Painter pushed off the bale and stood. "From your description, the attack here was methodical. Planned in advance. They'll know about these tunnels. They'll eventually search here. We can only hope they'll wait for the fires to cool down."
Lisa nodded. "Then we keep going."
"And get clear. We can do this," he assured her. He placed a hand against the wall to steady himself. "We can do this," he repeated, more to himself this time than to her.
They set off.
After a few steps, Painter felt steadier.
The exit could not be much farther.
As if confirming this, a breeze whispered down the corridor, stirring the hanging bundles of herbs with a dry clacking. Painter felt the cold on his face. It froze him in place. A hunter's instinct took hold—half special ops training, half blood heritage. He reached behind him and took hold of Lisa's elbow, silencing her.
He flicked off the penlight.
Ahead, something heavy struck the floor, the sound echoing down the passage. Boots. A door slammed closed. The breeze died.
They were no longer alone.
The assassin crouched in the root cellar. He knew others were down here. How many? He shouldered his rifle and pulled out a Heckler & Koch MK23 pistol. He had already stripped his hands to fingerless wool under-gloves. He stood his post, listening.
The faintest scuffle and scrape.
At least two…maybe three.
Reaching up, he pulled shut the trapdoor that led to the barn above. The cold breeze died with one last whispered rush as darkness clamped over him. He pulled down a pair of night-vision goggles and clicked on an ultraviolet lamp affixed to his shoulder. The passage ahead glowed in shades of a silvery green.
Near at hand, a wall of shelves was stacked with canned goods and rows of wax-sealed jars of amber honey. He slipped past, moving slowly, silently. There was no need to hurry. The only other exits led to fiery ruin. He had shot those monks with sense enough still in their addled heads to flee the flames.
Mercy killings, all of them.
As he knew too well.
The Bell had been rung too loudly.
It had been an accident. One of many lately.
For the past month, he had sensed the agitation among the others at the Granitschloft. Even before the accident. Something had stirred up the castle, felt as far as the hinterlands where he made his solitary home. He had ignored it. Why should it be his concern?
Then the accident…and it had become his problem.
To clean up their mistake.
It was his duty as one of the last surviving Sonnekonige. Such was the decline of the Knights of the Sun—both in numbers and in status, debilitated and shunned, anachronistic and an embarrassment. Before long, the last of them would be gone.
And just as well.
But at least this duty today was almost finished. He could return to his hovel after he cleared out this root cellar. The tragedy at the monastery would be blamed on Maoist rebels. Who else but the godless Maoists would attack a strategically unimportant monastery?
To ensure this deception, even his ammunition matched the rebels'.
Including his pistol.
With weapon ready, he edged by a row of open oak barrels. Grain, rye, flour, even dried apples. He stepped carefully, wary of any ambush. The monks might be damaged of mind, but even the mad could display cunning when cornered.
Ahead, the passageway jagged to the left. He hugged the right wall. He stopped to listen, ears pricked for any scuffle of heel. He flipped up his night-vision goggles.
He lowered the scopes over his eyes, and the passageway stretched ahead, limned in green. He would see any lurkers well before they saw him. There was no escape. They would have to get past him to reach the only safe way out.
He slid around the corner.
A low bale of hay sat crooked across the passage, as if knocked aside in a hurry. He searched the stretch of cellar ahead. More barrels. The roof was raftered with hanging bunches of drying branches.
No movement. No sound.
He reached a leg over the blocking bale and stepped to the far side.
Under his boot heel, a brittle juniper branch cracked.
His eyes flicked down. The entire floor was covered with a spread of branches.
He glanced up as the world ahead burst into a strobing brilliance. Amplified by the goggles' sensitivity, the exploding supernovas seared the back of his skull, blinding him.
He fired instinctively.
The explosions were deafening in the tight cellar.
They must have lain in wait in the dark, listening until he stepped on the crackling branch, giving away his proximity, then ambushed him. He backed a step, half tripping on the bale of hay.
Falling back, his next shot fired high.
Taking advantage, someone barreled into him. Low. Hitting him in the legs and knocking him over the bale. His back slammed into the stone floor. Something stabbed into the meat of his thigh. He kneed up, earning a grunt from the attacker atop him.
"Go!" the attacker yelled, pinning down his pistol arm. "Get clear!"
His attacker spoke English. Not a monk.
A second figure leaped past their bodies, appearing shadowy as his vision began to return. He heard the steps retreating toward the barn trapdoor.
He heaved his body around, flinging the man from him like a ragdoll. The Sonnekonige were not like other men. His attacker struck the wall, rebounded, and tried to leap after the other escapee. But vision returned rapidly, illuminated by the retreating light. Furious, he grabbed his attacker's ankle and dragged him back.
The man kicked with his other foot, catching him in the elbow.
Growling, he dug his thumb into a tender nerve behind the Achilles tendon. The man cried out. He knew how painful that pinch could be. Like having your ankle broken. He drew the man up by his leg.
As he straightened, the world turned in a heady spin. All the strength suddenly sputtered out of him as if he were a popped balloon. His upper thigh burned. Where he'd been stabbed. He stared down. Not stabbed. A syringe still protruded from his thigh, jammed to the hilt.
His attacker twisted and broke his weakening grip, rolling and scrambling away.
He could not let the man escape.
He lifted his pistol—as heavy as an anvil now—and fired after him. The shot ricocheted off the floor. Weakening rapidly, he fired a second shot—but the man was already out of sight.
He heard his attacker fleeing.
Limbs heavy, he sank to his knees. His heart pounded in his chest. A heart twice the average size. But normal for a Sonnekonig.
He took several deep breaths as his metabolism adjusted.