Dawn stained the sea with a pink glow. I sat in the back of the Zodiac, fighting panic and nerves and seasickness as the tiny boat zipped across the water, lurching up over waves and crashing back down. I had a Steyr AUG bullpup assault rifle in my hand, spare magazines in the pocket of my tactical vest, a pistol in a hip holster, and a Kevlar vest beneath my clothing. Harris was beside me, similarly attired and armed, as were Henri and the other three mercenaries.
The island loomed in the distance. A quarter mile away, Matteo cut the motor and handed out paddles. We pulled through the water silently now, Henri and Harris kneeling in the bow with assault rifles aimed at the island. I heard the distant whumpwhumpwhump of the helicopter skimming over the water on the other side of the island.
As we approached the shoreline, the crash of waves against the rocks became a roar. Alexei lifted his paddle from the water, gestured at us with his four-fingered left hand—his pinky finger was nothing but a stub—and we all stopped pulling. Sasha cut his paddle into the water, angling us toward to a fold in the rock face of the island. Once the rubber bow of the Zodiac bumped against the rock, stopping us, Alexei tied the mooring line to a rusted ring driven into an outcropping of rock.
He gestured up at the rock face. “This used to be a fortress in centuries past. There is a stair in the stone. We go up.”
Staring up, I could well believe there used to be a fortress here. I’d seen a satellite image of the island: it was a finger of bare rock thrusting up out of the Aegean with a narrow beach on the south side, along with a small natural bay. High above, was a massive house built directly into the rock itself, a glass-and-steel structure constructed over the ruins of the ancient fortress.
We were on the north side of the island, facing a nearly sheer vertical slope of bare rock. It seemed impossible to ascend, but I watched as Alexei slung his rifle around his back and climbed up with the agility of a billy goat. Looking closely, I could see a narrow set of grooves carved into the ancient stone. It couldn’t be called a “staircase,” but it would allow us to climb up unnoticed. It took us an hour to scale the face, and as we topped the rise behind the mansion, I heard the helicopter nearing, the thump of rotors loud now.
BOOM! The MSR cracked, shattering the glass window beside the front door.
Men streamed out of the building, wielding Uzis and AK-47s, shouting at each other. They saw us, then, and opened fire, sending rounds whizzing and snapping at us.
The MSR boomed again, and I watched a man tumble forward. BOOM! A second body dropped. Alexei darted forward, spraying bullets in short bursts. He leaped through the space where the window had been, boots crunching on glass, and I could see him pivoting, scanning—crackcrackcrack—then shouts were cut off, and bodies hit the floor. I was right behind him, then passing him, my MP5 rattling nonstop, jarring against my shoulder.
Kyrie was here, somewhere. I had to find her. I had to find her. Reason left me, then, and I took off running.
Voices behind me called out for me to wait, but there was no waiting. Shapes moved in front of me and I cut them down. I pushed through door after door, heedless of the danger, spraying rounds at anything that moved, kicking bodies out of the way as I sought the entrance to the lower levels. My actions were automatic, instinctive, rage-fueled. My only thought was to find Kyrie. There was nothing else. I didn’t care what happened to anyone, even myself, as long as I found her.
Alexei called out, gesturing to me. “Here! The stairs down.”
I shoved past him, bounding down the steps recklessly. Alexei followed behind me more cautiously. We descended a winding staircase down into the fortress, moving through narrow hallways and into empty rooms, a labyrinth leading us downward in a series of concentric circles.
At one point, we came to a T-intersection, and Matteo pushed ahead of me, rounded a corner to the left, rifle to his cheek, firing. Blood sprayed, and he was rocked backward, clutching his throat. Alexei pulled him back around the corner even as Matteo gargled and went still. Alexei rolled out around the corner in a crouch, fired, and pulled back hastily, wiping at his forehead with an uneasy, disbelieving bark of laughter. A bullet had creased his face, missing his temple by a fraction of an inch.
I peered around the corner, saw daylight through a doorway. A man stood in the doorway, a rifle aiming at me. He fired, the bullet cracking into the wall beside my head. I aimed at his torso and squeezed the trigger, and he dropped.
Silence, then, apart from the helicopter circling in the distance.
The doorway led us out onto a balcony carved into the rock face itself, the Aegean blue and turbulent fifty feet down. Another open doorway loomed to our left, a black mouth leading further downward into the bowels of the ancient fortress.
Sasha, Henri, and Harris headed back up, searching the rest of the rooms once more, making sure there were no surprises waiting.
I heard the crack of a pistol echo up the staircase. A momentary pause, and then crack…crack…crack…crack. It was a big pistol, by the sound of it. Silence. Then one more booming report.
My throat tightened, and my gut churned. My heart pounded; Kyrie was down that staircase somewhere.
I knew it. I felt it.
But was she alive?
THE FORTRESS FALLS
Just before Tobias pushed into me, I lunged up off the ground, wrapping my legs around his neck. I ignored the screaming, wrenching agony in my knee, the haze of blurring pain of his blows, and clamped my thighs around his throat, squeezing with every ounce of strength I possessed. He thrashed, kicked, punched, and I silently accepted the pain, each smashing punch rolling into the mass of torment that was my entire body.
And then…I cut loose, let my bladder unleash all over him. I felt my urine splatter against his chest and my legs, then arched my hips up so the stream hit his face. He was bellowing, thrashing, cursing in whatever language he spoke, fighting me. I held on, held on, gritting my teeth against the pounding, tearing pain in my knee, even as the relief of my now-emptied bladder swept through me.
Abruptly, I released him and reared back, lashed out with my good leg, felt my heel connect with his face, and kicked again. And again, and again, as viciously as I could, letting my rage take over. I rocked forward, struggling, groaning, and made it to my feet. Tobias was cursing, gagging, but more surprised than really hurt. I had mere seconds before he would be up on his feet, bashing me with his huge fists. I stomped on his crotch as hard as I could, and then grabbed the butt of the pistol from his shoulder holster and hopped backward, stumbled and nearly fell. Bumping up against the wall, I gripped the gun in both hands, finger resting on the trigger, the gun held out in front of me at arm’s length, the way Harris had showed me.