he loved and his
brother, and the fates were demanding Julius sacrifice one of them
for the other.

I can’t let her die and I can’t leave you to
die.

No matter which one he chose, how would he live with the
decision?

"Look what I found," one of the soldiers shouted.

Screams of vengeance reverberated through the majestic hall. A
shriek rang out above all the other noise. A woman’s
cry.

Julius crawled out, hid behind a column and peered into the nave.
He couldn’t see the woman’s upper body, but her pale
legs were thrashing under the brute as the soldier pumped away so
roughly that blood pooled under her. Who was the poor woman? Had
she wandered in thinking she’d find a safe haven in the old
temple, only to find she’d descended into hell? Could Julius
help her? Take the men by surprise? No, there were too many of
them. At least eight he could see. By now the rape had attracted
more attention, drawing other men, who forgot about their search to
crowd around and cheer on their compatriot.

And what would happen to Drago if he left his side?

Then the question didn’t matter because beneath his hands,
Julius felt his brother’s heart stop.

He felt his heart stop.

Julius beat Drago’s chest, pumping and trying, trying but
failing to stimulate the beating. Bending down, he breathed into
his brother’s mouth, forcing his own air down his throat,
waiting for any sign of life.

Finally, his lips still on his brother’s lips, his arm around
his brother’s neck, he wept, knowing he was wasting precious
seconds but unable to stop. Now he didn’t have to choose
between them: he could go to the woman who was waiting for him at
the city gates.

He must go to her.

Trying not to attract attention, he abandoned Drago’s body,
backed up, found the wall, and started crawling. There was a break
in the columns up ahead; if he could get to it undetected, he might
make it out.

And then he heard a soldier shout for him to halt.

If he couldn’t save her, Julius would at least die trying,
so, ignoring the order, he kept moving.

Outside, the air was thick with the black smoke that burned his
lungs and stung his eyes. What were they incinerating now? No time
to find out. Barely able to see what lay ahead of him, he kept
running down the eerily quiet street. After the cacophony of the
scene he’d just left, it was alarming to be able to hear his
own footsteps. If someone was on the lookout the sound would give
him away, but he needed to risk it.

Picturing her in the crypt, crouched in the weak light, counting
the minutes, he worried that she would be anxious that he was late
and torment herself that something had gone dangerously wrong. Her
bravery had always been as steadfast at the stars; it was difficult
even now to imagine her afraid. But this was a far different
situation than anything she’d ever faced, and it was all his
fault, all his shame. They’d risked too much for each other.
He should have been stronger, should have resisted.

And now, because of him, everything they treasured, especially
their lives, was at stake.

Tripping over the uneven, cracked surfaces, he stumbled. The
muscles in his thighs and calves screamed, and every breath
irritated his lungs so harshly he wanted to cry out. Tasting dirt
and grit mixed with his salty sweat as it dripped down his face and
wet his lips, he would have given anything for water – cold,
sweet water from the spring, not this alkaline piss. His feet
pounded the stones and more pain shot up through his legs, but
still he ran.

Suddenly, raucous shouting and thundering footfalls filled the air.
The ground reverberated, and from the intensity he knew the
marauders were coming closer. He looked right, left. If he could
find a sheltered alcove, he could flatten himself against the wall
and pray they’d run past and miss him. As if that would help.
He knew all about praying. He’d relied on it, believed in it.
But the prayers he’d offered up might as well have been spit
in the gutter for the good they’d done.

"The sodomite is getting away!"

"Scum of the earth."

"Scared little pig."

"Did you defecate yourself yet, little pig?"

They laughed, trying to outdo each other with slurs and
accusations. Their chortles echoed in the hollow night, lingered on
the hot wind, and then, mixed in with their jeers, another voice
broke through.

"Josh?"

No, don’t listen. Keep going. Everything depends on
getting to her in time.

A heavy fog was rolling in. He stumbled, then righted himself. He
took the corner.

On both sides of him were identical colonnades with dozens of doors
and recessed archways: he knew this place! He could hide here in
plain sight and they would run by and—

"Josh?"

The voice sounded as if it was coming to him from a great
blue-green distance, but he refused to stop for it.

She was waiting… for him… to save her…to save
their secrets…and treasures…

"Josh?"

The voice was pulling him up, up through the murky, briny
heaviness.

"Josh?"

Reluctantly, he opened his eyes and took in the room, the
equipment, and his own battered body. Beyond the heart rate, blood
oxygen and blood pressure monitor flashing its LED numbers, the IV
drip, and the EKG machine, he saw a woman’s worried face
watching him. But it was the wrong face.

This wasn’t the woman he’d been running to save.

"Josh? Oh, thank god, Josh, we thought…"

He couldn’t be here now. He needed to go back.

The taste of sweat was still on his lips; his lungs still burned.
He could hear them coming for him under the steady beat of the
machines, but all he could think about was that somewhere she was
alone, in the encroaching darkness, and yes, she was afraid, and
yes, she was going to suffocate to death if he didn’t reach
her. He closed his eyes against the onslaught of anguish. If he
didn’t reach her, he would fail her. And something else, too.
The treasures? No. Something more important, something just beyond
his consciousness, what was it—

"Josh?"

Grief ripped through him like a knife slitting open his chest,
exposing his heart to the raw, harsh reality of having lost her.
This wasn’t possible. This wasn’t real. He’d been
remembering the chase and the escape and the rescue as if they had
happened to him. But they hadn’t. Of course they
hadn’t.

He wasn’t Julius.

He was Josh Ryder. He was alive in the 21st century.

This scene belonged sixteen hundred years in the past.

Then why did he feel as if he’d lost everything that had ever
mattered to him?

The Reincarnationist
by by M. J. Rose

  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • hardcover: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Mira
  • ISBN-10: 0778324206
  • ISBN-13: 9780778324201