Authors: Al Ruksenas
Copyright 2011 by Algis Ruksenas
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
Although some actual geographic and historical facts are mentioned, this is a work of fiction. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
This book is produced by Meridia Publishers with the collaboration of Dynasty Effect, LLC. Inquiries should be addressed to the Publishers at:
To my loved ones
The lumbering helicopter seemed no larger than a dragonfly against the massive canyon walls as it wended its way towards the ancient monastery jutting out of the desert mountain in the remote wilderness of Egypt near the border of Sudan.
A new moon shone brightly in the clear, autumn sky turning the barren, reddish brown landscape into a cold crystal basrelief. In the distance, outlined starkly by the moonlight, were the ramparts and watchtowers of a religious fortress. It blended so perfectly with the mountain from which it was carved that it seemed a natural part of it. The redoubt was totally isolated; inviolate amid the pockmarked, craggy stone formations of the Eastern Sahara.
The pilot looked intently towards the mountain as he edged his craft forward, trying to ignore the staccato sounds of the five
bladed rotor which echoed like cannon fire off the mountain walls. The brown and tan camouflage paint of the helicopter reflected by moonlight the same blueness as the jagged crags near which it maneuvered. No running lights betrayed its presence, but the sounds of the whirling blades seemed to echo from everywhere.
pilot was peering into the darkness through his windshield and occasionally glanced at the pilot with a controlled nervousness that indicated he was not used to this type of night maneuvering between narrow canyon walls. The pilot, just as anxious, was relying solely on the light of the low
hanging moon and the stark outlines of the mountain against the sky to navigate towards the precipice on which perched this mysterious edifice.
Peering towards the fortress from the cargo area through portholes at their backs were three men in khaki flight suits. They sat along a bench bolted lengthwise to the fuselage and strained their heads over their shoulders to see just how close they were to the menacing cliffs enveloping them. The man in the middle carried a pistol in a shoulder holster.
In one of the few utterances he had made since they left Aswan more than one hundred twenty miles to the northwest, General Anatoli Lysenko of the Soviet secret police—the dreaded NKVD— turned to his companion with the pistol and said loudly over the din of the engines: “Tell me comrade Colonel—are you superstitious?”
No, sir,” replied Nicholai Kuznetsov in a near shout. “But I am concerned that we are flying in an aircraft that is still experimental!” Although Colonel Kuznetsov was a bloodied veteran of SMERSH, the secret police’s arm for sabotage and political murder, he had never shaken his innate fear of flying.
General Lysenko looked at him with a woeful smile, sensing that the Colonel had taken his question too casually.
Kuznetsov noticed the look. “No, comrade General. I am not superstitious. Why do you ask?”
General Lysenko didn’t reply. He turned his head back to the porthole with the same woeful smile. He stared into the darkness of the canyon.
Nicholai Kuznetsov turned to his younger cohort, Major Yuri Rudenko, to see if he had understood the General differently. Rudenko did not break his gaze from another porthole. He was staring fixedly at the dark outlines of the stone fortress beyond.
The monastery on the mountain was the only indication that humans had ever wandered into this desolate wasteland, the domain of the scorpion, the viper, and the demons described in ancient writings. It had been built over a period of fifty years in the Twelfth Century to ward off those demons and to harbor a community of holy men who had consecrated their lives to be the living symbols of the forty days and forty nights during which the Redeemer had fasted in the wilderness before He was tempted by the Devil. The monks’ own resistance over the centuries, however, was not as successful.
For generations stories had circulated in the bazaars of Cairo and Khartoum and whispered in the shadowy light of oasis campfires that the monastery was cursed. It had been built in defiance of early Church fathers and stood jutting out of the mountain for more than seven hundred years challenging the very laws of nature.
The priestly community which thrived there had over time lost the purpose of its existence. Some said it was the isolation of the Arabian Desert that drove men insane. Others claimed that sinister, supernatural forces had taken hold of the community. The monks had displeased their God by trying to emulate His feats in overcoming demonic temptation. Instead, they had succumbed to it. They took to brigandry, struggle for earthly power, debauchery, and Devil worship. They had become possessed.
From the darkness of that ancient edifice there now appeared a beam of pale, amber light that pierced the night sky. The helicopter tilted forward and flew straight for the beam. Moments later it was bathed in light, revealing the mottled pattern of tan and brown paint on the fuselage that was so faithful to the drab formations of the desert. Revealed in the beam was the silhouette of an Mi 6, a Soviet prototype helicopter that had been flown for the first time just the previous year. Although the craft had been designed for heavy cargo, the two engine cowlings mounted prominently in front of the main rotor shaft gave it the distinct appearance of some prehistoric flying reptile hunched in perpetual attack. Small wings protruding from the fuselage and slung with armament, a nose that resembled a shark and gangly tripod landing gear added to its primeval looks.
