Y

"The symbol of the Sonnekonige" Anna said. "A mark of pride, duty, and accomplishment."

Gunther pulled down his sleeve, hiding it away.

Painter flashed back to the sled ride last night, to the snide comment directed at Gunther by one of the guards. What was the word again? Leprakonige. Leper King. Plainly there remained little respect for the former Knights of the Sun King. Gunther was the last of his kind, slowly degenerating into oblivion. Who would mourn him?

Anna's eyes lingered on Gunther before focusing back on them.

Maybe there would be one mourner.

Lisa spoke up. She still held Painter's hand. "One thing you've yet to make clear. The Bell. How is it bringing about these changes? You said they were too consistent to be mutations generated by random chance."

Anna nodded. "Indeed. Our research has not been limited to the effects of the Bell. Much of our studies have focused on howit works."

"Have you made much progress?" Painter asked.

"Of course. In fact, we are certain we understand the basic tenets of its functioning."

Painter blinked his surprise. "Really?"

Anna's brow crinkled. "I thought it was obvious." She glanced between Painter and Lisa. "The Bell controls evolution."

7:35 a.m.

HLUHLUWE-UMFOLOZI PRESERVE

"Who's there?" Khamisi repeated, standing at the threshold to his house. Someone lurked inside, back in the rear bedroom.

Or maybe it was some animal.

Monkeys were always breaking into homes, sometimes larger animals did.

Still, he refused to enter. He strained to see, but all the curtains had been drawn. After the ride here in the blinding sun, the gloom of his home was as dark as any jungle.

Standing on the porch, Khamisi reached through the door for the light switch. His fingers fumbled. He found and flicked the switch. A single lamp ignited, illuminating the sparsely furnished front room and a galley kitchen. But the light did nothing to show who or what waited in the back bedroom.

He heard a scuffle of something back there.

"Who—?"

A sharp sting to the side of his neck cut off his words. Startled, he fell forward into the room. His hand slapped at the bite. His fingers found something feathered imbedded there.

He pulled it out and stared at it, uncomprehending for a breath.

A dart.

He used the same to tranquilize large animals.

But this one was different.

It fell from his fingers.

The moment of incomprehension was all it took for the toxin to reach his brain. The world tipped on its side. Khamisi fought for balance—and failed.

The plank floor rushed toward his face.

He managed to catch himself slightly, but still he struck hard, cracking his head. Pinpoints of light shattered out into a closing darkness. His head lolled. From his angle, he spotted a stretch of rope on the planks. He focused harder. Not rope.

Snake. Ten feet long.

He recognized it on sight.

Black mamba.

It was dead, cut in half. A machete lay nearby. His machete.

Coldness numbed his limbs as the hard truth struck him.

The poisoned dart.

It hadn't been like those he employed in the field. This dart had two needles. Like fangs.

His eyes glazed upon the dead snake.

Staged.

Death by snakebite.

From the back bedroom, floorboards creaked. He had just enough strength left to turn his head. A dark figure stood in the doorway now, illuminated by the lamplight, studying him, expressionless.

No.

It made no sense.

Why?

He would have no answer.

Darkness folded over him, taking him away.

8 MIXED BLOOD

6:54 a.m.

PADERBORN, GERMANY

"You're staying here," Gray said. He stood in the center of the Challenger's main cabin, fists on his hips, not budging.

"Bollocks," Fiona retorted. A step away, she made her stand.

To the side, Monk leaned against the open jet doorway, arms crossed, much too amused.

"I still haven't told you the address," Fiona argued. "You can spend the next month searching door to door throughout the city, or I can go with you and take you to the place. Your choice, mate."

Gray's face heated. Why hadn't he teased the address from the girl when she was still weak and vulnerable? He shook his head. Weak and vulnerable never described Fiona.

"So what's it going to be?"

"Looks like we have a tagalong," Monk said.

Gray refused to relent. Maybe if he scared her, reminded her of her close call in Tivoli Gardens. "What about your gunshot wound?"

Fiona's nose flared. "What about it? Good as new. That liquid bandage. Patched me right up."

"She can even swim with it," Monk said. "Waterproof."

Gray glared at his partner. "That's not the point."

"Then what is the point?" Fiona pressed.

Gray focused back at her. He didn't want to be responsible for the girl any longer. And he certainly didn't have time to be babysitting her.

"He's afraid you'll get hurt again," Monk said with a shrug.

Gray sighed. "Fiona, just tell us the address."

"Once we're in the car," she said. "Then I'll tell you. I'm not staying cooped up in here."

"Day's wasting," Monk said. "And it looks like we might get wet."

The sky was blue and morning bright, but dark clouds stacked to the north. A storm was rolling in.

"Fine." Gray waved his partner out the door. He could at least keep an eye on Fiona.

The trio climbed down the jet steps. They had already cleared customs, and a rented BMW waited for them. Monk carried a black backpack over one shoulder, Gray a matching one. He glanced over to Fiona. She had one, too. Where—?

"There was an extra one," Monk explained. "Don't worry. There're no guns or flash grenades in hers. At least, I don't think so."

Gray shook his head and continued across the tarmac toward the parking garage. Besides the backpack, they were all similarly dressed: black jeans, sneakers, sweaters. Tourist haute couture. At least Fiona had customized her clothes with a few buttons. One caught his eye. It read: STRANGERS HAVE THE BEST CANDY.

As Gray entered the parking garage, he surreptitiously checked his weapons one last time. He patted the 9mm Glock bolstered under his sweater and fingered the hilt of a carbonized dagger sheathed at his left wrist. He had additional armaments in the backpack: flash grenades, packets of C4 explosive, extra clips.

He was not going anywhere unprepared this time.

They finally reached their ride. A midnight blue BMW 525i.

Fiona strode toward the driver's door.

Source: www.StudyNovels.com
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