The woman stared up at him. Murder in her eyes.
But she wasn't alone in the clearing.
Behind her, Skuld raced toward the woman, the hyena's muzzle low to the ground, a shark in the grass, scenting blood.
How fitting, Gray thought.
But the woman merely raised her uninjured arm toward the beast. The massive hyena ground to a stop, lifted its nose, dripping drool, and rubbed against her palm like a savage pit bull greeting its abusive master. It mewled and lowered to its belly.
Ischke never broke eye contact with Gray.
She limped forward.
Gray stared below.
Steps from the woman, Ischke's pistol rested in plain view.
Gray climbed up, gaining his feet. He grabbed Fiona's shoulder and shoved her forward. "Run!"
She needed no further goading. They raced around the arc of the walkway. The girl flew on fear and adrenaline. They reached the exit.
Fiona made the corner, hanging on to one of the support posts to keep her footing. Gray followed her example. As he swung clear, a ringing spark off the support post accompanied a pistol blast.
Ischke had found her gun.
Spurred on, they ran faster along the straight path, putting distance between them and the limping shooter. In a minute, approaching a crisscross of paths, Gray suspected they might be safe. Caution overcame panic.
He slowed Fiona by the same crossroads he had stopped at before. Paths led in all directions. Which way? By now, there was a good chance Ischke had raised an alarm—unless the fall had broken her radio, but he couldn't count on that. He had to assume guards were already congregating between here and the outside world.
And what about Monk? What did the gunplay that drew off Ischke's guards portend? Was he alive, dead, recaptured? There were too many unknown variables. Gray needed a place to hole up and hide, to let his trail cool.
He eyed the one path that bridged back to the manor house.
No one would expect to look for them over there. Plus the place had phones. If he could get to an outside line…maybe even find out more about whatever the hell was really going on there…
But it was a pipe dream. The place was locked up tight, a fortress.
Fiona noted his attention.
She tugged on his arm and pulled something from her pocket. It looked like a couple of playing cards on a chain. She held them up.
Not playing cards.
"I nicked them from that ice bitch," Fiona said, half spitting. "Teach her to slice me."
Gray took the cards and examined them. He remembered Monk scolding
Fiona for not stealing the museum director's keys when they were trapped in Himmler's crypt. It seemed the girl had taken Monk's lesson to heart.
With narrowed eyes, Gray again studied the manor house.
Thanks to his little pickpocket, he now held the keys to the castle.
But what to do?
13 XERUM 525
ZULULAND, SOUTH AFRICA
Painter sat in the mud-stone and woven-grass hut, cross-legged around a series of maps and schematics. The air smelled of dung and dust. But the small Zulu encampment served as the perfect staging spot, only ten minutes from the Waalenberg estate.
Periodically, security helicopters buzzed the camp, rising from the estate, wary and watchful of their borders, but Paula Kane had the site well orchestrated. From the air, none could tell that the small sandy village was anything but a way station for the nomadic tribes of Zulu that eked out a living in the area. Nobody would suspect the council under way in one of the ramshackle huts.
The group had gathered to strategize and pool resources.
Across from Painter, Anna and Gunther sat together. Lisa kept near Painter's elbow—as she had since arriving in Africa, her face stoic but her eyes worried. Near the back, Major Brooks stood in the shadows, ever vigilant, palm resting on his bolstered pistol.
They were all attentive on the final debriefing from Khamisi, a former game warden here. At his side, leaning forward, head to head, was the most surprising addition to the gathering.
To Painter's shock, Monk had wandered into the encampment with an exhausted and shell-shocked young man, both led by Khamisi. The young man was recuperating in another hut, kept safely out of harm's way, but Monk had spent the last hour relating his story, answering questions, and filling in blanks.
Anna stared at the set of runes Monk had finished drawing. Her eyes were bloodshot. She reached out a trembling hand toward the paper. "These are all the runes found in the books of Hugo Hirszfeld?"
Monk nodded. "And that old fart was convinced they were damn important, critical to some next stage in his plan."
Anna's gaze rose to Painter. "Dr. Hugo Hirszfeld was the overseer for the original Black Sun project. Do you remember how I told you he was convinced he had solved the riddle of the Bell? Performed one last experiment, one done in secret, attended only by himself. A private experiment that supposedly produced a perfect child, one uncorrupted of taint or devolution. A perfect Knight of the Sun. But his method…how he did it…no one knew."
"And the letter he wrote his daughter," Painter said, "whatever he discovered frightened him. A truth…too beautiful to let die and too monstrous to set free. To that end, he hid the secret in this runic code."
Anna sighed wearily. "And Baldric Waalenberg was confident enough that he could solve the code, gain the lost knowledge for himself, that he destroyed the Granitschloff."
"I think it was more than just that you were no longer needed," Painter said. "I think you were right before. Your group was a growing threat with talk of coming out of hiding, going mainstream. And with perfection so close, the culmination of the Aryan dream, he could not risk your continuing presence."
Anna shifted the paper with Monk's sketched runes toward her. "If Hugo was right, deciphering his code could prove critical to treating our own condition. The Bell already holds the ability to s/otv down our disease—but if we could solve this riddle, it may offer a true cure."
Lisa inserted a bit of reality into the discussion. "But before any of that can happen, we must gain access to the Waalenberg Bell. Then we can worry about cures."
"And what about Gray?" Monk asked. "And the girl?"
Painter kept his face tight. "There is no telling where he is. Hiding, captured, dead. For the moment, Commander Pierce is on his own."
Monk's face soured. "I can sneak back in. Use the map Khamisi has of the grounds."
"No. Now is not the time to divide forces." Painter rubbed at a needling headache behind his right ear. Noises echoed. Nausea welled.