Gray waved Fiona and Ryan to follow. Monk rolled his eyes at Gray as he passed. "Spooky castle…time to go…"
Gray understood Monk's itchiness to leave. He felt it, too. First the false alarm with the Mercedes, then the blackout. But nothing untoward had happened. And Gray hated to pass up a chance to learn more about the Bible's rune and its history here.
Ulmstrom's voice carried up to Gray. The others had reached the landing below. "This chamber lies immediately below the Obergruppenfuhrersaal."
Gray joined them while the curator unlocked a matching door to the one above, also barred and sealed with thick glass. He held it open for them, then stepped in after them.
Beyond lay another circular chamber. This one windowless, lit gloomily by a few wall sconces. Twelve granite columns circled the space, holding up a domed roof. In the center of the ceiling, a twisted swastika symbol had been painted.
"This is the castle's crypt," Ulmstrom said. "Note the well in the center of the room. It is where the coat of arms of fallen SS officers would be burned ceremonially."
Gray had already spotted the stone well, directly below the swastika in the ceiling.
"If you stand near the well, and look at the walls, you'll see the Mensch runes depicted here."
Gray stepped closer and followed his directions. At the cardinal points, the runes had been engraved in the stone walls. Now Gray understood Ulmstrom's remark. The rune's presence only makes sense considering…
The Mensch runes were all upside down.
A loud clang, a match to the one a moment ago, resounded across the chamber. Only this time there had been no blackout. Gray swung around, realizing his mistake. Curiosity had lessened his guard. Dr. Ulmstrom had never moved far from the door.
The curator now stood outside it, clicking the lock.
He called through the thick glass, doubtless bulletproof. "Now you'll understand the true meaning of the toten-rune."
A loud pop sounded next. All the lamps went dark. With no windows, the chamber sank into complete darkness.
In the shocked silence, a new sound intruded: a fierce hissing.
But it came from no snake or serpent.
Gray tasted it on the back of his tongue.
1:49 p.m. HIMALAYAS
The trio of helicopters fanned out for an attack run.
Painter studied the approach of the choppers through a set of binoculars. He had unbelted and crawled into the copilot seat. He recognized the enemy crafts: Eurocopter Tigers, medium-weight, outfitted with air-to-air gun pods and missiles.
"Do you have any weapons equipped on the helo?" Painter asked Gunther.
He shook his head. "Nein."
Gunther worked the rudder pedals to bring them around, swinging away from their adversaries. Pitching the helo forward, he accelerated away. It was their only real countermeasure: speed.
The A-Star, lighter and unburdened of armaments, was quicker and more maneuverable. But even that advantage had its limitations.
Painter knew the direction in which Gunther was headed now, forced by the others. Painter had thoroughly studied the region's terrain maps. The Chinese border lay only thirty miles away.
If the attack choppers didn't eliminate them, invading Chinese airspace would. And with the current tensions between the Nepalese government and the Maoist rebels, the border was closely watched. They were literally between a rock and a hard place.
Anna yelled from the backseat, head craned to watch their rear. "Missile launch!"
Even before her warning ended, a screaming streak of smoke and fire shot past their port side, missing by mere yards. The missile slammed into the ice-encrusted ridgeline ahead. Fire and rock shot high. A large chunk of cliff broke off and slid away, like a glacier calving.
Gunther tipped their helo on its side and sped clear of the rain of debris.
He darted their craft down and raced between two ridges of rock. They were temporarily out of the direct line of fire.
"If we put down," Anna said. "Fast. Flee on foot."
Painter shook his head, shouting to be heard above the engine. "I know these Tigers. They have infrared. Our heat signatures would just give us away. Then there'd be no escaping their guns or rockets."
"Then what do we do?"
Painter's head still spasmed with white-hot bursts. His vision had constricted to a laser focus.
Lisa answered, leaning forward from the backseat, her eyes on the compass. "Everest," she said.
She nodded to the compass. "We're heading right toward Everest. What if we landed over there, got lost in the mass of climbers."
Painter considered her plan. To hide in plain sight.
"The storm's backlogged the mountain," she continued loudly. "Some two hundred people were waiting to ascend when I left. Including some Nepalese soldiers. Might even be more after the monastery burned down."
Lisa glanced over to Anna. Painter read her expression. They were fighting for their lives alongside the very enemy who had burned down that monastery. But a greater adversary threatened all. While Anna had made brutal, unforgivable choices, this other faction had triggered the necessity for her actions, setting in motion the chain of events that led them all here.
And Painter knew it wouldn't stop here. This was just the beginning, a feint meant to misdirect. Something monstrous was afoot. Anna's words echoed in his pounding head.
We must stop them.
Lisa finished, "With so many satellite phones and video feeds broadcasting from Base Camp, they'd dare not attack."
"Or so we hope," Painter said. "If they don't back off, we'd be jeopardizing many lives."
Lisa leaned back, digesting his words. Painter knew her brother was among those at Base Camp. She met his eyes.
"It's too important," she said, coming to the same conclusion he had a moment ago. "We have to risk it. Word must get out!"
Painter glanced around the cabin.
Anna said, "It will be shorter to go over the shoulder of Everest to get to the other side, rather than taking the longer route around." She pointed to the wall of mountain ahead of them.
"So we head for the Base Camp?" Painter said.
They were all in agreement.
Others were not.
A helicopter roared over the ridgeline, its skids passing directly over their rotors. The intruder seemed startled to come across them. The Tiger twisted and climbed in a surprised pirouette.
But they'd been found.
Painter prayed the others were spread out in a wide search pattern—then again, one Tiger was enough.
Their unarmed A-Star shot out of the trough into a wider couloir, a bowl-shaped gully full of snow and ice. No cover. The Tiger's pilot responded quickly, plunging toward them.