The Mi 6 had not been fully tested, but this mission demanded a long
range craft that could maneuver in mountainous terrain. It was the only helicopter in the meager, but growing air arsenal of the Soviet Union capable of such maneuvering. A Deputy Minister in the Soviet secret police had requisitioned it over the futile and not too energetic protests of several generals in the air force.
The helicopter had been shipped specially to Aswan several weeks earlier from where it now flew. It had ostensibly left on an engineering survey along the Nile River in connection with the Aswan High Dam project being built by the Soviets at the request of Egypt’s revolutionary government under Gamal Abdel Nasser. Instead of following the Nile, the helicopter had veered toward this remote mountain somewhere near the ancient ruins of Berenice as soon as night had taken over that late November day.
The giant helicopter was now enveloped in the beam of light and descended slowly toward its origin. As it neared the ground inside the monastery walls, the blades sent a massive swirl of sand raging all around it, as if protesting its landing. When the wheels touched the grit enshrouded courtyard, the beam disappeared and only the sound of the rotor, lower pitched and slower as it decelerated, broke the eerie stillness of the night.
A hatch opened behind the cockpit revealing a dull red
lit interior. The three secret policemen filed towards the door, led by General Lysenko whose portly figure belied an agile step. As soon as they alighted a group of hooded figures appeared from nowhere and surrounded them. They were dressed in the habits of monks and no one could mistake them for anything, but holy men, except that each carried a Kalashnikov rifle.
One of the hooded guards motioned for Kuznetsov’s pistol, but the wary Colonel hesitated. General Lysenko gave him a wordless look that was a command and Kuznetsov slowly pulled the pistol from his shoulder holster and handed it to the robed figure.
The three Russians were then led through the darkness of the courtyard towards a heavy wooden door with wide metal braces. It was the main entrance to the abbey.
General Anatoli Lysenko threw an involuntary glance at a rubble strewn breach in the ramparts near the door. He was aware of the history of this place and had heard that thirty
two of the monks had leaped from the ramparts to their deaths early in the Twentieth Century. Accounts differed as to the exact year or why, but nomads of the region claimed the doomed monks’ skeletons lay as they had fallen. No one had ever tried to retrieve them. Fear of the curse had kept the authorities—such that there were—from venturing anywhere near the mountain stronghold. Though jaded by his own experience with violent death, General Lysenko nevertheless shuddered upon spotting the gap in the wall, imagining what lay below it.
When the group approached the bulky door to the abbey, two more hooded guards opened it. Old, musty air emanated from the interior. It had the smell of ages—an unworldly smell that brought a chill to the spine.
The three Russian NKVD men, surrounded by their hooded retinue, marched down a cavernous hall flanked by their own shadows made grotesque by the dim light of oily torches. The hall ended at the face of a stone wall that appeared to be a part of the mountain itself. At its base was an uneven archway over a dark, gaping hole. Leading downward was a circular stairway laid from roughly hewn stones that were gouged deeply by a succession of feet that had traversed them for hundreds of years.
Two of the robed men lit torches while another motioned the three Russians toward the stairs.
Major Yuri Rudenko’s palms were already clammy from sweat as he began the descent. He nervously rubbed them against his thighs as he ducked his wiry frame to avoid the ceiling of the cramped, narrow stairway. His long apprenticeship as a skillful executioner could not stifle the basic animal fear he sensed since he first caught a glimpse of this monastery in the moonlight.
Even Colonel Kuznetsov, who stepped cautiously behind him, betrayed a sense of apprehension. His mouth was so dry he felt he could not swallow and he kept glancing at his empty shoulder holster.
Kuznetsov was clearly uneasy whenever his special 9mm Makarov was not within easy reach. Kuznetsov’s pistol was an extension of himself and he felt totally vulnerable without it.
Only General Lysenko, though awestruck by this netherworld, seemed outwardly assured. Lysenko, who was typically gray and somber and rarely displayed any kind of emotion, was a ranking member of SMERSH and a formidable presence in the principal administrative arm of the Soviet secret police, the NKVD. He alone knew the nature of their mission.
They filed silently down the gouged, circular stone steps eighty
five feet downward until they reached a cave
like antechamber with torches embedded in the walls. Illuminated by their flickering lights were old tapestries hung around the stone peripheries of this subterranean room. A shaft of light at the far end of the antechamber indicated the presence of yet another chamber beyond.
The colors of the tapestries were faded and the fabric was dusty and brittle, but the scenes were grotesquely vivid. A goat figure with dragon wings sat on a throne in one scene, surrounded by naked supplicants dancing in a circle. Another tapestry depicted a witch astride a wolf
like animal on her way to a sabbat. Next to it was a tattered representation of several men opening a sepulcher to steal a corpse for a midnight ceremony. On the opposite wall, with hands tied above his head, there dangled a man being tortured by inquisitors. The light of the torches flickering on these tapestries, that moved slightly in air drafts generated from dark reaches beyond, gave the illusion that the man was actually dangling in front of the observer.