The Thirteenth Legion (A James Acton Thriller, #15) (James Acton Thrillers) (9 page)

They
were a mystery.

That
, he was willing to admit to.

But
magical powers?

No.

Though
someone believed.

Otherwise,
he wouldn’t be in a strange vehicle, blindfolded at gunpoint, with his two best
friends missing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leaving Annapolis, Maryland

 

Acton was still trying to process the data dump still ongoing, he
not sure anymore who were the good guys and who were the bad. He knew Chaney,
had known him for several years, and Reading had known him for far longer. If
there was somebody he was going to trust, it was going to be Chaney. He had to.
At least until he had some time to think things over. His eyes narrowed as
something occurred to him. “If they were watching us, hoping to get to you,
then why would they try to kidnap us?”

Chaney
gripped the door handle as they swung into a parking garage, the driver taking
them quickly up several levels. “They think they can use you to get to me.
That’s why they were following Hugh. I took one of them down but there was
another one I didn’t spot in time.”

Laura frowned.
“Rodney.”

“Yes.
Once they stopped me from seeing Hugh, he was immediately safe.”

“Because
they assume you won’t try again.”

Chaney
nodded at Laura. “Exactly. So I immediately came here because you are the only
two other people I’m close to that might actually be able to help.”

Acton’s
brow furled. “How can we help?”

“You’ve
got money. They presume I’m going to ask you for some at some point.”

Acton
nodded slowly. They had money. A lot of it. Laura’s late brother had been an
Internet pioneer, selling his company for hundreds of millions, and leaving it
all to her. They were rich, stupid rich, and the Triarii obviously knew it, and
by extension, so did these Deniers.


Are
you
asking for money?”

Chaney
smiled at Laura. “Not at all.”

Laura
seemed unconcerned with the answer, she always generous with her money, never
hesitating to help those truly in need, though Acton had no impression that
Chaney was waiting to ask.

“But why
try to take us?” asked Laura.

“It’s a
change in tactics, for sure. I’m guessing they were hoping to hold you and
force me to give up the thirteenth skull to save your lives.”

Acton
frowned, squeezing Laura’s hand a little harder. “So what you’re saying is that
they could try it again.”

Chaney
nodded. “Absolutely. I can think of only one way to make sure you remain safe.”

Acton
wasn’t sure he was going to like what he was about to hear. “What?”

“Hand
yourselves over to them.”

Acton’s
eyebrows shot up, he not expecting that answer. “Umm, you expect us to turn
ourselves over to these murderers?”

Laura
shook her head. “Are you daft?”

Chaney
smiled at Laura. “Probably. But as long as they think they can use either of
you against me, you’re in danger.”

Acton
was still shaking his head in disbelief. “How will us walking into their
headquarters and waving ‘hi’, make them want to use us any less? Wouldn’t they
just toss us in a room and put the word out they’ll kill us if you don’t turn
yourself in?”

Chaney
shook his head. “Not if they think you betrayed me.”

Acton’s
eyes narrowed. “And how are we supposed to make them think that?”

Chaney
grinned.

“You’re
going to steal the thirteenth skull from me.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Domus Tiberiana, Rome
July 21, 64 AD

 

Everything burned.

His
wife, his concubines, his home.

All of
it.

It raged
through his body, through his nightmares, through every waking moment.

It all
burned.

And the
voices continued to taunt him, the cacophony of madness in his mind almost
overwhelming, the voices laughing at him, whispering in corners just out of
sight, gone before he could catch a glimpse of them.

But when
he was out with his people, fighting the fires at their side, searching the
rubble for survivors and directing his men personally, they were silent.

Almost.

It made
him feel like a man, something he wasn’t sure he ever had experienced before.
He had power, certainly, and men feared him, of that there was no doubt.

But he
had little self-respect.

At least
until the fire had begun.

His city
was being destroyed, though its sacrifice was giving him a confidence that had
eluded him for years, his position and his own arrogance usually carrying the
day.

“Sire,
wake up!”

He
bolted upright in bed, immediately shivering, his body drenched in sweat. He
had left the concubines to their chambers, his wife returning from Antium to
join him in the fight.

She was
exactly who he needed in times such as these, she a calm, wise woman whose
council he valued.

I
wonder what mother would think of all this.

“Report.”

“The
situation remains dire. Three of the fourteen districts are completely
destroyed, another seven damaged.”

“And the
additional hands?”

“Volunteers
are pouring in from all the neighboring cities. We have the manpower and we now
have the water. We will win this fight, sire, thanks to your quick actions.”

