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Chapter One: The Greatest Statue In History
Chapter One: The Greatest Statue In History
BASE OF THE ETHIOPIAN HIGHLANDS
KASSALA PROVINCE, EASTERN SUDAN
MARCH 14, 2006, 4:55 P.M.
6 DAYS BEFORE THE ARRIVAL OF TARTARUS
The nine figures raced through the crocodile-infested swamp on foot, moving fast, staying low.
The odds were stacked against them.
Their rivals numbered in excess of two hundred men.
They had only nine.
Their rivals had massive logistical and technical support: choppers, floodlights for night work, and boats of every kind -- gunboats, houseboats, communications boats, three giant dredging barges for the digging, and that wasn't even mentioning the temporary dam they'd managed to build.
The Nine were only carrying what they'd need inside the mine.
And now -- the Nine had just discovered -- a third force was on its way to the mountain, close behind them; a much larger and nastier force than that of their immediate foes, who were nasty enough.
By any reckoning it was a hopelessly lost cause, with enemies in front of them and enemies behind them, but the Nine kept running anyway.
Because they had to.
They were a last-ditch effort.
The last throw of the dice.
They were the very last hope of the small group of nations they represented.
Their immediate rivals -- a coalition of European nations -- had found the northern entrance to the mine two days ago and were now well advanced in its tunnel system.
A radio transmission that had been intercepted an hour before revealed that this pan-European force -- French troops, German engineers, and an Italian project leader -- had just arrived at the Third Gate inside the mine. Once they breached that, they would be inside the Grand Cavern itself.
They were progressing quickly.
Which meant they were also well versed in the difficulties found inside the mine.
But the Europeans' progress hadn't been entirely without loss: three members of their point team had died gruesome deaths in a snare on the first day. But the leader of the European expedition -- a Vatican-based Jesuit priest named Francisco del Piero -- had not let their deaths slow him down.
Single-minded, unstoppable, and completely devoid of sympathy, del Piero urged his people onward. Considering what was at stake, the deaths were an acceptable loss.
The Nine kept charging through the swamp on the south side of the mountain, heads bent into the rain, feet pounding through the mud.
They ran like soldiers -- low and fast, with balance and purpose; ducking under branches, hurdling bogs, always staying in single file.
In their hands, they held guns: MP7s, M16s, Steyr AUGs. In their thigh holsters were pistols of every kind.
On their backs: packs of various sizes, all bristling with ropes, climbing gear, and odd-looking steel struts.
And above them, soaring gracefully over the treetops, was a small shape, a bird of some sort.
Seven of the Nine were indeed soldiers.
Crack troops. Special forces. All from different countries.
The remaining two members were civilians, the elder of whom was a long-bearded sixty-five-year-old professor named Maximilian T. Epper, call sign: Wizard.
The seven military members of the team had somewhat fiercer nicknames: Huntsman, Witch Doctor, Archer, Bloody Mary, Saladin, Matador, and Gunman.
Oddly, however, on this mission they had all acquired new call signs: Woodsman, Fuzzy, Stretch, Princess Zoe, Pooh Bear, Noddy, and Big Ears.
These revised call signs were the result of the ninth member of the team:
A little girl of ten.
The mountain they were approaching was the last in a long spur of peaks that ended near the Sudanese-Ethiopian border.
Down through these mountains, flowing out of Ethiopia and into the Sudan, poured the Angereb River. Its waters paused briefly in this swamp before continuing on into the Sudan, where they would ultimately join the Nile.
The chief resident of the swamp was Crocodylus niloticus, the notorious Nile crocodile. Reaching sizes of up to twenty feet, the Nile crocodile is known for its great size, its brazen cunning, and its ferocity of attack. It is the most man-eating crocodilian in the world, killing upwards of three hundred people every year.
While the Nine were approaching the mountain from the south, their EU rivals had set up a base of operations on the northern side, a base that looked like a veritable floating city.
Command boats, mess boats, barracks boats, and gunboats, the small fleet connected by a network of floating bridges and all facing toward the focal point of their operation: the massive coffer dam that they had built against the northern flank of the mountain.
It was, one had to admit, an engineering masterpiece: a 110-yard-long, forty-foot-high curved retaining dam that held back the waters of the swamp to reveal a square stone doorway carved into the base of the mountain forty feet below the waterline.
The artistry on the stone doorway was extraordinary.
Egyptian hieroglyphs covered every square inch of its frame -- but taking pride of place in the very center of the lintel stone that surmounted the doorway was a glyph often found in pharaonic tombs in Egypt:
Two figures, bound to a staff bearing the jackal head of Anubis, the Egyptian god of the Underworld.
This was what the afterlife had in store for grave robbers -- eternal bondage to Anubis. Not a nice way to spend eternity.
The message was clear: do not enter.
The structure inside the mountain was an ancient mine delved during the reign of Ptolemy I, around the year 300 B.C.
During the great age of Egypt, the Sudan was known as "Nubia," a word derived from the Egyptian word for gold: nub.
Nubia: the Land of Gold.
And indeed it was. It was from Nubia that the ancient Egyptians sourced the gold for their many temples and treasures.
Records unearthed in Alexandria revealed that this mine had run out of gold seventy years after its founding, after which it gained a second life as a quarry for the rare hard stone, diorite. Once it was exhausted of diorite -- around the year 226 B.C. -- Pharaoh Ptolemy III decided to use the mine for a very special purpose.
To this end, he dispatched his best architect -- Imhotep V -- and a force of two thousand men.
They would work on the project in absolute secrecy for three whole years.
Copyright © 2006 by Karanadon Entertainment Pty Ltd.