Painter turned to her, his eyes exceptionally blue, a match to the glowing ice. She searched his face for signs of frostbite. The wind's abrasion had turned his skin a deep ruddy hue. She recognized his Native American heritage in the planes of his face. Striking with his blue eyes.

"Thanks," Painter said. "You may have just saved our lives."

She shrugged, glancing away. "I owed you the favor."

Still, despite her dismissive words, a part of her warmed at his appreciation—more than she would have expected.

"How did you know how to find—?" Painter's last words were lost to a hard sneeze. "Ow."

Lisa shrugged out of her pack. "Enough questions. We both need to warm up."

She opened her medical pack and tugged out an MPI insulating blanket. Despite its deceptive thinness, the Astrolar fabric would retain ninety percent of radiated body heat. And she wasn't counting on just body heat.

She pulled out a compact catalytic heater, vital gear in mountaineering.

"Sit," she ordered Painter, spreading the blanket over the cold rock.

Exhausted, he didn't offer any argument.

She joined him and swept it over them both, forming a cocoon. Nestling inside, she pressed the electronic ignition for her Coleman Sport-Cat heater. The flameless device operated on a small butane cylinder that lasted fourteen hours. Using it sparingly and intermittently, along with the space blanket, they should be able to last two or three days.

Painter shivered next to her as the heater warmed.

"Take off your gloves and boots," she said, doing the same. "Warm your hands over the heater and massage fingers, toes, nose, ears."

"Against f…frostbite…"

She nodded. "Pile as much clothing between you and the rock to limit heat loss from conduction."

They stripped and feathered their nest with goose down and wool.

Soon the space felt almost balmy.

"I have a few PowerBars," she said. "We can melt snow for water."

"A regular backwoods survivalist," Painter said a bit more steadily, optimism returning as they warmed.

"But none of this will stop a bullet," she said. She stared over at him, almost nose to nose under the blanket.

Painter sighed and nodded. They were out of the cold, but not out of danger. The storm, a threat before, offered some protection. But what then? They had no means of communication. No weapons.

"We'll stay hidden," Painter said. "Whoever firebombed the monastery won't be able to track us. Searchers will come looking when the storm clears. Hopefully with rescue helicopters. We can signal them with that road flare I saw in your emergency pack."

"And just hope the rescuers reach us before the others."

He reached and squeezed her knee. She appreciated the fact that he didn't offer any false words of encouragement. No candy-coating their situation. Her hand found his and held tight. It was encouragement enough.

They remained silent, lost in their own thoughts.

"Who do you think they are?" she finally asked softly.

"Don't know. But I heard the man swear when I knocked into him. In German. Felt like hitting a tank."

"German? Are you sure?"

"I'm not sure of anything. Probably a hired mercenary. He obviously had some military training."

"Wait," Lisa said. She wiggled around to her pack. "My camera."

Painter sat straighter, shaking loose a corner of the blanket. He tucked it under to close the gap. "You think you might have a picture of him?"

"To operate the strobe flash, I set the camera to continuous shooting. In that mode, the digital SLR takes five frames per second. I have no idea what got captured." She twisted around, thumbing on the camera.

Shoulder to shoulder, they stared at the tiny LCD screen on the back of the camera body. She brought up the last shots. Most were blurry, but as she flipped through the series, it was like watching a slow-motion replay of their escape: the startled response of the assassin, his raised arm as he instinctively tried to shield his eyes, his gunfire as she ducked behind her barrel, Painter's crash into him.

A few shots had captured slices of the man's face. Piecing the jigsaw together, they had a rough composite: blond-white hair, brutish brow, prominent jaw. The last shot in the series must have been taken as she leaped over Painter and the assassin. She captured a great close-up of his eyes, his night-vision scopes knocked over one ear. Anger blazed, a wildness accentuated by the red-eyed pupils in the camera flash.

Lisa flashed back to Relu Na, the distant relation of Ang Gelu who had attacked them with a sickle. The maddened monk's eyes had glowed similarly. A chill that had nothing to do with the weather washed over her bare skin.

She also noted one other thing about the eyes.

They were mismatched.

One eye shone a brilliant Arctic blue.

The other was a dead white.

Maybe it was just flash washout…

Lisa hit the back arrow and recycled through the photos to the beginning.

She overshot and brought up the last picture stored in the camera before the series in the root cellar. It was a picture of a wall, scrawled and scratched in blood. She had forgotten she had taken it.

"What's that?" Painter asked.

She had already related the sad story of the head of the monastery, Lama Khemsar. "That's what the old monk had been writing on the wall. It looks like the same series of marks. Over and over again."

Painter leaned closer. "Can you zoom in?"

She did, though some crispness and clarity pixilated away.

Painter's brow knit together. "It's not Tibetan or Nepalese. Look at how angular the script is. Looks more like Nordic runes or something."

"Do you think so?"

"Maybe." Painter leaned back with a tired groan. "Either way, it makes you wonder if Lama Khemsar knew more than he let on."

Lisa remembered something she had failed to tell Painter. "After the old monk cut his throat, we found a symbol carved into his chest. I dismissed it as just raving and coincidence. But now I'm not so sure."

"What did it look like? Can you draw it?"

"No need to. It was a swastika."

Painter's brows rose. "A swastika?"

"I think so. Could he have been flashing back to the past, acting out something that frightened him?"

Lisa related the story of Ang Gelu's relative. How Relu Na had fled the Maoist rebels, traumatized by their growing brutality as they took sickles to the limbs of innocent farmers. Then Relu Na did the same when the illness sapped the man's sanity, acting out some deep-seated trauma.

Source: www.StudyNovels.com
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