Günter Reiniger was running for his life.
The former Nazi loosed several expletives, muttering, "Ninety-five, a chain-smoker for over seventy years, and a crippled leg. I need a better plan!" Pushing his aching body to the limit, he rushed through the darkening streets of Rio Gallegos in the Santa Cruz region of southern Argentina. Clutched to his heaving chest was a heavy package. Inside, a bundle of papers, several charts, and a dozen faded black-and-white photographs were all secured to his precious journal with twine.
Wheezing, he glanced over his shoulder.
Perhaps he’d lost those who’d come for him after all these years. Not likely. The pursuers who tracked him were experts. The HOUNDS of the Barrier. They wouldn’t relent until they’d retrieved what they’d been sent to get. How had they found him? It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered now. Except keeping the information he carried out of the hands of those who’d sent the hunters.
The deepening shadows were flickering wraithlike around him. Defying reason, they were crossing the thin barrier between fantasy and reality. “Impossible—” he sputtered, almost laughing. The word had disappeared from his vocabulary decades ago. Bending over, he gasped as the frightening memories of what he’d seen and experienced, the horrible memories he’d worked so hard to bury, resurrected themselves. “Not here, not now,” he moaned in fluent Spanish, his adopted tongue for more years than he cared to remember.
Suddenly, an unearthly wailing sound pierced the air.
Günter snapped upright, clutching his chest, a sharp pain wracking his frail body. A voice inside his head spoke to him, “Sie werden nicht entfliehen dieser zeit—” “You will not escape this time.” For the first time in his life he prayed to the God he had denied existed for his entire adult life, whispering to the heavens. “Help me!” If I can reach the Cathedral Nuestra Señora de Lujan, opposite San Martin square, I might have a chance. Bishop Buscolinni will shelter me. As he did once before.
He’d survived the Nazi’s by stealing the identity of a man he’d killed with his own hands, becoming one of them. He’d survived the Crystal Desert—one of the most desolate places on the earth, a windswept, frozen wasteland of ice and snow—by volunteering to die. And he’d survived capture by those who thought he was a monster by embracing the heritage he’d once denounced, living openly as a secular Jew in a predominately Catholic country.
Heading for the center of town, he reached the post office as the dull, orange-grey sun slipped below the horizon. A freezing wind was kicking up, bringing with it a flurry of fat snowflakes.
Günter was gaping at the snow. It never snowed this time of year. The northern hemisphere was deep in the grips of Old Man Winter. But here, in Patagonia, in the southern hemisphere, it was summer.
Out of breath and shivering, he stumbled up the slick, stone steps to the front door. Locked! The bastards have closed early again, using the excuse of saving money to hide their persistent laziness.
Another eerie wail split the deepening dark, louder and closer this time.
He banged on the windowless door until it swung inward, revealing a scowling face. “Que quieres, viejo?” asked the much-younger man. “Estamos cerrados.” “What do you want, old man? We’re closed.”
Günter stretched out a gnarled, bony hand, paper-thin, mottled skin crisscrossed with faint blue lines. “Please, you must take this—”
The clerk was glaring at him as if he’d requested the commission of a crime.
Gunter pulled out a wad of hundred-peso bills. “There’s enough for Express postage to Marseilles. Keep the rest.”
The Civil Servant’s eyes were flaring with greed. Grabbing the money and the package, he slammed the door shut.
Günter slumped against the wooden door. The street was vacant, cloaked in darkness. The few working streetlights remained dark. Another cost-saving measure—or something more sinister? He coughed, wiping yellow phlegm from his cracked lips with the back of his arthritic hand, searching for any sign of his pursuers. This wasn’t supposed to happen. I was meticulous. A sardonic laugh escaped his lips. “How could I have been so foolish—so arrogant,” he rasped as a long-forgotten memory surfaced.
Another eerie wail shattered the gloomy silence.
“We’re close,” came the same grating, familiar voice. “We’ve never been closer. You belong to us.” He blinked as tears seeping from his rheumy eyes were consumed by the fierce frigid wind.
It had been a lifetime since he’d heard the voices. The first time he’d thought he was losing his mind. Later, he’d prayed he was insane. But he wasn’t that fortunate. The psychiatrist who’d attempted to help him discovered the horrifying revelation. As a result, he’d paid the ultimate price for his professional curiosity and surprising compassion.
Günter glanced left, then right, resuming his attempt at escape. Eight more blocks and I’m safe.
Minutes later, he arrived at the steps of the cathedral.
His right foot touched the first step just as the sicari were materializing out of the gathering gloom as if they were an extension of it. Four figures covered from head to toe in black, hooded robes were boxing him in. Each assassin had a cord of rough hemp tied at their waist. Each brandished a short, razor-sharp sword. A falcata. Eight smoldering red orbs floated within the opaque blackness of the assassin’s cowls.
Günter groaned. Another impossibility? What fools we are. We embrace ignorance of anything that doesn’t fit our perception of reality. Deception cannot keep us safe. Layers of lies shroud the ancient evil, as if it’s but an ugly caterpillar struggling to become a beautiful butterfly . . .
Time stood still.
Part of him was dragged against his will into an invisible realm—an unspeakably frightening realm of utter darkness, endless torment, and consummate evil. The smoldering, red orbs became white-hot firebrands, piercing his soul, marking him as one of the damned for eternity. He screamed in agony until his throat was raw. Searing pain drove him to the frigid, stone pavement, his nostrils flaring with the nauseating stench of burning flesh.
“Das Devil’s-großer Kessel,“ he sobbed, the vivid memory of what had happened to him in the Crystal Desert flooding over him.
