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Malik al-Hassam rose from the slab of marble where he’d been resting, brushing off the ever-present dust that filled the halls of the half buried Constantinople Library. He readjusted the beret just above his eyebrows.
A quick thumb against his lighter and a cigarette glowed to life in his mouth. Hassam bent down and picked up his rifle, figuring he’d do his required rounds, and then find another place to sit where he could hear the old fox coming.
Hassam offered a quick prayer to Allah for protection, then navigated the lightless passageways towards the source of the noise. He neared a junction leading north to the records hall. Dozens of charred but recognizable manuscripts had been discovered there, though most had been reduced to cinders when the Ottoman Turks set fire to the library in 1453.
The opposite hall led to the heavily seared corridor with adjoining alcoves for private reading; and at the corridor’s end, the newly unearthed chamber of the priests was littered with charred remains, save two bookshelves that had miraculously survived the flames. A soft light flickered against its walls.
Hassam fingered his earpiece. “Dwayat, there is someone down here.”
“Where are you?”
Dwayat hissed with excitement. “Cut them off. I’ll come down from the western entrance. Whichever way they go, we’ll be waiting for them.”
A wrenching nausea assaulted Hassam’s stomach as he turned the corner. Dwayat panted from his earpiece, “And Hassam, don’t forget to switch your safety off.”
Hassam cursed silently as he brought up his weapon and flipped the switch near the trigger. He looked forward again and crept along the hallway of alcoves, carefully placing each step. Ahead, the frantic motion of a small flashlight dashed about the corridor. Hugging the wall close, he slid forward, his automatic pointed at the mottled gray entrance. For a moment, the flashlights moved out of view, then suddenly they went dark.
Hassam froze, his heart pounding. A man’s panicky voice said something in an unfamiliar dialect. The voice cut short, and an unchecked pounding of feet echoed off the stone floor. Two shadows flew from the priests’ chambers straight for him.
The deafening roar from Hassam’s AK-47 pierced the hallway. His gun arched back and forth in quick stuttered waves. The weapon’s discharge flamed a pulsating orange light against the stunned faces of two black-cloaked men. Searing pain bit him in the arm, driving him backwards, and he sprang into an alcove.
He tried to control his breathing and remain quiet as warm blood flowed from his right bicep.
With stunning brightness, a light glared to life outside his hiding place.
Dwayat’s harsh tone came from the corridor. “Hassam, you jackrabbit. Come out of your hole.”
When Hassam stepped into the muted light, his partner was standing near one of the two bodies. Dwayat’s flashlight swept through the area until it hesitated on a shiny metal box partially obscured by one of the dead men’s hands. Hassam knelt beside him without speaking, his body trembling, gunfire still ringing in his ear.
“Sir,” he finally sputtered, “I’ve been shot.”
The old fox glanced at his bloodied arm and laughed. “These men have no guns. You shot yourself you idiot. One of the rounds must have ricocheted off the wall.”
Hassam ran his fingers along the injury. “I’ve had worse.”
His attention returned to the two dead men. Dwayat slipped the metallic box from under the man’s lifeless fingers, then blew away a thin layer of dust, revealing a seal imbedded into the silvery surface. Even a superficial look at it told him this was artifact was important.
Hassam cast a glance at the man and then back at the box. Important enough to die for? he wondered.
“They came for this,” Dwayat concluded as he stared at the inscription. “Curious. It’s as if they knew where to look.”
Hassam fixed his gaze on the two men. “But that doesn’t make any sense. This place has been buried for hundreds of years. How could they know what was here?”
“I cannot say.” Dwayat studied the inscription a second time. “The writing here is Latin. Very old.”
His partner squinted at the symbols. “How can you tell?”
“Years of observation and study, Hassam. Unlike you, I do not spend my time idly. I watch. I listen.” Dwayat pointed at one of the dead men’s chests. “If you were smart, you would have at least learned to shoot by now. Look at the pockmarks you made all over the walls. It’s a miracle you hit these men at all.”
Hassam pressed closer. “What does the inscription say?”
“It’s some kind of royal crest. Whom it belongs to, I’m not certain. There aren’t any names. But do you see that word below the crest? Veritas. Truth.”
Curiosity settled into Hassam’s gaze. “Let’s look inside.”
With a nod, Dwayat unlatched a gold clasp and flipped the top open. Inside, a partially folded parchment lay in the shadows. With a delicate touch, he lifted it from the box.
Even in the dim light a single name jumped off the page.
“Imad ad-din al-Isfahani,” Dwayat whispered, as though he feared to say the name aloud.
Hassam stared in disbelief. “Al-Isfahani was the advisor of Saladin the Great.” He pointed at the document with an accusatory finger. “Why would this be in a library of the infidels?”
“Shut up!” commanded Dwayat, scanning the parchment.
As the minutes passed, Hassam watched fear edge into the hollows of his partner’s face until, finally, his patience broke. “Can you read it?”
Dwayat put a finger to his lips, his eyes never wavering from the mysterious words.
Hassam felt a growing dread and glanced at the two men, their cloaks half-covering their lifeless bodies.
The old fox’s breathing grew shallow and his eyes drifted up from the letter. “The Devil has indeed come to Istanbul tonight.”
Hassam glanced at the parchment, then back at the two bodies. “Why do you announce the Devil’s presence? These men are dead; if the Devil was here, he is gone.”
“No!” Dwayat took in his surroundings. “The Devil still remains.”
He refolded the parchment and placed it back inside the silver box, and then a look of horror studded his face.
“What is it!” demanded Hassam.
The room throbbed with silence. Dwayat’s eyes were far away, held by something terrifying.
Hassam sensed another presence in the room, ghost-like and evil. An urge passed through him to claw at Dwayat’s face — to viciously club him with his gun.
“Speak!” he hissed.
“A map,” said his partner softly, staring into the night. “The letter is a map.”
Dwayat slowly withdrew from the spell he’d been caught in. His eyes locked with Hassam’s. “A map to the Cross.”
“What are you talking about? What cross?”
Dwayat licked his lips. “The letter refers to the cross of Yeshua, and al-Isfahani’s involvement in its survival.”
“A map. . . a map to the Cross? From the first century?”
Hassam’s eyes drifted down, the pitch-black ground grabbing his sight like a magnet. “The Cross,” he muttered, “of the prophet Yeshua. Allah save us all.”