Nero
ignored the nose embedded firmly in his ass, instead throwing on his robe and
stepping out into the balcony, it still dark, morning light barely cracking the
horizon. More of the city now burned, though much of what had in previous
nights, now smoldered.

He
strode along the balcony, past his bedchambers then paused, turning toward his
private office, a place few people were ever allowed to see.

And
frowned.

The
crystal skull, the gift from Antonius Felix in Judea, sat on a pedestal, angled
to face his bed in the next room.

The
voices raged, the whispers almost loud enough to make out.

Then a
stabbing pain behind his eyes sucked the energy away as he gasped, dropping to
a knee.

“Sire!
Are you okay!”

The pain
eased, slightly, and he glared back at the skull, a rage filling him. He held
out his hand and his aide helped him to his feet, Nero steadying himself on the
balcony railing. He stared at the skull, a sudden realization causing him to
gasp, his aide flinching as he anticipated another collapse.

“It all
started when that damned thing arrived.”

“Sire?”

It had
been found the day they had killed the man called Jesus, the man these blasted
Christians all worshipped, their spread like a disease upon the land, causing
too many of Rome’s citizens and territories to abandon their true gods, instead
worshipping this single, fictional apparition who had no statues built in his
honor, no name to pray to.

It
must be cursed!

And he
realized what the voices all along had been trying to tell him. The gods were
angry. They were angry with the people turning away from them, and they were
demanding he take action to stop the spread of these Christians and their one
false god.

He glanced
at the skull then stormed into the room, grabbing it from its resting place and
raising it high above his head. Looking up, his eyes met those of the
sculpture, a battle of wills suddenly underway, the voices screaming
unintelligibly, the stabbing pain returning as he tried to find the strength to
smash it into a thousand pieces and end the curse that had befallen his people
and his city and his empire.

He fell
to his knees, the skull still gripped in his hand, then dropped to his side, it
rolling from his outstretched fingers.

“Sire!”

His aide’s
pleas went ignored as he realized destroying the vessel of their torture might
make things far worse than they already were.

If
bringing it here caused this, then removing it should end it.

He
forced himself to his knees, closing his eyes, refusing to look at those of the
skull that bore into his sole, the uncontrollable urge to shiver in its
presence one he refused to give into anymore.

“Get me the
legate of the Thirteenth, now!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unknown Location, London, United
Kingdom
Present Day

 

“They’ve killed dozens and have stolen all of the skulls except
Jupiter and Zeus, and the skull Professor Acton found in Peru.”

Reading
couldn’t care less about the stolen skulls, though he found the body count very
concerning. The Triarii, even its splinter group known as the Deniers, rarely
killed, tranquilizer guns their weapon of choice.

The
problem was, he wasn’t sure whom to believe. Rodney had raised a very real gun,
about to shoot at Chaney, and now the Proconsul, who Rodney worked for, was
claiming it was the Deniers that were doing the killing, and Chaney was one of
them.

He eyed
Rodney for a moment then returned his attention to the Proconsul, the man older
than he had expected, yet somehow exactly as he had expected. Wise looking,
with an air about him that commanded respect,
expected
respect. “How did
they know where the skulls were?”

“Each
member of the council knows where the skull they are responsible for is
located, and who protects it. They also know where one other is hidden, though
they have no responsibilities for it unless the primary dies or is otherwise
incapacitated. After the thirteenth skull was finally found after all these
years, a schism happened almost immediately, with the council split. Those who
supported the Deniers—unbeknownst to me up to that point, obviously—immediately
seized control of their own skulls, and those they were backups for. At least
that’s the prevailing wisdom among those who remain, but it doesn’t explain
everything.”

“What do
you mean?”

The
Proconsul shook his head. “To be honest, I think some did betray us, but after
they were able to so efficiently seize all the skulls, I had our security
double-checked, and taps were found on our secure lines. I believe one of our
senior security staff, who is now missing, placed the taps, perhaps years ago,
allowing the Deniers to monitor the secret conversations between our council
members and their teams.”

Reading
pursed his lips, nodding. “So they’d know where everything was hidden, who was
protecting them, and how.”

“Exactly.
They already had the Smithsonian skull that President Jackson stole when he was
a member, they have the thirteenth skull that you found with the professors,
and now they’ve managed to steal eight other skulls. Unfortunately we only have
the original two now, the Oracle of Jupiter, found in Golgotha, and the Oracle
of Zeus, found years later in Greece, plus the skull Professor Acton discovered
in Peru.” He sighed. “I fear the other ten may be lost to us forever.”

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