Lieutenant Commander Robert Marsh had been a Navy Seal for over eighteen years. Since his SEAL training at BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) on the “Silver Strand” beaches of San Diego, he’d learned to ignore extremes of temperature. He was grateful for that intense training. Now more so than ever. Especially his time spent near Kodiak, Alaska, during his Extreme Cold Weather Survival training. Had he not endured those hellish three weeks in the Arctic with his fellow SEALS, he’d already be dead.
Although it was summer in the Crystal Desert, it was twenty-five degrees below zero Fahrenheit. Nothing unprotected could survive more than a few minutes in this arid, icy wilderness. That was the least of his concerns. He’d been the leader of a Top Secret, multinational team sent to this godforsaken, frozen wasteland at the bottom of the world.
Spec Ops Task Force Nimrod.
The five of them had started out as the hunters. Over the past three hours they’d become the hunted. The two German Commandos from the KSK, the Kommando Spezialkraefte, had been slaughtered first. The battle-hardened men had proven themselves repeatedly, first as part of the elite German Navy Kampfschwimmer commandos—Germany’s equivalent of his own SEAL heritage—then the KSK. They’d been the Communication Specialist and Medical Corpsman on his hand-picked team. The two commandos from the elite Russian Special Purpose Forces, or Spetsnaz, and Alpha Group OSNAZ, had died next. His heavy weapons and explosive specialists.
Their four lives, and the few small blocks of C4 they’d carried, along with the team’s only Barrett M107A1 .50 BMG caliber rifle had been lost in the frozen white wilderness behind him.
Now it was up to him to finish the mission.
His stark-white winter HYVAT parka and pants were spattered with frozen blood.
Fortunately, none of it was his.
Less than ten minutes ago, he’d been standing behind the tall, muscular Russian, Oleg Tarasov, the team’s explosives specialist. Prior to the mission, Tarasov had told him over steaming cups of strong Turkish coffee that his first name meant “holy.” But there’d been nothing holy about that fierce warrior. The brutal attack caught them both off-guard. Unfortunately, like the others, none of Tarasov’s training, nor any of his extensive battle experience, saved the Russian from the seemingly invincible predator.
Marsh checked his remaining weapon, wrestling with the relentless cold. Any lapse in concentration and he’d never make it back to the underground lab he and the others had been assigned to protect. He’d lost one of his two personal weapons, the Heckler and Koch MP5 submachine gun, in the heat of the brutal attack taking out Tarasov and his partner, Dimitri. The beast had ripped the MP5 from his hands, bending it in half as if it were nothing but a toy plastic gun. He still had his Cold Steel “Recon Tanto” fixed blade knife strapped in a sheath attached to his combat chest rig. A Recon folder was tucked inside the map pocket of his parka.
Thankfully, his loaded M1911 Colt 45 was in his right hand. Most “Team” guys favored the Sig Sauer semi-automatics—particularly the P226. A few carried Glocks, or the 9mm H&K USP pistol. Marsh brought his father’s M1911 for this mission. Like the P226, the semi-automatic pistol packed enough punch to bring any normal human being to ground with one hit anywhere in the center-mass of the body. Avery Marsh had been among the first wave of Army Rangers to breach the cliffs at Point du Hoc on Omaha Beach during the Normandy Invasion. And the only man in his unit to survive the deadly D-Day assault. His dad died last year, a decade after his wife had succumbed to cancer, bequeathing his “good luck“ weapon to his only son. The M1911 kept Marsh’s father alive against incredible odds. He hoped it would do the same for him.
An eerie wailing snapped Marsh from his momentary reflection. Raising his head a few inches above his hiding place, he cautiously looked over the small ice-ridge. The relentless, howling wind was whipping the loose snow and ice into a nightmarish froth. A whirling wall of frozen white flakes.
The unnerving sound came again.
Louder this time.
He’d only glimpsed the predator. Materializing out of thin air, it gutted Tarasov from chin to waist, after decapitating Dimitri, then swatting Marsh as if he were nothing more than a pesky fly, before vanishing.
The beast is close.
Suddenly, he saw something. A snippet of a quote from John Milton’s Paradise Lost he’d memorized in college flickered and died inside his head: Black it stood as night, Fierce as ten furies, Terrible as Hell—Satan was now at hand; and from his seat, the monster, moving onward, came as fast. With Horrid strides; Hell trembled as he strode—
Bringing the moving target into the sight picture of the Colt, he emptied seven rounds from the magazine in just over two seconds, dead center on the shimmering apparition’s chest.
The monstrosity crumpled to the ice.
Marsh exhaled, muttering, “Thanks, Dad, you just saved my life.”
He ejected the empty magazine, slamming a fresh 7-round clip into the gun. The heavy, cold weather shooting mittens made it difficult to release the slide lock and chamber the next round. He ran to where the massive, alien-looking body had collapsed onto the concrete-hard ice, fighting the roaring wind with every step.
When he was two feet away, the beast sprang up, bellowing. The thing was enormous. Over nine feet tall. It had reptilian, black, leathery skin, and razor-sharp talons instead of hands. I just emptied an entire magazine of .45 caliber bullets into its thick chest and the damn thing isn’t even bleeding!
The beast from Hell was snarling, sounding worse than an entire pack of ravenous wolves about to kill their prey. It was staring at him with hypnotic eyes, as if assessing him, then moving so fast it was a blur.
Marsh cried out a solitary expletive, only firing one shot before it was ripping his throat open. Blood spurted from his severed jugular vein, a bright-red fountain of death.
The Colt fell to the ice, encased in a frozen, ruby-red sheath within seconds.
Then, as silently as it appeared, the creature disappeared into the swirling snow of the sudden summer storm.