Craning, he stared at the night sky.

Overhead, stars shone coldly.

Perhaps he could fix his position.

As he stared, the pinpoints of light spun in the sky. He tore his gaze away, a stabbing ache behind his eyes.

"Are you all right?" Lisa whispered back at him.

Painter grumbled under his breath, too nauseated to trust speaking.

"The nystagmus again?" she surmised on her own.

A harsh grunt from the assassin silenced any further communication. Painter was grateful. He closed his eyes and took deep breaths, waiting for the moment to pass.

Eventually it did.

He opened his eyes as the caravan edged up to a crest of rock and slowed to a stop. Painter searched around. Nothing was here. An icy cliff cracked the crest on the right. Snow began to fall again.

Why had they stopped?

Ahead, the assassin climbed from his seat.

Anna joined him. Turning a shoulder, the hulking man spoke to the woman in German.

Painter strained to hear and caught the assassin's last words.

"—should just kill them."

It was not said with any vehemence, only dread practicality.

Anna frowned. "We need to find out more, Gunther." The woman glanced in Painter's direction. "You know the problems we've been having lately. If he was sent here…if he knows something that can stop it."

Painter was clueless as to what they were talking about, but he allowed them this misconception. Especially if it kept him alive.

The assassin just shook his head. "He's trouble. I can smell it on him." He began to turn away, dismissive, done with the matter.

Anna stopped him with a touch to the man's cheek, tender, grateful…and maybe something more. "Danke, Gunther."

He turned away, but not before Painter noted the flash of pain in the man's eyes. The assassin trudged to the broken cliff face and disappeared through a crack in the wall. A moment later, a cloud of steam puffed out along with a bit of fiery light—then cut off.

A door opening and closing.

Behind him, one of the guards made a derisive noise, grumbling one word under his breath, an insult, heard by only those closest to him.

Leprakonige.

Leper King.

Painter noted the guard had waited until the hulking man named Gunther was out of earshot. He had not dared say it to the man's face. But from the hunch of the assassin's shoulders and gruff manner, Painter suspected he'd heard it before.

Anna mounted the snowmobile. A new armed guard took the assassin's seat, weapon pointing. They headed out again.

The path switchbacked around a spur of rock and down into an even steeper notch in the mountain. The way ahead was a sea of ice fog, obscuring what lay below. A heavy crest of the mountain overhung the misty sea, cupped low like a pair of warming hands.

They descended into the vast fog bank, lights spearing ahead.

In moments, visibility lowered to feet. Stars vanished.

Then suddenly the darkness deepened as they trundled under the shadow of the overhang. But rather than growing colder, the air grew notably warmer. As they descended farther, rocky outcroppings appeared out of the snow. Meltwater trickled around the boulders.

Painter realized there must be a localized pocket of geothermal activity here. Hot springs, while rare and known mostly to the indigenous people, dotted the Himalayas. Created by the intense pressures of the Indian continental plate grinding into Asia, such geothermal hot spots were believed to be the source of the Shangri-La mythology.

As the snow thinned, the caravan was forced to abandon the snowmobiles. Once parked, Painter and Lisa were cut free from their sled, hauled to their feet, and bound at the wrists. He kept close to Lisa. She met his eyes, mirroring his worry.

Where the hell were they?

Encircled by white parkas and rifles, they were led down the rest of the way. Snow turned to wet rock under their boots. Stairs appeared underfoot, cut into the rock, trickling with snowmelt. Ahead, the perpetual fog thinned and shredded.

Within a few steps, a cliff face appeared out of the gloom, sheltered by the shoulder of the mountain. A natural deep grotto. But it was no paradise—only craggy black granite, dripping and sweating.

More hell than Shangri-La.

Lisa stumbled beside him. Painter caught her as best he could with his wrists bound. But he understood her faltering step.

Ahead, out of the mists, appeared a castle.

Or rather ha/fa castle.

As they neared, Painter recognized the shape as a facade, cut crudely into the back of the grotto. Two giant crenellated towers flanked a massive central keep. Lights burned behind thick, glazed windows.

"GranitschloR," Anna announced and led them toward an arched entrance, twice his height, flanked by giant granite knights.

A heavy oak door, studded and strapped in black iron, sealed the entryway. But as the group approached, the door winched up, rising like a portcullis.

Anna strode forward. "Come. It has been a long night, a?"p>

Painter and Lisa were led at gunpoint toward the entrance. He studied the facade of battlements, parapets, and arched windows. Across the entire surface, the black granite sweated and trickled, wept and dripped. The water appeared like a run of black oil, as if the castle were dissolving before their eyes, melting back into the rock face.

The fiery illumination from a few of the windows made the castle's surface shine with a hellish glow, reminding him of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. The fifteenth-century artist had specialized in twisted depictions of hell. If ever Bosch had sculpted the gates to the Underworld, this castle would be it.

With no choice, Painter followed Anna and passed under the arched entrance of the castle. He looked up, searching for the words Dante had said were supposedly carved upon the gates to the Underworld.

All hope abandon, ye who enter here.

The words weren't here—but they might as well have been.

All hope abandon…

That about summed it up.

8:15 p.m.

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK

As the hotel explosion echoed away, Gray grabbed Fiona by the arm and rushed her out a side door of the French bakery. He aimed for a neighboring alley, pushing through the patrons gathered on the sidewalk patio.

Sirens erupted in the distance.

It seemed Copenhagen's firefighters were putting in a long day today.

Gray reached the corner of the alley, away from the smoke and chaos, Fiona in tow. A brick cracked near his ear, followed by a ricocheted ping. A gunshot. Spinning, he whipped Fiona into the alleyway and ducked low. He searched the street for the shooter.

And found her.

Close.

A half block back, across the street.

It was the white-blond woman from the auction. Only now she wore a black, tight-fitting running suit. She had also gained a new fashion accessory. A pistol with a silencer. She held it low by her knee, striding quickly toward his location. She touched her ear, lips moving.

Source: www.StudyNovels.com
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